Felix Stalder on Mon, 25 Sep 2006 14:36:34 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Feral Cities

[In a recent article of the German Telepolis Magazine [1], I found
a link to the following article, written by an academic at the Naval
War College, titled "Feral Cities". I had to look up the term "feral"
which appears to mean wild, in the sense of no longer domesticated.
[1] http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/23/23616/1.html]

Richard J. Norton
Naval War College Review, Autumn 2003, Vol. LVI, No. 4


Richard J. Norton

Naval War College Review, Autumn 2003, Vol. LVI, No. 4

Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital 
component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a 
vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both 
ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been 
replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that 
which is attained through brute power.1 Such cities have been routinely 
imagined in apocalyptic movies and in certain science-fiction genres, 
where they are often portrayed as gigantic versions of T. S. Eliotâ??s Ratâ??s 
Alley.2 Yet this city would still be globally connected. It would possess 
at least a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants 
would have access to the worldâ??s most modern communication and computing 
technologies. It would, in effect, be a feral city.

Admittedly, the very term â??feral cityâ?? is both provocative and 
controversial. Yet this description has been chosen advisedly. The feral 
city may be a phenomenon that never takes place, yet its emergence should 
not be dismissed as impossible. The phrase also suggests, at least 
faintly, the nature of what may become one of the more difficult security 
challenges of the new century.

Over the past decade or so a great deal of scholarly attention has been 
paid to the phenomenon of failing states.3 Nor has this pursuit been 
undertaken solely by the academic community. Government leaders and 
military commanders as well as directors of nongovernmental organizations 
and intergovernmental bodies have attempted to deal with faltering, 
failing, and failed states. Involvement by the United States in such 
matters has run the gamut from expressions of concern to cautious 
humanitarian assistance to full-fledged military intervention. In 
contrast, however, there has been a significant lack of concern for the 
potential emergence of failed cities. This is somewhat surprising, as the 
feral city may prove as common a feature of the global landscape of the 
first decade of the twenty-first century as the faltering, failing, or 
failed state was in the last decade of the twentieth. While it may be 
premature to suggest that a truly feral cityâ??with the possible exception 
of Mogadishuâ??can be found anywhere on the globe today, indicators point to 
a day, not so distant, when such examples will be easily found.

This article first seeks to define a feral city. It then describes such a 
cityâ??s attributes and suggests why the issue is worth international 
attention. A possible methodology to identify cities that have the 
potential to become feral will then be presented. Finally, the potential 
impact of feral cities on the U.S. military, and the U.S. Navy 
specifically, will be discussed.


The putative â??feral cityâ?? is (or would be) a metropolis with a population 
of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost 
the ability to maintain the rule of law within the cityâ??s boundaries yet 
remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.4

In a feral city social services are all but nonexistent, and the vast 
majority of the cityâ??s occupants have no access to even the most basic 
health or security assistance. There is no social safety net. Human 
security is for the most part a matter of individual initiative. Yet a 
feral city does not descend into complete, random chaos. Some elements, be 
they criminals, armed resistance groups, clans, tribes, or neighborhood 
associations, exert various degrees of control over portions of the city. 
Intercity, city-state, and even international commercial transactions 
occur, but corruption, avarice, and violence are their hallmarks. A feral 
city experiences massive levels of disease and creates enough pollution to 
qualify as an international environmental disaster zone. Most feral cities 
would suffer from massive urban hypertrophy, covering vast expanses of 
land. The cityâ??s structures range from once-great buildings symbolic of 
state power to the meanest shantytowns and slums. Yet even under these 
conditions, these cities continue to grow, and the majority of occupants 
do not voluntarily leave.5

