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When is a war zone not a war zone? When it's a city in peacetime. We explore a new interpretation of urban conflict

The traditional idea of war is of a conflict between two opposing sides, generally fighting for control over a common object, or fighting for a military victory, which implies the defeat of 'the other'. Similarly, the discourse on civil war often implies the degradation of 'the system', a descent into lawlessness or - in more crude texts - a growth of tribalism. But it is not unusual to hear similar phrases in discussions of the ghettos of modern cities, or the goings-on in 'seedy' parts of town.

In Los Angeles, loosely aligned members of fighting 'sets', that is to say gang members, were firmly divided by the media; the Bloods and the Crips, for example. These are the most wellknown, but there are approximately 300 black gangs and about 600 Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles County alone.

1Local politicians and media frequently compare them to the 'murderous militias of Beirut'.

2But the media ignore the opportunity to investigate the reasons behind the tensions - relying on a simple condemnation of the act.

A view of warfare proposed by Dr David Keen of the Development Studies Institute sees it as the creation (or birth) of an alternative system rather than 'mindless and senseless violence with a proliferation of militias, chains of command breaking down and repeated brutal attacks on civilians'. Keen encourages us to be aware of the hidden agendas of war, pointing out that the label 'war' often serves to obscure its actual function, aiding those who wish to commit certain violent or wrongful actions, or those who wish to gain economically.

Looking at conflict from such a point ofview, we can begin to understand that war is not necessarily undesirable for everyone involved. War can be seen as an ordered system of profit and loss. Even vengeful, spiteful acts of vandalism, or ritual humiliation, could be the trickle-down result of economic or political processes.

3Postmodern conflict There are many cases around the world in which, during emergency situations, officialdom has commandeered power and committed terrible acts - justified on the grounds that they are 'at war'.

Teresa Caldeira points out, in City of Wa l l s , that the incidence of violent crime against ordinary inhabitants has risen in Sao Paolo in the past decade, but even more so have the abuses and violent acts committed by those institutions charged with protecting their citizens.

4In other parts of Brazil, like Alto de Cruzeiro, paramilitary death squads are believed to exist with close ties to the police. The abuses continue, under the guise of criminal investigations, and the institutions involved use crime and so-called justice as masks. Militias and governments often use the excuse that civil liberties can be suspended in war, and redefine 'war' to suit.

The consequent distrust of the police forces by civilians (and vice versa) is not confined to South America. In Los Angeles, a scene reminiscent of a civil war occurred 15 years ago when 1,000 extra-duty policeman, backed by tactical squads, arrested more black youths in one operation than ever before, allegedly in order to gather information on gang activity. Mike Davis likened this to a 'Vietnam-era search-and-destroy mission'. The strangest thing about this day was that the majority of the 1,500 arrests were for minor infractions - parking tickets or curfew violations - but the police were able to register a whole host more black youths, for 'future surveillance'.

Behind closed doors Mutual paranoia leading to pre-emptive strikes draws urban conflict in the developed world into the model of civil warfare, which is usually associated in the media as the preserve of the under-developed world. LA is well-known for the rise of security measures; the exclusion of certain groups, or self-enforced isolation of elites. But these are characteristic of both types of conflict. In civil wars, governed by an alternative system of economic benefit and control (in which an elite benefits), the emergence of private protection methods emboldened by private protection forces is common. 'Warlords', as they have become known in both scenarios, manage those who wish to engage in 'bottom-up violence'. Taking things into their own hands, militias evolve, and small arms proliferate.

In his examination of the architecture of Los Angeles, Davis portrays the city as 'Fortress LA the post-liberal Los Angeles, where the defence of luxury lifestyles is translated into a proliferation of a new repression of space and movement, undergirded by the ubiquitous fiarmed response unitfl'. The militias of the urban elite.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department is in a state of perpetual training and development as if preparing for, or indeed in, a state of war. Warehouse space is converted to accommodate spill-over prisoners, and more recruits are trained in tactical assault.

A similar story can be told of Sao Paolo. The upper classes do their utmost to limit contact with the average man of the street. Walls are built, and elaborate measures of ID checking and searching undertaken.Walled condominiums have become the most popular housing style for the well-off, and the city also boasts the world's largest fleet of private helicopters, ensuring that its elite need not travel the dangerous streets.

