The Four-Floor War


[Image: Russian troops in Grozny, February 2000; image courtesy of AP].

“U.S. land forces will eventually find themselves locked in fights within huge, dense urban environments where skyscrapers tower over enormous shanty towns, and these troops need more realistic training to operate within these future megacities,” Brigadier General Julian Alford of the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory explained earlier this month, as reported by Defense News.

It’s war in the age of megacities: “We talk about the three-block war, but we are moving quickly to the four-floor war,” Alford adds.

We are going to be on the top floor of a skyscraper… evacuating civilians and helping people. The middle floor, we might be detaining really bad people that we’ve caught. On the first floor we will be down there killing them. …At the same time they will be getting away through the subway or subterrain. How do we train to fight that? Because it is coming, that fight right there is coming I do believe with all my heart.

The verticalization of Alford’s metaphor—“the four-floor war”—is an interesting revision of the existing “three-block war” paradigm. In that earlier version, U.S. General Charles C. Krulak suggested that three separate and very different military goals—humanitarian assistance, peace-keeping, and “traditional warfighting”—could all occur within only three blocks of one another in the urban combat of the future. In his words, soldiers would be confronted by “the entire spectrum of tactical challenges in the span of a few hours and within the space of three contiguous city blocks.”

This would not only be a problem of so-called “feral cities,” but of feral buildings within a functional metropolis.

The idea that this is now a “four-floor” problem—that “the entire spectrum of tactical challenges” could now be experienced within the space of four floors of a single high-rise—is a dark indicator not only that our own everyday surroundings are now being modeled and war-gamed as sites of speculative combat, but also how terrifying full-scale architectural warfare would be. Battling upward through the interior of skyscrapers, perhaps even zip-lining from one tower to another, it would be Nakatomi space taken to its logical, militarized extreme.

Recall Mike Davis’s observation from more than a decade ago that so-called Third World cities were being viewed as the “key battlespace of the future,” and that U.S. forces were thus preparing “for protracted combat in the near impassable, maze-like streets of the poverty-stricken cities of the Third World.” Davis elaborates on these points in an old interview with BLDGBLOG called Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis, Parts One and Two.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Cities Under Siege. Story spotted via @peterwsinger).

Cities Under Siege

[Image: Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege].

In a 2003 paper for the Naval War College Review, author Richard J. Norton defined the term feral cities. “Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles,” Norton begins, as if narrating the start of a film pitch. “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.”

With the city’s infrastructure having collapsed long ago—or perhaps having never been built in the first place—there are no works of public sanitation, no sewers, no licensed doctors, no reliable food supply, no electricity. The feral city is a kind of return to medievalism, we might say, back to the future of a dark age for anyone but criminals, gangs, and urban warlords. It is a space of illiterate power—strength unresponsive to rationality or political debate.

From the perspective of a war planner or soldier, the feral city is also spatially impenetrable, a maze resistant to aerial mapping. Indeed, its “buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces, would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles,” Norton writes.

This is something Russell W. Glenn, formerly of the RAND Corporation—an Air Force think tank based in Southern California—calls “combat in Hell.” In his 1996 report of that name, Glenn pointed out that “urban terrain confronts military commanders with a synergism of difficulties rarely found in other environments,” many of which are technological. For instance, the effects of radio communications and global positioning systems can be radically limited by dense concentrations of architecture, turning what might otherwise be an exotic experience of pedestrian urbanism into a claustrophobic labyrinth inhabited by unseen enemy combatants.

Add to this the fact that military ground operations of the near future are more likely to unfold in places like Sadr City, Iraq—not in paragons of city planning like Vancouver—and you have an environment in which soldiers are as likely to die from tetanus, rabies, and wild dog attacks, Norton suggests, as from actual armed combat.

Put another way, as Mike Davis wrote in Planet of Slums, “the cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.”

But feral cities are one thing, cities under siege are something else.

[Images: The Fires by Joe Flood and Planet of Slums by Mike Davis].

In his new book Cities Under Siege, published just two weeks ago, geographer Stephen Graham explores “the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life,” including “dramatic attempts to translate long-standing military dreams of high-tech omniscience and rationality into the governance of urban civil society.” This is just part of a “deepening crossover between urbanism and militarism,” one that will only become more pronounced, Graham fears, over time.

One particularly fascinating example of this encroachment of “military dreams… into the governance of urban civil society” is actually the subject of a forthcoming book by Joe Flood. The Fires tells the story of “an alluring proposal” offered by the RAND Corporation, back in 1968, “to a city on the brink of economic collapse [New York City]: using RAND’s computer models, which had been successfully implemented in high-level military operations, the city could save millions of dollars by establishing more efficient public services.” But all did not go as planned:

Over the next decade—a time New York City firefighters would refer to as “The War Years”—a series of fires swept through the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Brooklyn, gutting whole neighborhoods, killing more than two thousand people and displacing hundreds of thousands. Conventional wisdom would blame arson, but these fires were the result of something altogether different: the intentional withdrawal of fire protection from the city’s poorest neighborhoods—all based on RAND’s computer modeling systems.

In any case, Graham’s interest is in the city as target, both of military operations and of political demonization. In other words, cities themselves are portrayed “as intrinsically threatening or problematic places,” Graham writes, and thus feared as sites of economic poverty, moral failure, sexual transgression, rampant criminality, and worse (something also addressed in detail by Steve Macek’s book Urban Nightmares). All cities, we are meant to believe, already exist in a state of marginal ferality. I’m reminded here of Frank Lloyd Wright’s oft-repeated remark that “the modern city is a place for banking and prostitution and very little else.”

