Feral Cities

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Fri Jan 14 16:52:33 PST 2005




Richard J. Norton

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ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been
replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which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. Eliot's Rat'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 world's most modern communication and computing technologies.
It would, in effect, be a feral city.

Admittedly, the very term "feral city" 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 city-with the possible exception of Mogadishu-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
city'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 "feral city" 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 city'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 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.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 city'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 city'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; "projects" and shantytowns have long been part of the cityscape.
Nor is urban pollution anything new-London was environmentally toxic in
the 1960s. So what is different about "feral cities"?

 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 importance-for example, a major seaport or
airport-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 state'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 city-with minimal  or
no sanitation facilities, a complete absence of environmental controls,
and a massive population-would be in effect a toxic-waste dump, poisoning
coastal waters, watersheds, and river systems throughout their hinterlands.7

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
"going feral." 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 "green,"
those that would  suggest cause for concern are "yellow," and those that
indicate danger,  a potentially feral condition, "red." 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 "in the green" has a healthy, stable government-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
"in the green"  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
"patchwork" governance, or that  it exerted authority only during the
day-"diurnal" governance. State authorities  would be unable to govern a
"red" 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.









 Enacts effective
 legislation, directs resources, controls events in all  portions of the
city all the time. Not corrupt.

 Robust. Significant foreign investment. Provides goods and services.
Possesses  stable and adequate tax base.

 Complete range of services, including educational and cultural, available
to all city residents.

 Well regulated by professional, ethical police forces. Quick response to
wide spectrum of requirements.



  Exercises only "patchwork" or
 "diurnal" control.
 Highly corrupt.

 Limited/no foreign investment. Subsidized or decaying industries and
growing  deficits.

 Can manage minimal level of public health, hospital access, potable water,
trash disposal.

 Little regard for legality/human rights. Police often matched/ stymied  by
criminal "peers."

 Going Feral


 At best has negotiated zones of control; at worst does not exist.

 Either local subsistence industries or industry based on illegal commerce.

 Intermittent to nonexistent power and water. Those who can afford to will
privately contract.

 Nonexistent. Security is attained through private means or paying protection.

 The second category involves the city's economy. Cities "in the green"
would enjoy a productive mix of foreign investment, service and
manufacturing  activities, and a robust tax base. Cities afforded a
"yellow" 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 "in the red"
would have no governmental tax base. Any  industrial activity within their
boundaries would be limited to subsistence-level  manufacturing and trade
or to illegal trafficking-in smuggled materials,  weapons, drugs, and so on.

 The third category is focused on city services. Cities with a "green"
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 city's
water supply would pass minimum safety standards. In contrast,  cities in
the "red" zone would be unable to supply more than intermittent  power and
water, some not even that.

 Security is the subject of the fourth category. "Green" 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.
"Yellow"  cities would be marked by extremely high crime rates, disregard
of whole  families of "minor crimes" due to lack of police resources, and
criminal  elements capable of serious confrontations. A "yellow" city's
police force  would have little regard for individual rights or legal
constraints. In  a "red" 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 organizations.

 A special, overarching consideration is corruption. Cities "in the green"
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 "in the yellow" would be much worse,
extending to every level of the city administration. In yellow cities,
"patchwork" patterns might reflect which portions of the city were able  to
buy security and services and which were not. As for "red"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 artist'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 "red" categories is not necessarily feral-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 "snapshot" and is therefore of limited utility unless supported by trend
analysis. "Patchwork" and "diurnal" situations can exist in all the
categories;  an urban center with an overall red rating-that is, a feral
city-might  boast a tiny enclave where "green" conditions prevail; quite
healthy cities  experience cycles of decline and improvement. Another
caution concerns  the categories themselves. Although useful indicators of
a city'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 "green" 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
"going feral." 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 City'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 officers-more men than the
Canadian army-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 city's crime statistics: "In the
morning they are a policeman. In the  afternoon they're crooks." The city'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 Sandton-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. Johannesburg'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, Johannesburg'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 "yellow" and
"red" 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 direction.

 Further-and it should come as no surprise-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. Navy'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 "petri dish"

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

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

 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. 5-14.

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

 6. "China Criticized for Dragging Feet on Outbreak," 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 Outlook-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, "Cigarette Makers Are Seen as Aiding
Rise in Smuggling,"  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, "Taming Mexico City," 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 "Taming Mexico City,"
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 world'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. 9-11.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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