Is Baghdad Going Feral?

Anthony Townsend's picture

One of the most influential pieces of contemporary urban theory I've ever read was a short monograph by Richard Norton entitled "Feral Cities", which appeared in the Naval War College Review in 2003. Norton described feral cities thusly:

"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blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power."

Without a doubt, Baghdad has been on the edge for years (Norton placed on a "watch list"), but as the New York TImes reports today, parts of the city are decidedly going feral as basic civil infrastructure collapses. What else are local governments for if not to take the trash away?

"Even as American and Iraqi troops are fighting to establish control of the Sadr City section of this capital, the Iraqi government's program to restore basic services like electricity, sewage and trash collection is lagging, jeopardizing the effort to win over the area's wary residents."

Full article: In Sadr City, Basic Services Are Faltering

It seems to be a textbook case as defined by Norton:

"In a feral city social services are all but nonexistent, and the vast majority of the city'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 city'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."

Technorati Tags: infrastructure, Iraq, security

Anthony Townsend is a research director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Palo Alto, California.

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