Urban Violence

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 40 – Number 3
440 pages


This issue, edited by Yasser Elsheshtawy, explores the theme of Urban Violence and the different forms it can take, whether it be physical acts of struggle or contestation and other disorderly activities, or the constrictions that the design of urban spaces can intentionally enforce or even unintentionally create.

Cities have always been sites of struggle, contestation and violence. Indeed contemporary urban planning has in many instances been used as a tool to contain, minimize and combat such disorderly activities. Recent political events, which have taken place in urban squares and plazas, have drawn on the symbolic strength of these urban centres. While mostly peaceful, such sites have sometimes become places where violent confrontations take place. Yet this would be only one form of violence. Other cities, due to deep societal divisions, have a polarized and bifurcated urban space. Lines – real or imagined – are drawn to demarcate, create boundaries, and separate conflicting groups.

Urban violence as a construct clearly has political overtones. But the term can also accommodate other meanings seeking to draw attention to social injustices and inequality, for example. In such instances graffiti is used both to indict societal practices and to lay claim to existing spaces. It may refer to wilful destruction of heritage sites, displacement of residents, and securitization of urban spaces. Trouble spots are occupied by police forces asserting their presence; the ubiquity of security cameras acts as a constant reminder of the continuous presence of an all-seeing authority. Such acts reverberate in urban settings, impacting people’s lives, and may contribute to increased alienation.

In this issue of Built Environment papers were invited that reflected on this theme. Empirical research that draws on observations of existing sites was particularly welcome. Theoretical contributions, which would elaborate and expand on the definition of urban violence were also encouraged. The overall aim was to suggest the myriad ways in which the term can be conceptualized and the impact this has on urban space. Eight papers were selected either for their theoretical depth, empirical rigor or the unique way in which they have conceptualized the term in response to the call for papers (sometimes they addressed all three). The papers were written by a diverse group, hailing from a variety of backgrounds including anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, architects, psychiatrists and public health professionals. All share similar concerns about urban violence but their focus understandably differed. The differences were primarily in how violence was defined and the extent to which it was enabled/facilitated by the built environment. Architects, for example, had a clear focus on the built environment and the morphology of cities whereas psychiatrists focused on place attachment. Yet most importantly this diversity illustrates the extent to which the issue of urban violence draws concerns that transcend disciplinary boundaries, pointing to the importance of collaboration, and sharing insights to provide meaningful solutions to one of the most critical concerns of contemporary urbanism.

The majority of papers have focused to some degree or another on planning and architecture as a tool of violence and shied away from the more conventional approach of violence through the agency of city residents (crime, graffiti). Yet there are differences. Overall papers can be classified into three distinct groups. The notion of ‘urbicide’, i.e. the urban as an arena of warfare is dealt with by two papers (Leïla Vignal and Mirjana Ristic). Three papers tackle the issue of urban planning and violence directly (Khaled Al Awadi, Yves Pedrazzini et al., and Diane Davis). My own paper combines both urban planning as a tool of violence, the agency of crowds and how the urban facilitates and enables violence. The issue concludes with an empirical study that looks at the role of architecture in combating urban violence (Lourdes Rodriguez et al.). The first paper is largely theoretical, challenging our understanding of the term and provides a personal narrative (Moises Lino e Silva).

The papers are distinguished by a broad geographical range which includes South America (Lino e Silva, Davis), the Middle East (Awadi, Elsheshtawy, Vignal), Africa (Pedrazzini et al.), Europe (Ristic) and North America (Rodriguez et al.) demonstrating the universality of urban violence and how it manifests itself in different contexts. The paper by Moises Lino e Silva starts the issue focusing on South America. He uses the Brazilian favella of Rocinha as a site for exploring the concept of violence, arguing that how the construct is employed by scholars contradicts residents’ understanding. Violence in this conceptualization is performed through language. To illustrate this point he narrates a violent episode involving the invasion of the Special Police Force in Rio bringing closer the concept of violence as it impacts the everyday.