In some of the book’s most interesting sections, Graham tracks the growth of urban surveillance and the global “homeland security market.” He points out that major urban events—like G8 conferences, the Olympics, and the World Cup, among many others—offer politically unique opportunities for the installation of advanced tracking, surveillance, and facial-recognition technologies. Deployed in the name of temporary security, however, these technologies are often left in place when the event is over: a kind of permanent crisis, in all but name, takes over the city, with remnant, military-grade surveillance technologies gazing down upon the streets (and embedded in the city’s telecommunications infrastructure). A moment of exception becomes the norm.

Graham outlines a number of dystopian scenarios here, including one in which “swarms of tiny, armed drones, equipped with advanced sensors and communicating with each other, will thus be deployed to loiter permanently above the streets, deserts, and highways” of cities around the world, moving us toward a future where “militarized techniques of tracking and targeting must permanently colonize the city landscape and the spaces of everyday life.”

In the process, any real distinction between a “homeland” and its “colonies” is irreparably blurred. Here, he quotes Michel Foucault: “A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.” If it works in Baghdad, the assumption goes, then let’s try it out in Detroit.

This is just one of many “boomerang effects” from militarized urban experiments overseas, Graham writes.

[Images: Blast walls in Iraq].

But what does this emerging city—this city under siege—actually look like? What is its architecture, its urban design, its local codes? What is its infrastructure?

Graham has many evocative answers for this. The city under siege is a place in which “hard, military-style borders, fences and checkpoints around defended enclaves and ‘security zones,’ superimposed on the wider and more open city, are proliferating.”

Jersey-barrier blast walls, identity checkpoints, computerized CCTV, biometric surveillance and military styles of access control protect archipelagos of fortified social, economic, political or military centers from an outside deemed unruly, impoverished and dangerous. In the most extreme examples, these encompass green zones, military prisons, ethnic and sectarian neighborhoods and military bases; they are growing around strategic financial districts, embassies, tourist and consumption spaces, airport and port complexes, sports arenas, gated communities and export processing zones.

Cities Under Siege also extensively covers urban warfare, a topic that intensely interests me. From Graham’s chapter “War Re-Enters the City”:

Indeed, almost unnoticed within “civil” urban social science, a shadow system of military urban research is rapidly being established, funded by Western military research budgets. As Keith Dickson, a US military theorist of urban warfare, puts it, the increasing perception within Western militaries is that “for Western military forces, asymmetric warfare in urban areas will be the greatest challenge of this century… The city will be the strategic high ground—whoever controls it will dictate the course of future events in the world.”

Ralph Peters phrased this perhaps most dramatically when he wrote, back in 1996 for the U.S. Army War College Quarterly, that “the future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world.” The future of warfare, that is, lies in feral cities.

In this context, Graham catalogs the numerous ways in which “aggressive physical restructuring,” as well as “violent reorganization of the city,” is used, and has been used throughout history, as a means of securing and/or controlling a city’s population. At its most extreme, Graham calls this “place annihilation.” The architectural redesign of cities can thus be used as a military policing tactic as much as it can be discussed as a topic in academic planning debates. There are clearly echoes of Eyal Weizman in this.

On one level, these latter points are obvious: small infrastructural gestures, like public lighting, can transform alleyways from zones of impending crime to walkways safe for pedestrian use—and, in the process, expand political control and urban police presence into that terrain. But, as someone who does not want to be attacked in an alleyway any time soon, I find it very positive indeed when the cityscape around me becomes both safer by design and better policed. Equally obvious, though, when these sorts of interventions are scaled-up—from public lighting, say, to armed checkpoints in a militarized reorganization of the urban fabric—then something very drastic, and very wrong, is occurring in the city. Instead of a city simply with more cops (or fire departments), you begin a dark transition toward a “city under siege.”

I could go on at much greater length about all of this—but suffice it to say that Cities Under Siege covers a huge array of material, from the popularity of SUVs in cities to the blast-wall geographies of Baghdad, from ASBOs in London to drone helicopters in the skies above New York. Raytheon’s e-Borders program opens the book, and Graham closes it all with a discussion of “countergeographies.”

(Parts of this post, on feral cities, originally appeared in AD: Architectures of the Near Future, edited by Nic Clear).

Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis (pt. 2)

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Mike Davis, author, sociologist, and urban theorist, recorded upon the publication of his book, Planet of Slums. If you missed part one, here it is.


In this installment, Davis discusses the rise of Pentecostalism in global mega-slums; the threat of avian flu; the disease vectors of urban poverty; criminal and terrorist mini-states; the future of sovereignty; environmental footprints; William Gibson; the allure of Hollywood; and Viggo Mortensen‘s publishing imprint, Perceval Press.


BLDGBLOG: In an earlier, essay-length version of Planet of Slums, you write at some length about the rise of Pentecostalism as a social and organizational force in the slums – but that research is missing from the actual book, Planet of Slums. Are you distancing yourself from that research, or perhaps less interested now in its implications?

Davis: Actually, several hundred pages on Pentecostalism are now being decanted in the second volume, written with Forrest Hylton, where they properly belong. But the historical significance of Pentecostalism – evangelical Christianity – is that it’s the first modern religious movement, I believe – or religious sect – which emerged out of the urban poor. Although there are many gentrified Pentecostal churches in the United States today, and even in places like Brazil, the real crucible of Pentecostalism – the spiritual experience which propels it – the whole logic of Pentecostalism – remains within the urban poor.

