War is an increasingly urban phenomenon, a fact that brings new challenges for militaries, governments and humanitarian organisations.  

Bomb damage in Mogadishu. Credit: Flickr/au_unistphotostream By Antonio Sampaio, Research Associate for Security and Development 

On 28 and 29 November, the IISS will gather leading military, development and aid experts to address the increasingly urban character of conflict. The Geneva conference 'Armed Conflict in Cities' is organised in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and with support from Switzerland's Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). 

The conference aims to improve dialogue and ultimately cooperation between military, development and aid organisations and staff, who often work in parallel but do not always coordinate. Breaking down these silos is an urgent challenge if international responses to conflict are to remain effective in a world of rapidly growing urban populations.

Violence strikes at the heart of urban systems

Increasingly, urban areas are the settings for wars and the destination for people forced to flee them. In the popular imagination, refugees are housed mainly in camps. Yet as the IISS highlighted earlier this year, 90% of Syrian refugees live in towns and cities. Reconstruction work in Mosul and Aleppo, crucial economic hubs for Iraq and Syria respectively, will be conducted in a complex environment. Development policies in large conflict-affected cities such as these will have to navigate politico-sectarian fault lines regarding the allocation of resources and the prioritisation of neighbourhoods.

And smarter urban planning and service delivery can reduce tensions and bring communities together – as we have seen in cities such as Cape Town (South Africa) and Medellín (Colombia). Policing, public transport, parks and even well-lit streets can help build trust between rival communities and contribute to economic development that gives young people an alternative to violence.

Although every city is different, urban systems function according to the same basic principles. The ICRC – which has chosen 'war in cities' as the main theme of its 2017 conference cycle and as a theme for a special edition of its journal – states that protracted armed conflicts are having a ‘cumulative impact on three key components of the urban system': people (with their unique skills), hardware (buildings and infrastructure) and consumables (water, fuel, medicine, etc.). Urban planners and aid organisations striving to alleviate suffering and restore infrastructure or services cannot succeed unless they work with others, including militaries or militias that exert territorial control.

For the military, cooperation with development and relief organisations is key to establishing security in urban environments after large-scale operations. Last year’s Chilcot Report, a major independent review of UK military failures in Iraq, placed a large share of the blame for the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 invasion on long delays in re-establishing essential services and basic urban security.

UN addresses urban conflict challenges

Policymakers recognise the importance of cities in conflict-affected regions, and this is reflected in a number of international agreements. The creation of the Global Alliance on Urban Crises, a coalition of 65 national and international organisations concerned about recovery after urban disasters (including conflict), was one of the main outcomes of last year's UN World Humanitarian Summit. Furthermore, the UN global development agenda adopted in late 2015 has a specific goal to make cities ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. 

The convergence of humanitarian, security and development concerns was apparent in perhaps the most influential international document on urbanisation, the New Urban Agenda, which was adopted by all UN member states last year to provide urbanisation guidelines for the next two decades. It calls for special attention to be paid to countries in situations of conflict as well as post-conflict transition – the fragile process of building institutions and promoting reconciliation. The document’s focus on conflicts serves as a call for urban security and development to be embedded into peace-building efforts. It includes guidelines for strengthening local institutions, building long-term urban anti-crime strategies and promoting fair housing and land regulations.

It has taken a long time to build this consensus, and the next challenge is putting this thinking into practice. In other words, building the strategic, tactical, on-the-ground cooperation that will make a difference for cities affected by armed conflict. This is why this week’s conference is so important. 

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