Feral cities would exert an almost magnetic influence on terrorist 
organizations. Such megalopolises will provide exceptionally safe havens 
for armed resistance groups, especially those having cultural affinity 
with at least one sizable segment of the cityâ??s population. The efficacy 
and portability of the most modern computing and communication systems 
allow the activities of a worldwide terrorist, criminal, or predatory and 
corrupt commercial network to be coordinated and directed with equipment 
easily obtained on the open market and packed into a minivan. The vast 
size of a feral city, with its buildings, other structures, and 
subterranean spaces, would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead 
sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles. The cityâ??s 
population represents for such entities a ready source of recruits and a 
built-in intelligence network. Collecting human intelligence against them 
in this environment is likely to be a daunting task. Should the city 
contain airport or seaport facilities, such an organization would be able 
to import and export a variety of items. The feral city environment will 
actually make it easier for an armed resistance group that does not 
already have connections with criminal organizations to make them. The 
linkage between such groups, once thought to be rather unlikely, is now so 
commonplace as to elicit no comment.


But is not much of this true of certain troubled urban areas of today and 
of the past? It is certainly true that cities have long bred diseases. 
Criminal gangs have often held sway over vast stretches of urban landscape 
and slums; â??projectsâ?? and shantytowns have long been part of the 
cityscape. Nor is urban pollution anything newâ??London was environmentally 
toxic in the 1960s. So what is different about â??feral citiesâ???

The most notable difference is that where the police forces of the state 
have sometimes opted not to enforce the rule of law in certain urban 
localities, in a feral city these forces will not be able to do so. Should 
the feral city be of special importanceâ??for example, a major seaport or 
airportâ??the state might find it easier to negotiate power and 
profit-sharing arrangements with city power centers to ensure that 
facilities important to state survival continue to operate. For a weak 
state government, the ability of the feral city to resist the police 
forces of the state may make such negotiations the only option. In some 
countries, especially those facing massive development challenges, even 
the military would be unequal to imposing legal order on a feral city. In 
other, more developed states it might be possible to use military force to 
subdue a feral city, but the cost would be extremely high, and the 
operation would be more likely to leave behind a field of rubble than a 
reclaimed and functioning population center.

Other forms of state control and influence in a feral city would also be 
weak, and to an unparalleled degree. In a feral city, the stateâ??s writ 
does not run. In fact, state and international authorities would be 
massively ignorant of the true nature of the power structures, population, 
and activities within a feral city.

Yet another difference will be the level and nature of the security threat 
posed by a feral city. Traditionally, problems of urban decay and 
associated issues, such as crime, have been seen as domestic issues best 
dealt with by internal security or police forces. That will no longer be 
an option.


Indeed, the majority of threats posed by a feral city would be viewed as 
both nontraditional and transnational by most people currently involved 
with national security. Chief among the nontraditional threats are the 
potential for pandemics and massive environmental degradation, and the 
near certainty that feral cities will serve as major transshipment points 
for all manner of illicit commodities.

As has been noted, city-born pandemics are not new. Yet the toxic 
environment of a feral city potentially poses uniquely severe threats. A 
new illness or a strain of an existing disease could easily breed and 
mutate without detection in a feral city. Since feral cities would not be 
hermetically sealed, it is quite easy to envision a deadly and dangerously 
virulent epidemic originating from such places. As of this writing, the 
SARS outbreak of 2003 seems to offer an example of a city (Guangdong, 
China) serving as a pathogen incubator and point of origin of an 
intercontinental epidemic.6 In the case of SARS, the existence of the 
disease was rapidly identified, the origin was speedily traced, and a 
medical offensive was quickly mounted. Had such a disease originated in a 
feral city, it is likely that this process would have been much more 
complicated and taken a great deal more time. As it is, numerous diseases 
that had been believed under control have recently mutated into much more 
drug-resistant and virulent forms.