Of course, Pentecostalism, in most places, is also, overwhelmingly, a religion of women – and in Latin America, at least, it has an actual material benefit. Women who join the church, and who can get their husbands to join with them, often see significant increases in their standard of living: the men are less likely to drink, or whore, or gamble all their money away.

For someone like myself, writing from the left, it’s essential to come to grips with Pentecostalism. This is the largest self-organized movement of poor urban people in the world – at least among movements that emerged in the twentieth century. It has shown an ability to take root, dynamically, not only in Latin America but in southern and western Africa, and – to a much smaller extent – in east Asia. I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.

BLDGBLOG: Outside of simply filling a void left behind by the retreat of the State, what’s the actual appeal of Pentecostalism for this new generation of urban poor?

Davis: Frankly, one of the great sources of Pentecostalism’s appeal is that it’s a kind of para-medicine. One of the chief factors in the life of the poor today is a constant, chronic crisis of health and medicine. This is partially a result of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1980s, which devastated public health and access to medicine in so many countries. But Pentecostalism offers faith healing, which is a major attraction – and it’s not entirely bogus. When it comes to things like addictive behavior, Pentecostalism probably has as good a track record curing alcoholism, neuroses, and obsessions as anything else. That’s a huge part of its appeal. Pentecostalism is a kind of spiritual health delivery system.


BLDGBLOG: It would seem that human overpopulation is, in and of itself, turning cities into slums. In other words, no matter what governmental steps or state-based programs are devised to address urban poverty, slums are just a by-product of overpopulation.

Davis: Well, I don’t actually believe in the notion of overpopulation – particularly as it’s now become clear that the most extreme projections of human population growth just aren’t coming to pass. Probably for the last ten or fifteen years, demographers have been steadily reducing their projections.

The paramount question is not whether the population has grown too large, but: how do you square the circle between, on the one hand, social justice with some kind of equitable right to a decent standard of living, and, on the other, environmental sustainability? There aren’t too many people in the world – but there is, obviously, over-consumption of non-renewable resources on a planetary scale. Of course, the way to square that circle – the solution to the problem – is the city itself. Cities that are truly urban are the most environmentally efficient systems that we have ever created for living together and working with nature. The particular genius of the city is its ability to provide high standards of living through public luxury and public space, and to satisfy needs that can never be meet by the suburban private consumption model.

Having said that, the problem of urbanization in the world today is that it’s not urbanism in the classic sense. The real challenge is to make cities better as cities. I think Planet of Slums addresses the reality that every complaint made by sociologists in the 1950s and 60s about American suburbia is now true on an exponentially increased scale with poor cities: all the problems with sprawl, all the problems with an increasing amount of time and resources tied up in commutes to work, all the problems with environmental pollution, all the problems with the lack of traditional urban apparatuses of leisure, recreation, social services and so on.

BLDGBLOG: Yet a city like Khartoum – or even Cairo – simply doesn’t have the environmental resources to support such a large human population. No matter what the government decides to do, there are simply too many people. Eventually you hit a wall. So there can’t be a European-style social model, based on taxation and the supply of municipal services, if there aren’t the necessary environmental resources.

Davis: Well, I’d say it the other way around, actually. If you look at a city like Los Angeles, and its extreme dependence on regional infrastructure, the question of whether certain cities become monstrously over-sized has less to do with the number of people living there, than with how they consume, whether they reuse and recycle resources, whether they share public space. So I wouldn’t say that a city like Khartoum is an impossible city; that has much more to do with the nature of private consumption.

People talk about environmental footprints, but the environmental footprints of different groups who make up a population tend to differ dramatically. In California, for instance, within the right-wing of the Sierra Club, and amongst anti-immigrant groups, there’s this belief that a huge tide of immigration from Mexico is destroying the environment, and that all these immigrants are actually responsible for the congestion and the pollution – but that’s absurd. Nobody has a smaller environmental footprint, or tends to use public space more intensely, than Latin American immigrants. The real problem is white guys in golf carts out on the hundred and ten golf courses in the Coachella Valley. In other words, one retired white guy my age may be using up a resource base ten, twenty, thirty times the size of a young chicana trying to raise her family in a small apartment in the city.

So Malthusianism, in a crude sense, keeps reappearing in these debates, but the real question is not about panicking in the face of future population growth or immigration, but how to invest in the genius of urbanism. How to make suburbs, like those of Los Angeles, function as cities in a more classical sense. There’s an absolute, essential need to preserve green areas and environmental reserves. A city can’t operate without those. Of course, the pattern everywhere in the world is for poverty – for housing and development – to spill over into crucial watersheds, to build up around reservoirs and open spaces that are essential to the metabolism of the city. Even this astonishing example in Mumbai, where people have pushed so far into the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park that slum dwellers are now being eaten by leopards – or Sao Paulo, which uses astronomical amounts of water purification chemicals because it’s fighting a losing battle against the pollution of its watershed.

If you allow that kind of growth, if you lose the green areas and the open spaces, if you pump out the aquifers, if you terminally pollute the rivers, then, of course, you can do fatal damage to the ecology of the city.


BLDGBLOG: One of the things I found most interesting in your recent book, Monster At Our Door, is the concept of “biosecurity.” Could you explain how biosecurity is, or is not, being achieved on the level of urban space and architectural design?