In war discourse, especially that of civil war and even more so in the context of developing world tensions, it is often said that conflict stems from an ancient ethnic hatred. People such as Robert Kaplan suggest that in the absence of strong Cold War regimes, who 'kept the lid on' old ethnic and tribal rivalries, such conflicts have once again arisen in Africa. An unlikely - and some might say contemptuous - theory, but interestingly, this lazy analysis is a common one in the discourse on urban conflict in the West as well. It is not unusual to hear that urban or suburban violence is due to immigrants, or due to 'old scores' to be settled between gangs. Rarely does anyone investigate the real reasons behind these acts.What, in reality, caused these people to act the way they did? If we understand this, could some of the negative processes that affect these people be designed out?

Conflicting stories Mark Duffield at the Institute of Politics and International Studies helps emphasise the importance of investigating the roots of violence, and talks of 'the long-term and embedded social processes that define the conditions of everyday life'. He argues that the causes of conflict can be found in these very processes, and that 'political violence is not different, apart, or irrational in relation to the way we live: it is an expression of its inner logic'.

If conflict can be a logical expression of a social process, it is important to understand, as Keen points out, that people in a civil war context may see violence as a solution, not (just) a problem. This is undoubtedly also the case in an urban context in that there are similar forces at work in contemporary urban conflicts and civil wars. The new, parallel or underground economies; the use of conflict as a way of hiding or justifying economic or human rights abuses; the development of militia groups taking justice into their own hands; the belief in violence as a solution; the proliferation of small arms; a designfor-defence of certain types of dwelling, to name but a few, all point to this. But this is not the only focus area of cities that can benefit from war zone-focused analysis.

Looking into internally displaced refugees during civil war might help shed some light on the social and political processes at work in similar situations in modern cities. Urban design in downtown LA excludes the homeless more and more from everywhere except parks. Los Angeles has even been known to have deported its poor en masse to a poor farm on the edge of the desert, confining them in camps in the mountains and, most famously, interning them on a derelict ferry in the harbour. Comparing the processes that lead to the establishment of refugee internment camps to the experiences of those subject to social exclusion during civil wars could be beneficial for urban policy makers who want to improve things.

The fruits of such an investigation might even help to ameliorate the tensions of urban segregation, in relation to housing and ethnic distribution across cities. Current policymaking often makes it impossible for certain groups to live in places other than estates, compounds sociallyinconsiderate design, and ignores the common perception that these places are 'no-go zones' (read 'no-care' zones). All could benefit from some of the radical insights gained from studies on displaced peoples and refugee camps.

It is important to note that a city 'not at war' isn't necessarily a city 'at peace'. The goings-on in urban areas might be dealt with better by examining them through a lens of conflict and competition for resources. Any construction, reconstruction or development must observe the systems of benefit, procurement, accumulation and control at play in cities, and attempt to lay out design that directs these processes to positive ends.

Mike Duff is founder member of UrbanEO (www. urbaneo. org), a nonprofit organisation examining urban design principles in post-conflict and disaster situations. He is also research assistant to Richard Sennett at the LSE Cities Programme 1.Alejandro Alonso, 'Territoriality Among African American Street Gangs in Los Angeles'.Research paper.


2.Davis, Mike, City of Quartz.

3.Keen, David, 'Incentives and Disincentives in Greed and Grievance'.

4.Caldeira, Teresa, City of Walls.

Readings l Bullard, Grigsby & Lee (ed), Residential Apartheid: The American Legacy.CAAS Urban Policy Series, The Regents of the University of California.1994.

l Caldeira, Teresa, City of Walls.University of California Press.2000.

l Davis, Mike, City of Quartz : excavating the future in Los Angeles.Verso.1990.

l Duffield, Mark, 'Postmodern Conflicts: Warlords, PostAdjustment States & Private Protection'.Civil Wars.Vol 1 No 1.

l Frug, Gerald, City making: building communities without building walls.Princeton University Press.1999 l Keen, David, 'Chapter 2: Incentives and Disincentives for Violence'.From Rienner, Lynne, Greed & Grievance:

Economic Agendas in Civil Wars.2000.

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