Globally, large cities are already placing significant environmental stress 
on their local and regional environments, and nowhere are these problems 
more pronounced than in coastal metropolises. A feral cityâ??with minimal or 
no sanitation facilities, a complete absence of environmental controls, 
and a massive populationâ??would be in effect a toxic-waste dump, poisoning 
coastal waters, watersheds, and river systems throughout their 

Major cities containing ports or airfields are already trying to contend 
with black-market activity that ranges from evading legal fees, dues, or 
taxes to trafficking in illegal and banned materials. Black marketeers in 
a feral city would have carte blanche to ship or receive such materials to 
or from a global audience.8

As serious as these transnational issues are, another threat is potentially 
far more dangerous. The anarchic allure of the feral city for criminal and 
terrorist groups has already been discussed. The combination of large 
profits from criminal activity and the increasing availability of all 
families of weapons might make it possible for relatively small groups to 
acquire weapons of mass destruction. A terrorist group in a feral city 
with access to world markets, especially if it can directly ship material 
by air or sea, might launch an all but untraceable attack from its urban 


Throughout history, major cities have endured massive challenges 
without â??going feral.â?? How could it be determined that a city is at risk 
of becoming feral? What indicators might give warning? Is a warning system 

The answer is yes. This article offers just such a model, a taxonomy 
consisting of twelve sets of measurements, grouped into four main 
categories.9 In it, measurements representing a healthy city are â??green,â?? 
those that would suggest cause for concern are â??yellow,â?? and those that 
indicate danger, a potentially feral condition, â??red.â?? In the table below, 
the upper blocks in each category (column) represent positive or healthy 
conditions, those at the bottom unhealthy ones.

 The first category assesses the ability of the state to govern the city. A 
city â??in the greenâ?? has a healthy, stable governmentâ??though not 
necessarily a democratically elected one. A democratic city leadership is 
perhaps the most desirable, but some cities governed by authoritarian 
regimes could be at extremely low risk of becoming feral. City 
governments â??in the greenâ?? would be able to enact effective legislation, 
direct resources, and control events in all parts of the city at all 
times.10 A yellow indication would indicate that city government enjoyed 
such authority only in portions of the city, producing what might be 
called â??patchworkâ?? governance, or that it exerted authority only during 
the dayâ??â??diurnalâ?? governance. State authorities would be unable to govern 
a â??redâ?? city at all, or would govern in name only.11 An entity within the 
city claiming to be an official representative of the state would simply 
be another actor competing for resources and power.


<table ommitted>

The second category involves the cityâ??s economy. Cities â??in the greenâ?? 
would enjoy a productive mix of foreign investment, service and 
manufacturing activities, and a robust tax base. Cities afforded 
a â??yellowâ?? rating would have ceased to attract substantial foreign 
investment, be marked by decaying or heavily subsidized industrial 
facilities, and suffer from ever-growing deficits. Cities â??in the redâ?? 
would have no governmental tax base. Any industrial activity within their 
boundaries would be limited to subsistence-level manufacturing and trade 
or to illegal traffickingâ??in smuggled materials, weapons, drugs, and so 

The third category is focused on city services. Cities with a â??greenâ?? 
rating would not only have a complete array of essential services but 
would provide public education and cultural facilities to their 
populations. These services would be available to all sectors without 
distinction or bias. Cities with a yellow rating would be lacking in 
providing education and cultural opportunities but would be able to 
maintain minimal levels of public health and sanitation. Trash pickup, 
ambulance service, and access to hospitals would all exist. Such a cityâ??s 
water supply would pass minimum safety standards. In contrast, cities in 
the â??redâ?? zone would be unable to supply more than intermittent power and 
water, some not even that.

Security is the subject of the fourth category. â??Greenâ?? cities, while 
obviously not crime free, would be well regulated by professional, ethical 
police forces, able to respond quickly to a wide spectrum of 
threats. â??Yellowâ?? cities would be marked by extremely high crime rates, 
disregard of whole families of â??minor crimesâ?? due to lack of police 
resources, and criminal elements capable of serious confrontations. 
A â??yellowâ?? cityâ??s police force would have little regard for individual 
rights or legal constraints. In a â??redâ?? city, the police force has failed 
altogether or has become merely another armed group seeking power and 
wealth. Citizens must provide for their own protection, perhaps by hiring 
independent security personnel or paying protection to criminal 

A special, overarching consideration is corruption. Cities â??in the greenâ?? 
are relatively corruption free. Scandals are rare enough to be newsworthy, 
and when corruption is uncovered, self-policing mechanisms effectively 
deal with it. Corruption in cities â??in the yellowâ?? would be much worse, 
extending to every level of the city administration. In yellow 
cities, â??patchworkâ?? patterns might reflect which portions of the city were 
able to buy security and services and which were not. As for â??redâ??cities, 
it would be less useful to speak of government corruption than of criminal 
and individual opportunism, which would be unconstrained.