Urban warfare is explored in two papers. Leïla Vignal describes the Syrian civil war. She looks at how cities are sites of urban violence and engages in a meticulous documentation of acts perpetuated by the Syrian regime – particularly its wholesale destruction of neighbourhoods. Her analysis of aerial maps showing the impact of bombing is particularly revealing. She also shows how planning regulations are used as an excuse to raze areas held by opposition forces. Violence, Leïla argues, is not a consequence of war but a strategy. Mirjana Ristic looks at another form of urban warfare, not in the sense of wholesale destruction but as a way to instil fear and terror. Her focus is on Sarajevo during the devastating Bosnian War; specifically, the sniping of civilians in public space and how that has impacted everyday life and practices. She draws attention to the intersection of spatial violence, urban networks and spatial mobility. Infrastructure is used in this case as a tool of terror. Moreover she shows how the city’s specific geography and topography enabled specific acts of violence (sniping) transforming the entire city into a Foucaultian panopticon. Specific tactics by city residents coping with this onslaught are discussed and form a fascinating component of her narrative.

The next set of papers explore the relation between urban planning, particularly urban renewal, on city form and how that could be conceptualized as a form of violence. Khaled Al-Awadi tackles the city of Dubai, known for its spectacular cityscape and its tabula rasa, i.e. non-contextual approach to urban development. The case study is the neighbourhood of Satwa built in the 1970s and now undergoing urban renewal. He demonstrates how this process can result in uprooting residents’ lives because of displacement. His depiction is anchored by a strong visual analysis as well as interviews with Satwa’s inhabitants, giving voice to their plight. Arguably such a vision of urban renewal relies on a neo-liberal approach to urban planning, a common theme uniting all three papers in this thread.

Diane Davis looks at the origins of such thinking and how the informal is construed and conceptualized as a temporary stop on the way to modernity. Her analysis is anchored in Latin America providing a historical overview of modernist planning, which she argues established conditions that made violence more likely. Indeed, as Diane notes, existing power structures prevented implementation of progressive, i.e. inclusive planning, ideas through the location of housing projects for the poor at the periphery of cities. She draws on a plethora of examples to illustrate this point. Davis concludes by arguing that such an approach eventually caused fragmentation, exclusion, and is closely tied to neo-liberal urbanization policies.

Yves Pedrazzini, Stéphanie Vincent Geslin and Alexandra Thorer elaborate on this issue further by introducing the term ‘violence of urbanization’. Of particular interest is the locale of their case study, urban Africa. Similar to the preceding two papers they move away from violent acts perpetuated by city residents. Instead the emphasis is on how planning policies enable violence and can be considered as a violent act against the city. Their focus is on Addis Ababa and their cases involve the role of infrastructure and transportation projects: a study of street intersection, demolition of neighbourhoods and erasure of memory through destruction. Modernity here is used as an excuse to attack the ‘traditional’ city, force resettlement and impose incompatible lifestyles. Spatial violence, the authors argue, is thus an outcome of capitalism (or neo-liberal urbanization policies).

My paper conceptualizes urban violence through both the agency of crowds and urban planning. The city enables and facilitates a certain form of violence (demonstrations, arson), which is then used as a pretext to reconfigure the urban planning paradigm to usher in a new political and social system: a form of urban rupture. My case centres on the city of Cairo, taking a historical approach by looking at the violent events of 1952 whereby the city’s downtown area was devastated by a fire. I discuss the specific urban character of the area, how it contributed to this act and the new planning approach following the fire, which aimed at ushering in a new society that has been supposedly liberated from the shackles of the past.

Lastly, Lourdes Rodriguez, Arlene Peguero, Arelis De La O, Howard Joseph, Robert E. Fullilove, and Mindy Thompson Fullilove, take a slightly different approach in examining urban violence. Theirs is based on place attachment and the extent to which community organizations and changes in the physical structure of the built environment can create an atmosphere that lessens the occurrence of violent events (graffiti, drug use, accumulation of trash). Through a carefully constructed study that involves a comparison of two blocks in a New York City neighbourhood, carried out over an extended period, they observed the impact of the construction of the headquarters for a youth organization. Yet they poignantly highlight an inadvertent effect of such positive change: gentrification. Given the improvement in the overall environment long-time residents were at risk of being displaced due to increasing rent.

Urban violence can come in myriad forms and can be understood in different ways, as all these papers have illustrated. Our very understanding of the term depends on how it is employed and formulated among scholars; how regimes use the city as a strategic site for destruction and the spreading of terror; how urban planning as a discipline is complicit in furthering violent acts that displace, relocate and erase memory and history; how history contributes to the founding myths of oppressive regimes. Yet there can be a ray of hope. Individuals and organizations have the capacity to mitigate the negative effect of urbanism, but without an effective change in policy such efforts are short-lived and may indeed contribute to further extending the cycle of violence directed at cities.