Davis: I see the whole question of epidemic control and biosecurity being modeled after immigration control. That’s the reigning paradigm right now. Of course, it’s a totally false analogy – particularly when you deal with something like influenza, which can’t be quarantined. You can’t build walls against it. Biosecurity, in a globalized world that contains as much poverty and squalor as our urban world does, is impossible. There is no biosecurity. The continuing quest will be to achieve the biological equivalent of a gated community, with the control of movement and with regulations that just enforce all the most Orwellian tendencies – the selective creation and provision of vaccines, anti-virals, and so on.

But, at the end of the day, biosecurity is an impossibility – until you address the essence of the problem: which is public health for the poor, and the ecological sustainability of the city.

In Monster At Our Door, I cite what I thought was an absolutely model study, published in Science, about how breakneck urbanization in western Africa is occurring at the same time that European factory ships are coming in and scooping up all the fish protein. This has turned urban populations massively to bush meat – which was already a booming business because of construction crews logging out the last tropical forests in west Africa – and, presto: you get HIV, you get ebola, you get unknown plagues. I thought the article was an absolutely masterful description of inadvertent causal linkages, and the complex ecology – the environmental impact – that urbanization has. Likewise, with urbanization in China and southeast Asia, the industrialization of poultry seems to be one of the chief factors behind the threat of avian flu.

As any epidemiologist will tell you, these are just the first, new plagues of globalization – and there will be more. The idea that you can defend against diseases by the equivalent of a gated community is ludicrous, but it’s exactly the direction in which public health policy is being directed. As we’ve seen, unless you’re prepared to shoot down all the migratory birds in the world –

BLDGBLOG: Which I’m sure someone has suggested.

Davis: I mean, I did a lot of calculator work on the UN data, from The Challenge of Slums, calculating urban densities and so on, and this is the Victorian world writ large. Just as the Victorian middle classes could not escape the diseases of the slums, neither will the rich, bunkered down in their country clubs or inside gated communities. The whole obsession now is that avian flu will be brought into the country by –

BLDGBLOG: A Mexican!

Davis: Exactly: it’ll be smuggled over the border – which is absurd. This ongoing obsession with illegal immigration has become a one-stop phantasmagoria for… everything. Of course, it goes back to primal, ancient fears: the Irish brought typhoid, the Chinese brought plague. It’s old hat.

The other thing that’s happening, of course, is that bird flu is being used as a competitive strategy by large-scale, industrialized producers of livestock to force independent producers to the wall. These industrial-scale farms are claiming that only indoor, bio-secured, industrially farmed poultry is safe. This is part of a very complex process of global competition. In Monster At Our Door I cite the case of CP, in Thailand – the Tyson of SE Asia. Even as they’re being wiped-out in Thailand, unable to exploit their chickens, they’re opening new factories in Bulgaria – and profiting from the panic over chicken from Thailand. In other words, avian flu is being used to rationalize and further centralize the poultry industry – yet it appears, to a lot of people, that it’s precisely the industrialization of poultry that has not just allowed the emergence of avian flu but has actually sped up its evolution.


BLDGBLOG: What would a biosecure world actually look like, on the level of architecture and urban design? How do you construct biosecurity? Do you see any evidence that the medical profession is being architecturally empowered, so to speak, influencing the design of “disease-free” public spaces?

Davis: Well, sure. It’s exactly how Victorian social control over the slums was defined as a kind of hygienic project – or in the same way that urban segregation was justified in colonial cities as a problem of sanitation. Everywhere these discourses reinforce one another. What really has been lacking, however, is one big epidemic, originating in poverty, that hits the middle classes – because then you’ll see people really go berzerk. I think one of the most important facts about our world is that middle class people – above all, middle class Americans – have lived inside a historical bubble that really has no precedent in the rest of human history. For two, three, almost four, generations now, they have not personally experienced the cost of war, have not experienced epidemic disease – in other words, they have lived in an ever-increasing arc not only of personal affluence but of personal longevity and security from accidental death, war, disease, and so on. Now if that were abruptly to come to a halt – to be interrupted by a very bad event, like a pandemic, that begins killing some significant number of middle class Americans – then obviously all hell is going to break loose.

The one thing I’m firmly convinced of is that the larger, affluent middle classes in this country will never surrender their lifestyle and its privileges. If suddenly faced with a threat in which they may be made homeless by disaster, or killed by plagues, I think you can expect very, very irrational reactions – which of course will inscribe themselves in a spatial order, and probably in spectacular ways. I think one thing that would emerge after an avian flu pandemic, if it does occur, will be a lot of focus on biosecurity at the level of domestic space.

BLDGBLOG: Duct tape and plastic sheeting.

Davis: Sure.


BLDGBLOG: What has happened to the status or role of the nation-state – of sovereignty, territory, citizenship, etc.? For instance, are national governments being replaced by multinational corporations, and citizens by employees?

Davis: That’s a very interesting question. Clearly, though, what’s happened with globalization has not been the transcendence of the nation-state by the corporation, or by new, higher-level entities. What we’ve seen is much more of a loss of sovereignty on some levels – and the reinforcement of sovereignty on others.

Obviously, the whole process of Structural Adjustment in the 1980s meant the ceding of much local sovereignty and powers of local government to the international bodies that administer debt. The World Bank, for example, working with NGOs, creates networks that often dilute local sovereignty. A brilliant example of this problem is actually what’s happening right now in New Orleans: all the expert commissions, and the oversight boards, and the off-site authorities that are being proposed will basically destroy popular government in New Orleans, reducing the city council to a figurehead and transferring power back to the traditional elite. And that’s all in the name of fighting corruption and so on.