The picture of a city that emerges is a mosaic, and like an artistâ??s mosaic 
it can be expected to contain more than one color. Some healthy cities 
function with remarkable degrees of corruption. Others, robust and vital 
in many ways, suffer from appalling levels of criminal activity. Even a 
city with multiple â??redâ?? categories is not necessarily feralâ??yet. It is 
the overall pattern and whether that pattern is improving or deteriorating 
over time that give the overall diagnosis.

It is important to remember a diagnostic tool such as this merely produces 
a â??snapshotâ?? and is therefore of limited utility unless supported by trend 
analysis. â??Patchworkâ?? and â??diurnalâ?? situations can exist in all the 
categories; an urban center with an overall red ratingâ??that is, a feral 
cityâ??might boast a tiny enclave where â??greenâ?? conditions prevail; quite 
healthy cities experience cycles of decline and improvement. Another 
caution concerns the categories themselves. Although useful indicators of 
a cityâ??s health, the boundaries are not clearly defined but can be 
expected to blur.

The Healthy City: New York. To some it would seem that New York is an odd 
example of a â??greenâ?? city. One hears and recalls stories of corruption, 
police brutality, crime, pollution, neighborhoods that resemble war zones, 
and the like. Yet by objective indicators (and certainly in the opinion of 
the majority of its citizens) New York is a healthy city and in no risk 
of â??going feral.â?? Its police force is well regulated, well educated, and 
responsive. The city is a hub of national and international investment. It 
generates substantial revenues and has a stable tax base. It provides a 
remarkable scope of services, including a wide range of educational and 
cultural opportunities. Does this favorable evaluation mean that the rich 
are not treated differently from the poor, that services and 
infrastructure are uniformly well maintained, or that there are no 
disparities of economic opportunity or race? Absolutely not. Yet despite 
such problems New York remains a viable municipality.

The Yellow Zone: Mexico City. This sprawling megalopolis of more than 
twenty million continues to increase in size and population every year. It 
is one of the largest urban concentrations in the world. As the seat of 
the Mexican government, it receives a great deal of state attention. 
However, Mexico City is now described as an urban nightmare.12

Mexico Cityâ??s air is so polluted that it is routinely rated medically as 
unfit to breathe. There are square miles of slums, often without sewage or 
running water. Law and order is breaking down at an accelerating rate. 
Serious crime has doubled over the past three to four years; it is 
estimated that 15.5 million assaults now occur every year in Mexico City. 
Car-jacking and taxi-jacking have reached such epidemic proportions that 
visitors are now officially warned not to use the cabs. The Mexico City 
police department has ninety-one thousand officersâ??more men than the 
Canadian armyâ??but graft and corruption on the force are rampant and on the 
rise. According to Mexican senator Adolfo Zinser, police officers 
themselves directly contribute to the cityâ??s crime statistics: â??In the 
morning they are a policeman. In the afternoon theyâ??re crooks.â?? The cityâ??s 
judicial system is equally corrupt. Not surprisingly, these aspects of 
life in Mexico City have reduced the willingness of foreign investors to 
send money or representatives there.13

Johannesburg: On a Knife Edge. As in many South African cities, police in 
Johannesburg are waging a desperate war for control of their city, and it 
is not clear whether they will win. Though relatively small in size, with 
only 2.9 million official residents, Johannesburg nevertheless experiences 
more than five thousand murders a year and at least twice as many rapes. 
Over the last several years investors and major industry have fled the 
city. Many of the major buildings of the Central Business District have 
been abandoned and are now home to squatters. The South African National 
Stock Exchange has been removed to Sandtonâ??a safer northern suburb. Police 
forces admit they do not control large areas of the city; official 
advisories warn against driving on certain thoroughfares. At night 
residents are advised to remain in their homes. Tourism has dried up, and 
conventions, once an important source of revenue, are now hosted elsewhere 
in the country.

