Categorised in:

Global Challenges

Can cities take us beyond asymmetric war and environmental violence?

Cities have a distinctive capacity to transform conflict into the civic; in contrast, national governments tend to militarise conflict. This does not mean that cities are peaceful spaces. On the contrary, cities have long been sites for conflicts, from war to racism and religious hatred. And yet militarising conflict is not a particularly urban option: cities have tended to triage conflict through commerce and civic activity. Even more importantly, the overcoming of urban conflicts has often been the source for an expanded civic sense.

Today cities are at risk of losing this capacity and becoming sites for a whole range of new conflicts, such as asymmetric war and ethnic and social cleansing. Recent events give us a mixed message: the protests in Tunisia’s and Egypt’s cities succeeded to a large extent, but this was not so in most of the other Arab countries. Further, the dense and conflictive spaces of cities overwhelmed by inequality and injustice can become the sites for a variety of secondary, more anomic types of conflicts, from drug wars to the major environmental disasters looming in our immediate futures. All of these challenge that traditional commercial and civic capacity that has allowed cities to avoid war when confronted with conflict, and to incorporate diversities of class, culture, religion, ethnicity.

The question I examine here is whether this emergent future of expanding conflicts and racisms contains within it the conditions that have historically allowed cities to transform conflict into the civic. What are the challenges today that are larger than our differences, our hatreds, our intolerance, our racisms? I do not think it can be what made European cities historically spaces for the making of a civic sensibility—commerce and the fact that the powerful found in the city the strategic space for their operations and for their self-representation and projection onto a larger stage.

The unsettling of the urban order is part of a larger disassembling of existing organisational logics. This disassembling is also unsettling the logic that assembled territory, authority and rights into the dominant organisational format of our times—the nation-state. All of this is happening even as national states and cities continue to be major markers of the geopolitical landscape and the material organisation of territory. The type of urban order that gave us the open city in Europe, for instance, is still there, but increasingly as mere visual order, and less so as social order.

In what follows I first elaborate on dynamics that are altering the familiar urban order and then argue that this is also a moment of challenges which are larger than our differences. Confronting these challenges will require that we transcend those differences. Therein lies a potential for reinventing that capacity of cities to transform conflict into openness rather than war. But it is not going to be the familiar order of the open city and of the civic as we have come to represent it, especially in the European tradition.

The Urbanising of Governance Challenges: Disassembling the National?

Some of what are usually understood as global governance challenges are increasingly becoming particularly concrete and urgent in cities. They range from environmental questions to the flight of war refugees from and into cities. This urbanising of what we have traditionally thought of as national/global challenges is part of a larger disassembling of all-encompassing formats, notably the nation-state and the inter-state system. It could explain why cities are losing older capacities to transform potential conflicts.

In the last two centuries the traditional foundations for the civic in its European conception has largely been the ‘civilising’ of bourgeois capitalism; this corresponds to the triumph of liberal democracy as the political system of the bourgeoisie. Today capitalism is a different formation, and so is the political system of the new global elites. These developments raise a question about what might be the new equivalent of what in the past was civic.

Cities are going to have an increasing prominence given a multiplication of a broad range of partial—often highly specialised or obscure—assemblages of bits of territory, authority and rights once firmly ensconced in national and inter-state institutional frames. These assemblages cut across the binary of inside and outside, ours and theirs, national versus global. They arise out of, and can inhabit, national institutional and territorial settings; they can also arise out of mixes of national and global elements and span the globe in what are largely trans-local geographies connecting multiple subnational spaces. Cities, particularly global and globalising cities, are a very complex type of this dis- and re-assembling.

We can organise the urbanising of these various challenges along three axes.

Global warming, energy and water insecurity

These and other environmental challenges are going to make cities frontline spaces. Such challenges will tend to remain more diffuse for nation-states and for the state itself. One key reason is the more acute and direct dependence of everyday life in cities on massive infrastructures and on institutional-level supports for most people—apartment buildings, hospitals, vast sewage systems, water purification systems, vast underground transport systems, whole electric grids dependent on computerised management vulnerable to breakdowns. We already know that a rise in water levels will flood some of the most densely populated cities in the world. The urgency of some of these challenges goes well beyond lengthy negotiations and multiple international meetings—still the most common form of engagement at the level of national politics and especially international politics. When global warming hits cities it will hit hard. New kinds of crises and the ensuing violence will be particularly and preparedness becomes critical. A major simulation by NASA found that by the fifth day of a breakdown in the computerised systems that manage the electric grid, a major city like New York would be in an extreme condition and basically unmanageable through conventional instruments.

These challenges are emergent but before we know it they will become concrete and threatening in cities, contrasting with possibly slower trajectories at the national level. In this sense cities are in the frontline and will have to act on global warming whether national states sign on to international treaties or not. Because of this, many cities have had to develop capabilities to handle these challenges. The air quality emergency in cities such as Tokyo and Los Angeles as long ago as the 1980s is one instance: these cities could not wait until an agreement such as Kyoto might appear, nor could they wait till national governments passed mandatory laws (for car fuel efficiency and zero emissions, for example). With or without a treaty or law, they had to address air quality urgently. And they did.