But whether you’ll see new kinds of supra-national entities emerge depends, I think, on the country. Obviously some countries are strengthening their national positions – the state remains all important – while other countries have effectively lost all sovereignty. I mean, look at an extreme case, like Haiti.

BLDGBLOG: How are these shifts being accounted for in the geopolitical and military analyses you mentioned earlier?

Davis: The problem that military planners, and some geopoliticians, are talking about is actually something quite different: that’s the emergence, in hundreds of both little and major nodes across the world, of essentially autonomous slums governed by ethnic militias, gangs, transnational crime, and so on. This is something the Pentagon is obviously very interested in, and concerned about, with Mogadishu as a kind of prototype example. The ongoing crisis of the Third World city is producing almost feudalized patterns of large slum neighborhoods that are effectively terrorist or criminal mini-states – rogue micro-sovereignties. That’s the view of the Pentagon and of Pentagon planners. They also seem quite alarmed by the fact that the peri-urban slums – the slums on the edges of cities – lack clear hierarchies. Even more difficult, from a planning perspective, there’s very little available data. The slums are kind of off the radar screen. They therefore become the equivalent of rain forest, or jungle: difficult to penetrate, impossible to control.

I think there are fairly smart Pentagon thinkers who don’t see this so much as a question of regions, or categories of nation-states, so much as holes, or enclaves within the system. One of the best things I ever read about this was actually William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light. Gibson proposes that, in a world where giant multinational capital is supreme, there are places that simply aren’t valuable to the world economy anymore – they don’t reproduce capital – and so those spaces are shunted aside. A completely globalized system, in Gibson’s view, would leak space – it would have internal redundancies – and one of those spaces, in Virtual Light, is the Bay Bridge.

But, sure, this is a serious geopolitical and military problem: if you conduct basically a triage of the world’s human population – where some people are exiled from the world economy, and some spaces no longer have roles – then you’re offering up ideal opportunities for other people to step in and organize those spaces to their own ends. This is a deeper and more profound situation than any putative conflicts of civilization. It is, in a way, a very unexpected end to the 20th century. Neither classical Marxism, nor any other variety of classical social theory or neoliberal economics, ever predicted that such a large fraction of humanity would live in cities and yet basically outside all the formal institutions of the world economy.

BLDGBLOG: Is there an economic solution, then?

Davis: You’ll never re-conquer these parts of the city simply through surveillance, or military invasion, or policing – you have to offer the people some way to re-connect with the world economy. Until you can provide resources, or jobs, the danger is that this will worsen. People are being thrown back onto tribal and ethnic clientelism of one kind or another as a means of survival – even as a means of excluding other poor people from these already limited resources. Increasingly, new arrivals in the city – the sons and daughters of the urban poor – are being pressed by tighter housing markets, and by the inability to find cheap – certainly not free – land. Where cheap land does exist, it only exists because the land is otherwise undevelopable. It’s too dangerous. You’re just wagering on natural disaster. In fact, the end of this frontier of squattable land is one conclusion of Planet of Slums.

Another conclusion is that almost all the research on informal urban economies has shown that informality is simply not generating job ladders. Sure, some micro-entrepreneurs go on to become mini-entrepreneurs – but the larger fact is you’re just subdividing poverty. You’re getting more and more people competing, trying to pursue the same survival strategies in the same place. Those are the facts that darken this book the most, I think. They’re also what darken the horizon of research on the city in general, even more than questions of sanitation and so on. What the World Bank, what the NGOs, what all the apostles of neoliberal self-help depend on is the availability of cheap, squattable land, and the existence of entrepreneurial opportunities in the informal sector.

If you exhaust those two, people will be driven to the wall – and then the safety valves won’t work. Then the urban poor will run out of the resources for miracles.


BLDGBLOG: I’ll wrap up with two quick questions. It’s interesting that you’re raising a family – even two young toddlers – in a world where, as you write, there are emerging super-plagues, earthquakes, race riots, tornadoes in Los Angeles, mega-slums, etc. Are you nervous about the future for your kids?

Davis: Well, of course. I mean, people who read into my work a kind of delight in disaster and apocalypse either are reading incorrectly or I’m a bad writer – because that isn’t the intention. To be honest with you, there’s more of a yearning for these kinds of apocalypse in the literature of Pentecostalism –

BLDGBLOG: Good point.

Davis: – and that’s apocalypse properly understood, its real, Biblical meaning. It’s precisely this idea of an unrevealed, secret history of the world that will become luminously clear in the last hour, and will rewrite history from the standpoint of the people who had previously been history’s victims. I would say that, as somebody who’s ultimately an old-fashioned socialist, or rationalist, with an almost excessive faith in science – you know, I tremble when I write this stuff. I take no joy in writing a book about car bombs, but it just struck me that here was this technology nobody had written about on its own terms, yet it had become horribly successful. It’s a lot easier for me to cope with hypochondria about avian flu – having written a book about it – than if I hadn’t written about it. Let’s put it that way. I feel the same way about the future of my children.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, have you ever considered working outside the genre of critical nonfiction, and – in an almost Ridley Scott-like way – directing a film, or writing a novel?

Davis: [laughs] Well, I have in an extremely minor way: I’ve published two young adult science adventure novels – which is the name I’ve given to the genre – through Viggo Mortenson’s little press, Perceval Press. Three young kids, including my son who lives in Dublin, are the heroes.