The city also suffers from high rates of air pollution, primarily from 
vehicle exhaust but also from the use of open fires and coal for cooking 
and heating. Johannesburgâ??s two rivers are also considered unsafe, 
primarily because of untreated human waste and chemicals leaching from 
piles of mining dross. Mining has also contaminated much of the soil in 
the vicinity.

Like those of many states and cities in Africa, Johannesburgâ??s problems are 
exacerbated by the AIDS epidemic. Nationally it is feared the number of 
infected persons may reach as high as 20 percent of the population. All 
sectors of the economy have been affected adversely by the epidemic, 
including in Johannesburg.14

Although Mexico City and Johannesburg clearly qualify for â??yellowâ?? 
and â??redâ?? status, respectively, it would be premature to predict that 
either of these urban centers will inevitably become feral. Police 
corruption has been an aspect of Mexico City life for decades; further, 
the recent transition from one political party to two and a downswing in 
the state economy may be having a temporarily adverse influence on the 
city. In the case of Johannesburg, the South African government has most 
definitely not given up on attempts to revive what was once an industrial 
and economic showplace. In both Mexico and South Africa there are 
dedicated men and women who are determined to eliminate corruption, clean 
the environment, and better the lives of the people. Yet a note of caution 
is appropriate, for in neither example is the trend in a positive 

Furtherâ??and it should come as no surpriseâ??massive cities in the developing 
world are at far greater risk of becoming feral than those in more 
developed states. Not only are support networks in such regions much less 
robust, but as a potentially feral city grows, it consumes progressively 
more resources.15 Efforts to meet its growing needs often no more than 
maintain the status quo or, more often, merely slow the rate of decay of 
government control and essential services. All this in turn reduces the 
resources that can be applied to other portions of the country, and it may 
well increase the speed of urban hypertrophy. However, even such developed 
states as Brazil face the threat of feral cities. For example, in March 
2003 criminal cartels controlled much of Rio de Janeiro. Rio police would 
not enter these areas, and in effect pursued toward them a policy of 


Feral cities do not represent merely a sociological or urban-planning 
issue; they present unique military challenges. Their very size and 
densely built-up character make them natural havens for a variety of 
hostile nonstate actors, ranging from small cells of terrorists to large 
paramilitary forces and militias. History indicates that should such a 
group take American hostages, successful rescue is not likely.17 Combat 
operations in such environments tend to be manpower intensive; limiting 
noncombatant casualties can be extraordinarily difficult. An enemy more 
resolute than that faced in the 2003 war with Iraq could inflict 
substantial casualties on an attacking force. The defense of the Warsaw 
ghetto in World War II suggests how effectively a conventional military 
assault can be resisted in this environment. Also, in a combat operation 
in a feral city the number of casualties from pollutants, toxins, and 
disease may well be higher than those caused by the enemy.

These environmental risks could also affect ships operating near a feral 
city. Its miles-long waterfront may offer as protected and sheltered a 
setting for antishipping weapons as any formal coastal defense site. 
Furthermore, many port cities that today, with proper security procedures, 
would be visited for fuel and other supplies will, if they become feral, 
no longer be available. This would hamper diplomatic efforts, reduce the 
U.S. Navyâ??s ability to show the flag, and complicate logistics and supply 
for forward-deployed forces.