Asymmetric wars

When national states go to war in the name of national security, nowadays major cities are likely to become a key frontline space. In older wars, armies needed large open fields or oceans to meet and fight, and these were the frontline spaces. The search for national security is today a source for urban insecurity. We can see this in the so-called war on terror, whereby the invasion of Iraq became an urban war theatre. But we also see the negative impacts of this war in the case of cities that are not even part of the immediate theatre—the bombings in Madrid, London, Casablanca, Bali, Mumbai, Lahore and so many other places. The traditional security paradigm based on national state security fails to accommodate this triangulation. What may be good for the protection of the national state apparatus may come at a high (and increasingly higher) price to major cities and their people.

New forms of violence

Cities also enter the domain of global governance challenges as a site for the enactment of new forms of violence resulting from these various crises. We can foresee a variety of forms of violence that are likely to escape the macro-level normative propositions of good governance. For instance, Sao Paulo and Rio have seen forms of gang and police violence in the last few years that point to a much larger breakdown than the typically invoked fact of inadequate policing. So does the failure of the powerful US army in Baghdad; to call this anarchy is too general. In terms of global governance questions, one challenge is to push macro-level frames to account for and factor in the types of stress that arise out of everyday life violence and insecurity in dense spaces. Some of these may eventually feed militarised responses, and this may well be inadequate or escalate the conflict. The question of immigration and the new types of environmental refugees are one particularly acute instance of urban challenges that will require new understandings of the civic.

Urban Insecurity: When the City Itself Becomes a Technology for War or Conflict

The pursuit of national security has become a source for urban insecurity. This puts the traditional security paradigm based on national state security on its head. What may be good to protect the national state apparatus may come at a high(increasingly high) price to major cities. Since 1998 most terrorist attacks have been in cities. This produces a disturbing map. Access to urban targets is far easier than access to planes for terrorist hijacking or to military installations. The US Department of State’s Annual Report on Global Terrorism allows us to establish that today cities are the key targets for asymmetric attacks, a trend that began before the 9/11 attacks on New York. According to this report, from 1993 to 2000 cities accounted for 94 per cent of the injuries resulting from all terrorist attacks, and 61 per cent of the deaths. Secondly, in this period the number of incidents doubled, rising especially sharply after 1998. In contrast, hijacked airplanes accounted for a larger share of terrorist deaths and destruction in the 1980s than they did in the 1990s.

The new urban map of war is expansive: it goes far beyond the actual nations involved. The bombings in Madrid, London, Casablanca, Bali, Mumbai and so on each have their own specifics and can be explained in terms of particular grievances. These are localised actions by local armed groups, acting independently from each other. Yet they are also clearly part of a new kind of multi-sited war—a distributed and variable set of actions that gain larger meaning from a particular conflict with global projection.

Asymmetric war found one of its sharpest enactments in the US war on Iraq. The US conventional military aerial bombing took only six weeks to destroy the Iraqi army and take over. But then asymmetric war set in, with Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and other Iraqi cities the sites of conflict. And it has not stopped since. Asymmetric wars are partial, intermittent and lack clear endings. There is no armistice to mark their conclusion. They are one indication of how the centre no longer holds, whatever the centre’s format—the imperial power of a period, the national state, even in powerful countries.

A second set of features of contemporary wars, especially evident in the less developed areas, is that they often involve forced urbanisation. Contemporary conflicts produce significant population displacement both into and out of cities. In many cases, in African conflicts or in Kosovo, displaced people swell urban populations. At the same time, the warring bodies avoid battle or direct military confrontation, as Mary Kaldor has described in her work on the new wars. Their main strategy is to control territory through getting rid of people of a different identity (ethnicity, religion, politics). The main tactic is terror—conspicuous massacres and atrocities pushing people to flee.

These types of displacement—with ethnic/religious cleansing the most virulent form—have a profound impact on the cosmopolitan character of cities. Cities have long had the capacity to bring together people of different classes, ethnicities and religions through commerce, politics and civic practices. Contemporary conflicts unsettle and weaken this cultural diversity of cities when they lead to forced urbanisation or internal displacement. Belfast, Baghdad or Mostar each is at risk of becoming a series of urban ghettoes, with huge implications for infrastructure and the local economy. Baghdad has undergone a deep process of such cleansing, a critical component of the (relative) ‘peace’ of the last two years.

The systemic equivalent of these types of cleansing in the case of very large cities may well be the growing ghettoisation of the poor and the rich—albeit in very different types of ghettoes. It leaves to the middle classes, rarely the most diverse group in cities, the task of bringing urbanity to these cities. The risk is that they will supplant traditional urban cosmopolitanisms with narrow defensive attitudes in a world of growing economic insecurity and political powerlessness. Under these conditions, displacement from countryside to town or within cities becomes a source of insecurity rather than a source of rich diversity.