BLDGBLOG: How’d that come about?

Davis: It all arose out of the fact that, in 1998, I got this MacArthur Foundation money – and I just wasted it all [laughter]. My kids and I went to the four corners of the earth. I took my son to east Greenland, and one night – because the sun never sets, and the sled dogs howl into the wee hours – he asked me to tell him a story, and I spun it off into a novel. But that’s as far as I’ll get. I mean, living in LA as long as I have, the one thing you learn is: stay away from Hollywood. Never, ever contemplate writing a screenplay or getting involved in a movie; it’s just a graveyard of talented people. I’ve literally seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by the allure of that kind of stuff. And I’ve never had the slightest desire to do it. If I wrote fiction it would be very forgettable.

BLDGBLOG: So if Ridley Scott called you in to write his next screenplay you’d have to refuse?

Davis: I’ve seen people I admire greatly – hugely talented, much greater writers than I am – just crash and burn and destroy their lives: partially because they never learned the difference between good writing and Hollywood. It’s the same way with the seduction of becoming a public intellectual, having lots of fans, and reading in bookstores all the time – which I’ve learned to run away from with horror. Right now I’m trying to simplify my life by cutting out as much of that stuff as possible, because I’m having a ball with my two two-year olds, hanging out in Balboa Park everyday.


(BLDGBLOG owes an enormous thanks to Mike Davis for his time, patience, and willingness to see this discussion through to completion. All drawings used in this interview are by Leah Beeferman – who also deserves a big thanks. Don’t miss part one).

Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis (pt. 1)

I first discovered Mike Davis’s work about a decade ago, through his book City of Quartz, a detailed and poetic look at the social geography of Los Angeles. Perhaps most memorably, City of Quartz describes the militarization of public space in LA, from the impenetrable “panic rooms” of Beverly Hills mansions to the shifting ganglands of South Central. Not only does the Los Angeles Police Department use “a geo-synchronous law enforcement satellite” in their literal oversight of the city, but “thousands of residential rooftops have been painted with identifying street numbers, transforming the aerial view of the city into a huge police grid.” In Los Angeles today, “carceral structures have become the new frontier of public architecture.”


A more wide-ranging book is Davis’s 2002 collection Dead Cities. The book ends with an invigorating bang: its final section, called “Extreme Science,” is a perfect example of how Davis’s work remains so consistently interesting. We come across asteroid impacts, prehistoric mass extinctions, Victorian disaster fiction, planetary gravitational imbalances, and even the coming regime of human-induced climate change, all in a book ostensibly dedicated to West Coast American urbanism.
Of course, Mike Davis’s particular breed of urban sociology has found many detractors – detractors who accuse Davis of falsifying his interviews, performing selective research, deliberately amplifying LA’s dark side (whether that means plate tectonics, police brutality, or race riots), and otherwise falling prey to battles in which Davis’s classically Marxist approach seems both inadequate and outdated. In fact, these criticisms are all justified in their own ways – yet I still find myself genuinely excited whenever a new book of his hits the bookshop display tables.
In any case, the following interview took place after the publication of Davis’s most recent book, Planet of Slums. Having reviewed that book for the Summer 2006 issue of David Haskell’s Urban Design Review, I won’t dwell on it at length here; but Planet of Slums states its subject matter boldy, on page one. There, Davis writes that we are now at “a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural.”
This “urban” population will not find its home inside cities, however, but deep within horrific mega-slums where masked riot police, raw human sewage, toxic metal-plating industries, and emerging diseases all violently co-exist with literally billions of people. Planet of Slums quickly begins to read like some Boschian catalog of our era’s most nightmarish consequences. The future, to put it non-judgmentally, will be interesting indeed.
Mike Davis and I spoke via telephone.


BLDGBLOG: First, could you tell me a bit about the actual writing process of Planet of Slums? Was there any travel involved?

Davis: This was almost entirely an armchair journey. What I tried to do was read as much of the current literature on urban poverty, in English, as I could. Having four children, two of them toddlers, I only wish I could visit some of these places. On the other hand, I write from our porch, with a clear view of Tijuana, a city I know fairly well, and that’s influenced a lot of my thinking about these issues – although I tried scrupulously to avoid putting any personal journalism into the narrative.

Really, the book is just an attempt to critically survey and synthesize the literature on global urban poverty, and to expand on this extraordinarily important report of the United Nations – The Challenge of Slums – which came out a few years ago.

BLDGBLOG: So you didn’t visit the places you describe?

Davis: Well, I was initially anticipating writing a much longer book, but when I came to what should have been the second half of Planet of Slums – which looks at the politics of the slum – it became just impossible to rely on secondary or specialist literature. I’m now collaborating on a second volume with a young guy named Forrest Hylton, who’s lived for several years in Colombia and Bolivia. I think his first-hand experience and knowledge makes up for most of my deficiencies, and he and I are now producing the second book.


BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about the vocabulary that you use to describe this new “post-urban geography” of global slums: regional corridors, polycentric webs, diffuse urbanism, etc. I’m wondering if you’ve found any consistent forms or structures now arising, as cities turn away from centralized, geographically obvious locations, becoming fractal, slum-like sprawl.

Davis: First of all, the language with which we talk about metropolitan entities and larger-scale urban systems is already eclectic because urban geographers avidly debate these issues. I think there’s little consensus at all about the morphology of what lies beyond the classical city.

The most important debates really arose through discussions of urbanization in southern China, Indonesia, and southeast Asia – and that was about the nature of peri-urbanization on the dynamic periphery of large Third World cities.