Feral cities, as and if they emerge, will be something new on the 
international landscape. Cities have descended into savagery in the past, 
usually as a result of war or civil conflict, and armed resistance groups 
have operated out of urban centers before. But feral cities, as such, will 
be a new phenomenon and will pose security threats on a scale hitherto not 
encountered.18 It is questionable whether the tools, resources, and 
strategies that would be required to deal with these threats exist at 
present. But given the indications of the imminent emergence of feral 
cities, it is time to begin creating the means.


1. I am indebted to my colleague Dr. James Miskel for the â??petri dishâ?? 

2. Thomas Stern Eliot, â??The Wasteland,â?? in The New Oxford Book of English 
Verses: 1250â??1950, ed. Helen Gardner (New York: Oxford University Press, 
1972), p. 881.

3. See, for example, James F. Miskel and Richard J. Norton, â??Spotting 
Trouble: Identifying Faltering and Failing States,â?? Naval War College 
Review 50, no. 2 (Spring 1997), pp. 79â??91.

4. Perhaps the most arbitrary component of this definition is the selection 
of a million inhabitants as a defining characteristic of a feral city. An 
earlier approach to this issue focused on megacities, cities with more 
than ten million inhabitants. However, subsequent research indicated that 
much smaller cities could also become feral, and so the population 
threshold was reduced. For more information on concepts of urbanization 
see Stanley D. Brunn, Jack F. Williams, and Donald J. Zeigler, Cities of 
the World: World Regional Urban Development (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & 
Littlefield, 2003), pp. 5â??14.

5. Such a pattern is already visible today. See Brunn, Williams, and 
Zeigler, chap. 1.

6. â??China Criticized for Dragging Feet on Outbreak,â?? News in Science, 7 
April 2003, p. 1.

7. The issue of pollution stemming from coastal cities is well documented. 
For example, see chapter two of United Nations Environmental Program, 
Global Environmental Outlookâ??2000 (London: Earthscan, 2001).

8. The profits involved in such enterprises can be staggering. For example, 
the profits from smuggled cigarettes in 1997 were estimated to be as high 
as sixteen billion dollars a year. Among the identified major smuggling 
centers were Naples, Italy; Hong Kong; and Bogota, Colombia. Raymond 
Bonner and Christopher Drew, â??Cigarette Makers Are Seen as Aiding Rise in 
Smuggling,â?? New York Times, 26 August 1997, C1.

9. A similar approach was used in Miskel and Norton, cited above, for 
developing a taxonomy for identifying failing states.

10. This is not to imply that such a city would be 100 percent law-abiding 
or that incidents of government failure could not be found. But these 
conditions would be the exception and not the rule.

11. Not that this would present no complications. It is likely that states 
containing a feral city would not acknowledge a loss of sovereignty over 
the metropolis, even if this were patently the case. Such claims could 
pose a significant obstacle to collective international action.

12. Transcript, PBS Newshour, â??Taming Mexico City,â?? 12 January 1999, 
available at www.Pbs.org/newshour/bb/latin_American/jan-jun99/mexico 
[accessed 15 June 2003].

13. Compiled from a variety of sources, most notably â??Taming Mexico City,â?? 
News Hour with Jim Lehrer, transcript, 12 January 1999.

14. Compiled from a variety of sources, including BBC reports.

15. Brunn, Williams, and Zeigler, p. 37.

16. Interview, Dr. Peter Liotta, with the author, Newport, R.I., 14 April 

17. While the recent successful rescue of Army Private First Class Jessica 
Lynch during the 2003 Iraq War demonstrates that success in such 
operations is not impossible, U.S. experiences with hostages in Iran, 
Lebanon, and Somalia would suggest failure is a more likely outcome.

18. It is predicted that 60 percent of the worldâ??s population will live in 
an urban environment by the year 2030, as opposed to 47 percent in 2000. 
Furthermore, the majority of this growth will occur in less developed 
countries, especially in coastal South Asia. More than fifty-eight cities 
will boast populations of more than five million people. Brunn, Williams, 
and Zeigler, pp. 9â??11.

----http://felix.openflows.org------------------------------ out now:
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

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