Can cities fail?

One of the snappier bits of world politics jargon to have caught on in a more popular sense is the ‘failed state’ – a byword for countries where government fails in its governance responsibilities. The annual Failed States Index measures this across twelve indicators – ranging from the size of its internally displaced/refugee population to economic collapse, government illegitimacy and the absence of meaningful public services. The security challenge that state failure creates is a polar opposite to the traditional challenge of state power and the threat of preponderance – and particularly resonates with the turn, beginning in the early 1990s, to contemplating new, non-traditional security issues, such as environmental degradation and mass population movements.

But the state doesn’t have to be the only meaningful site of governance that can be said to ‘fail’ – perhaps cities can too. There was a passing reference to city failure at a Global Dashboard post last week from a briefing to parliamentarians, under a ‘changing face of conflict’ heading:

“At the same time, I think we’ll also come to hear more about failed cities as well as failed states. Mexico remains a prosperous country – a member of the G20 and of the OECD – but in cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, 27,000 people have been killed in armed conflict since 2006.”

The idea takes on greater weight too, alongside global urbanization trends, where more and more people live in cities – and therefore their governance and stability becomes more and more important both to individual livelihoods but the security and prosperity of the country as a whole.  How jobs are created, human health protected and mobility enabled for tens of millions in high-density settings – is a challenge across all scales of governance and administration.

The current issue of Foreign Policy’s cover feature on megacities spells out some of the detail behind global urbanization, highlighting the importance of cities as poles of prosperity, where economic activity is increasingly concentrated, and where the dominant position of the Londons and New Yorks are being challenged by the Dubais and Singapores. But grand plans for hubs of innovation and the creation of the new Venice or Cairo can also founder in reality of slums and squalor, where the rule of law is privatized, outside the reach of the long arm of government:

“Look at a satellite image of the Earth at night: It will reveal the shimmering lights of cities flickering below, but also an ominous pattern. Cities are spreading like a cancer on the planet’s body. Zoom in and you can see good cells and bad cells at war for control. In Caracas, gang murders and kidnappings are a fact of life, and al Qaeda terrorists hide in plain sight in Karachi. Film director Shekhar Kapur is working on an epic titled Water Wars: It is set not in parched Africa or the fractious Middle East, but Mumbai. Anyone who traveled to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup might have noticed how private security forces outnumbered official police two to one, and gated communities protected elites from the vast townships where crime is rampant. Cities — not so-called failed states like Afghanistan and Somalia — are the true daily test of whether we can build a better future or are heading toward a dystopian nightmare.”

And of course, there are plenty of politics involved – questions about sovereignty, representation, economic might and ultimately, the future pivot points of world power:

“Even today’s most centralized empire-state could be undone by its cities. Gone are the days of Mao when peasant uprisings could collectively capture the nation. Today, controlling the cities, not the countryside, is the key to the Middle Kingdom. The same is very much the case in Africa’s fragile post-colonial nations. Africa’s urbanization rate is approaching China’s, and the continent already has nearly as many cities with a population of 1 million or more as Europe does. But decades of despotism and civil wars haven’t yielded governments that can hold together entire countries — let alone Africa’s two geographically largest nations, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Instead, these countries seem to be headed toward division, with the new borders following and surrounding the main cities that are their gravity points, like Juba in South Sudan and Kinshasa in Congo. Or perhaps borders don’t need to change at all, but rather melt away, so long as locals have access to the nearest big city no matter what “country” it is in. This is, after all, how things really work on the ground, even if our maps don’t always reflect this reality.”

This is all rather effusively put – and the reality will, as always, be somewhere in between. But regardless of the specific implications, the author of the FP piece, Parag Khanna, is probably right in saying that “What happens in our cities, simply put, matters more than what happens anywhere else.”

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