BLDGBLOG: And “peri-urbanization” means what?

Davis: It’s where the city and the countryside interpenetrate. The question is: are you, in fact, looking at a snapshot of a very dynamic or perhaps chaotic process? Or will this kind of hybrid quality be preserved over any length of time? These are really open questions.

There are several different discussions here: one on larger-order urban systems – similar to the Atlantic seaboard or Tokyo-Yokohama, where metropolitan areas are linked in continuous physical systems. But then there’s this second debate about the spill-over into the countryside, this new peri-urban reality, where you have very complex mixtures of slums – of poverty – crossed with dumping grounds for people expelled from the center – refugees. Yet amidst all this you have small, middle class enclaves, often new and often gated. You find rural laborers trapped by urban sweatshops, at the same time that urban settlers commute to work in agricultural industries.

This, in a way, is the most interesting – and least-understood – dynamic of global urbanization. As I try to explain in Planet of Slums, peri-urbanism exists in a kind of epistemological fog because it’s not well-studied. The census data and social statistics are notoriously incomplete.


BLDGBLOG: So it’s more a question of how to study the slums – who and what to ask, and how to interpret that data? Where to get your funding from?

Davis: At the very least, it’s a challenge of information. Interestingly, this has also become the terrain of a lot of Pentagon thinking about urban warfare. These non-hierarchical, labyrinthine peripheries are what many Pentagon thinkers have fastened onto as one of the most challenging terrains for future wars and other imperial projects. I mean, after a period in which the Pentagon was besotted with trendy management theory – using analogies with Wal-Mart and just-in-time inventory – it now seems to have become obsessed with urban theory – with architecture and city planning. This is happening particularly through things like the RAND Corporation’s Arroyo Center, in Santa Monica.

The U.S. has such an extraordinary ability to destroy hierarchical urban systems, to take out centralized urban structures, but it has had no success in the Sadr Cities of the world.

BLDGBLOG: I don’t know – they leveled Fallujah, using tank-mounted bulldozers and Daisy Cutter bombs –

Davis: But the city was soon re-inhabited by the same insurgents they tried to force out. I think the slum is universally recognized by military planners today as a challenge. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a great leap forward in our understanding of what’s happening on the peripheries of Third World cities because of the needs of Pentagon strategists and local military planners. For instance, Andean anthropology made a big leap forward in the 1960s and early 1970s when Che Guevara and his guerilla fighters became a problem.

I think there’s a consensus, both on the left and the right, that it’s the slum peripheries of poor Third World cities that have become a decisive geopolitical space. That space is now a military challenge – as much as it is an epistemological challenge, both for sociologists and for military planners.


BLDGBLOG: What kind of imaginative role do you see slums playing today? On the one hand, there’s a kind of CIA-inspired vision of irrational anti-Americanism, mere breeding grounds for terrorism; on the other, you find books like The Constant Gardener, in which the Third World poor are portrayed as innocent, naive, and totally unthreatening, patiently awaiting their liberal salvation. Whose imaginination is it in which these fantasies play out?

Davis: I think, actually, that if Blade Runner was once the imaginative icon of our urban future, then the Blade Runner of this generation is Black Hawk Down – a movie I must admit I’m drawn to to see again and again. Just the choreography of it – the staging of it – is stunning. But I think that film really is the cinematic icon for this new frontier of civilization: the “white man’s burden” of the urban slum and its videogame-like menacing armies, with their RPGs in hand, battling heroic techno-warriors and Delta Force Army Rangers. It’s a profound military fantasy. I don’t think any movie since The Sands of Iwo Jima has enlisted more kids in the Marines than Black Hawk Down. In a moral sense, of course, it’s a terrifying film, because it’s an arcade game – and who could possibly count all the Somalis that are killed?

BLDGBLOG: It’s even filmed like a first-person shooter. Several times you’re actually watching from right behind the gun.

Davis: It’s by Ridley Scott, isn’t it?

BLDGBLOG: Yeah – which is interesting, because he also directed Blade Runner.

Davis: Exactly. And he did Black Rain, didn’t he?

BLDGBLOG: The cryptic threat of late-1980s Japan…

Davis: Ridley Scott – more than anyone in Hollywood – has really defined the alien Other.

Of course, in reality, it’s not white guys in the Rangers who make up most of the military presence overseas: it’s mostly slum kids themselves, from American inner cities. The new imperialism – like the old imperialism – has this advantage, that the metropolis itself is so violent, with such concentrated poverty, that it produces excellent warriors for these far-flung military campaigns. I remember reading a brilliant book once by a former professor of mine, at the University of Edinburgh, on British imperial warfare in the nineteenth century. He showed, against every expectation, that, in fact, most often for the British Army, in imperial wars, what was decisive wasn’t their possession of better weapons, or artillery, or Maxim guns: it was the ability of the British soldier to engage in personal carnage, hand-to-hand combat, up close with bayonets – and that was strictly a function of the brutality of life in British slums.

Now, if you read the literature on warfare today, this is what the Pentagon’s really capitalizing on: they’re using the American inner city as a kind of combat laboratory, in addition to these urban test ranges they’ve built to study their new technologies. The slum dwellers’ response to this, and it’s a response that has yet to be answered – and maybe it’s unanswerable – is the poor man’s Air Force: the car bomb. That’s the subject of another book I’m finishing up right now, a short history of the car bomb. That has to be one of the most decisive military innovations of the late twentieth century. If you look at what’s happening in Iraq, it may be the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that are killing Americans, but what’s just ripping that country apart is these fortified car bomb attacks. The car bomb has given poor people in slums – small groups and networks – a new, extremely traumatic kind of geopolitical leverage.

