The Fragility of Cities and What to Do About It

November 27, 2017; CityLab

Robert Muggah, a security and development specialist, has developed the concept of fragile cities to highlight the need for cities, countries, and regions to address the manifold challenges facing the world’s growing urban population. The challenges are widespread. Earlier this year, Bank of America Merrill Lynch (the investment arm of Bank of America), “referring to a roughly $75 trillion infrastructure gap,” found that 80 percent of the world’s cities “show signs of fragility.”

Writing for CityLab, Muggah explains,

Fragility is the manifestation of a convergence of multiple stresses…such as homicide, lack of potable water, or pollution…As these risks accumulate, they undermine a city’s social contract and in extreme cases can push it to the brink of collapse. All cities are fragile to a greater or lesser degree—it is not the preserve of power urban agglomerations alone. Nor is fragility a permanent condition, as the case of Colombia’s remarkable rebound shows.

Such cities offer “insights into the health of nations.” However, measuring a city’s fragility is tricky due to the interplay of factors. Muggah’s 15-year research covers 2,100 cities with populations of at least 250,000. He identifies 11 risk factors, which include:

  • The speed of population growth
  • Levels of unemployment
  • Income inequality
  • Access to basic services (electricity, water, sanitation)
  • Homicide rates
  • Terrorism
  • Conflict events
  • Concentration of poverty (beyond 40 percent)
  • Deficits in law enforcement and criminal justice
  • Weather-related shocks

In his TED Talk, he says, “You don’t need to be on the front line…to get a sense that our planet is spinning out of control.” In an attempt to counter the feeling that “international instability is the new normal,” he proposes that we focus on cities, especially fragile ones.

According to Muggah,

Most people today live in cities, not the countryside. Just 600 cities, including 30 megacities, account for two-thirds of global GDP. But when it comes to cities, the conversation is dominated by the North—that is, North America, Western Europe, Australia, and Japan—where violence is actually at historic lows. As a result, city enthusiasts, they talk about the triumph of the city, of the creative classes, and the mayors that will rule the world.

Now, I hope that mayors do one day rule the world, but the fact is we don’t hear any conversation really about what is happening in the South. And by South, I mean Latin America, Africa, Asia, where violence in some cases is accelerating, where infrastructure is overstretched, and where governance is sometimes aspiration and not a reality.

Some diplomats and development experts and specialists, they talk about 40 to 50 fragile states that will shape security in the 21st century. I think it’s fragile cities which will define the future of order and disorder.

The most fragile cities are rapidly urbanizing cities, which don’t have the time to develop adequate services for a growing population. African cities top the list with 92 percent of them identified as having very or medium fragility. The top three are all in Somalia: Mogadishu, Kismaayo, and Merca. Asia comes in second with 85 percent. The fewest fragile cities are in Canada, Japan, Australia, the US, and Norway.

Muggah notes, “The transition of Colombia’s cities from fragility to resilience is breathtaking.” Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, “was rated by FDI Intelligence as one of Latin America’s top destinations for foreign direct investment and a City of the Future.” Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, won the World City Prize in 2016 and the World’s Most Innovative City in 2013, “beating out New York City and Tel Aviv.” Muggah hopes that Colombia offers a “hopeful lesson…that urban fragility can be designed out.”

He concludes,

It requires forward-looking city plans, agile decision-making structures, and solutions that are inter-systemic…an approach known locally as “urban acupuncture.” Strategies involved highly targeted community policing, municipal infrastructure improvements, better public transportation, and integrated public spaces such as “library parks” that combined green areas, community centers, and learning facilities.

The US may be at the bottom of the fragility list, but we have many of the risk factors, and they are growing. Further, the case of Puerto Rico, while not often considered a US case study, is very much so. It may be as fragile as you can get, with near-total collapse of government and basic services. In an interconnected world, it is not long before we experience the impact of seemingly far-flung locales in our cities. It behooves us to keep an eye on what Global South cities are learning. It seems they are the innovators.—Cyndi Suarez