A Challenge Larger than our Differences?

The particularity of the emergent urban landscape is profoundly different from the old European civic tradition, even though Europe’s worldwide imperial projects remixed European traditions with urban cultures that belonged to other histories and geographies. It shares with that older time the fact of challenges which are larger than our differences. Therein lies a potential for reinventing that capacity of cities to transform conflict into (at least relative) openness rather than war, as is the case for national governments. But it is not going to be the familiar order of the open city and of the civic as we have come to represent it, especially in the European tradition. My sense is rather that the major challenges that confront cities (and society generally) have increasingly strong feedback loops that contribute to that disassembling of the old civic urban order. Asymmetric war is perhaps one of the most acute versions of this dynamic. And so is climate change. Both of these will affect both rich and poor, and addressing them will demand that everybody joins the battle. Further, while sharp economic inequalities, racisms, and religious intolerance have long existed, they are becoming activating political mobilisers in a context where the centre no longer holds the way it used to hold, whether it be the imperial centre, the national state or the city’s bourgeoisie.

Against the background of a partial disassembling of empires and nation-states, the city emerges as a strategic site for making elements of new, perhaps even more partial, orders. In Territory, Authority, Rights I identify a vast proliferation of such partial assemblages which re-mix bits of territory, authority and rights once ensconced in national institutional frames. Mostly these continue to exist within the nation-state, but this fact in itself entails a partial denationalising of what was historically constructed as national. These assemblages are multivalent in the normative sense. For instance, in my interpretation World Trade Organization (WTO) law and the new International Criminal Court (ICC) are two of the hundreds of such assemblages. Their normative stances are clearly very different. A final point that matters to elaborate on the question of the city is that since these novel assemblages are partial and often highly specialised; they tend to be centred in particular utilities and purposes, often with extremely narrow scopes (see chapters 5, 8 and 9).

The normative character of this landscape is, in my reading, multivalent—it ranges from some very good utilities and purposes to some very bad ones, depending on one’s normative stance. Their emergence and proliferation bring several significant consequences even though this is a partial, not an all-encompassing development. I see in this proliferation of partial assemblages a tendency toward a disaggregating and, in some cases, global redeployment, of constitutive rules once solidly lodged in the nation-state project, one with strong unitary tendencies (see chapters 4, 5 and 6).


These developments signal the emergence of new types of orderings that can coexist with older orderings, such as the nation-state, the interstate system, and the city as part of a hierarchy dominated by the national state. Among these new types of orderings are complex cities which have partly exited that national, state-dominated hierarchy and become part of multi-scalar regional and global networks. The last two decades have seen an increasingly urban articulation of global territory, and an increasing use of urban space to make political claims not only by the citizens of a city’s country, but also by foreigners.


In this context the city is an enormously significant assemblage because of its far greater complexity, diversity, and enormous internal conflicts and competitions. Rather than the univocal utility logics of WTO law or the ICC, the city forces an elaborating of multiple and conflictive utility logics. But if the city is to survive—not become a mere built up terrain or cement jungle—it will have to find a way to triage at least some of this conflict. It is at this point that the acuteness and overwhelming character of the challenges I described earlier can serve to create conditions where the challenges are bigger and more threatening than the internal conflicts and hatreds.

Responding will only work if it is a collective process. We are in it together and we can only overcome it together. Thereby that response can become a new platform for the making of open cities, or at least the equivalent of the traditional civic, the cosmopolitan, the urbane. All of these features will probably have different formats and contents from the iconic European version. My sense is that the formats and the contents of this new possibility will be so distinct from those traditional experiences of the civic and the cosmopolitan that we will need a different language to describe them. But these formats and contents may have the power to create the open cities of our future.

At a time when the open city is under attack from so many sides, one question we might ask is whether there are challenges we confront in cities that are larger than the hatreds and racisms and inequalities that beset our cities. Yes, both the urbanising of war and the direct threats to cities from climate change provide us with powerful agendas for change. The urban consequences of asymmetric war are a major call to stop war, to rethink war as an option. The disarticulation between national security and human security is becoming increasingly visible. And the direct threat of climate change will affect us all, regardless of religion, class, race or whether we are citizens or immigrants. Cities face challenges that are indeed larger than our differences. If we are going to act on these threats, we will have to work together, all of us. Could it be that here lies the basis for a new kind of open city, one not so much predicated on the civic as on a new shared urgency?

Saskia Sassen  is the Lynd professor of sociology and co-chair of the Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. She is the author of several books, most recently Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2008) and A Sociology of Globalization (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007). In late November she will be conducting a visiting tour of seven Australian universities. Further details can be found at <>.


This text is based on two publications where the reader can find extensive bibliographic and empirical materials: chapters 6, 7 and 8 of Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2008; and ‘When the City Itself Becomes a Technology of War’, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 27, no. 6, 2010, pp. 33–50, accessible at <>.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>