What’s happened, I think, at the end of the 20th century – and at the beginning of the 21st – is that the outcasts have discovered these extraordinarily cheap and horrific weapons. That’s why I argue, in Planet of Slums, that they have “the gods of chaos” on their side.


BLDGBLOG: Beyond a turn toward violence and insurgency, do you see any intentional, organized systems of self-government emerging in the slums? Is there a slum “mayor,” for instance, or a kind of slum city hall? In other words, who would a non-military power negotiate with in the first place?

Davis: Organization in the slums is, of course, extraordinarily diverse. The subject of the second book – that I’m writing with Forrest Hylton – will be what kinds of trends and unities exist within that diversity. Because in the same city – for instance, in a large Latin American city – you’ll find everything from Pentacostal churches to the Sendero Luminoso, to reformist organizations and neoliberal NGOs. Over very short periods of time there are rapid swings in popularity from one to the other – and back. It’s very difficult to find a directionality in that, or to predict where things might go.

But what is clear, over the last decade, is that the poor – and not just the poor in classical urban neighborhoods, but the poor who, for a long time, have been organized in leftwing parties, or religious groups, or populist parties – this new poor, on the fringes of the city, have been organizing themselves massively over the last decade. You have to be struck by both the number and the political importance of some of these emerging movements, whether that’s Sadr, in Iraq, or an equivalent slum-based social movement in Buenos Aires. Clearly, in the last decade, there have been dramatic increases in the organization of the urban poor, who are making new and, in some cases, unprecedented demands for political and economic participation. And where they are totally excluded, they make their voices heard in other ways.

BLDGBLOG: Like using car bombs?

Davis: I mean taking steps toward formal democracy. Because the other part of your question concerns the politics of poor cities. I’m sure that somebody could write a book arguing that one of the great developments of the last ten or fifteen years has been increased democratization in many cities. For instance, in cities that did not have consolidated governments, or where mayors were appointed by a central administration, you now have elections, and elected mayors – like in Mexico City.

What’s so striking, in almost all of these cases, is that even where there’s increased formal democracy – where more people are voting – those votes actually have little consequence. That’s for two reasons: one is because the fiscal systems of big cities in the Third World are, with few exceptions, so regressive and corrupt, with so few resources, that it’s almost impossible to redistribute those resources to voting people. The second reason is that, in so many cities – India is a great example of this – when you have more populist or participatory elections, the real power is simply transferred into executive agencies, industrial authorities, and development authorities of all kinds, which tend to be local vehicles for World Bank investment. Those agencies are almost entirely out of the control of the local people. They may even be appointed by the state or by a provisional – sometimes national – government.

This means that the democratic path to control over cities – and, above all, control over resources for urban reform – remains incredibly elusive in most places.


(This interview continues in Part Two. For another, recent two-part interview with Mike Davis, see TomDispatch: Part 1, Part 2. All drawings used in this interview are by Leah Beeferman, who was also behind BLDGBLOG’s Helicopter Archipelago).

Katrina 1: Levee City (on military hydrology)

[Policing the earth: a military helicopter surveys a flooded metropolis under martial law.]

It’s too easy, not to mention slightly vindictive, to blame all of hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic impact and aftermath on the Army Corps of Engineers; but it is worth remembering that New Orleans – in fact the near totality of the lower Mississippi delta – is a manmade landscape that has become, over the last century at least, something of a military artifact. To say that New Orleans is, today, under martial law, is therefore almost redundant: its very landscape, for at least the last century, has never been under anything *but* martial law. The lower Mississippi delta is literally nothing less than landscape design by army hydrologists.
New Orleans as military hydrology.
Or, military urbanism as a hydrological project.
According to The Economist, “For much of the 20th century the federal government tampered with the Mississippi, to help shipping and – ironically – prevent floods. In the process it destroyed some 1m acres of coastal marshland around New Orleans – something which suited property developers, but removed much of the city’s natural protection against flooding. The city’s system of levees, itself somewhat undermaintained, was not able to cope.”
When even people within the Army Corps of Engineers began to warn that the hubristic landscape design methods of the US military might actually be inappropriate for what is a very muscular, flood-prone, not-to-be-fucked-with drainage basin, the warnings were taken – well, frankly, they were probably taken to be blatantly unpatriotic, knowing what’s happened to this country. But I digress.
“There is an irony,” The Economist elsewhere continues, “in this warning coming from the Corps of Engineers. Just as with the Everglades in Florida, New Orleans’s vulnerability has been exacerbated by the corps’ excellence in reshaping nature’s waterways to suit mankind’s whims. In the middle of the last century, engineers succeeded in re-plumbing the great Mississippi… [which simply] hastened erosion of the coastal marshes that used to buffer New Orleans, leaving the city needlessly exposed. Most of the metropolitan area lies below sea level on drained swamp land. Levees normally hold back the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, but those were not designed to handle the waters that would come with such a powerful hurricane.”
Those same levees, in fact, as we all know, are actually now responsible for keeping the flood waters in:


“‘We’ve been living in this bowl,’ said Shea Penland, a coastal geologist who has studied storm threats to Louisiana for years,” in an interview with The New York Times. “‘And then Katrina broke channels into the bowl and the bowl filled. And now the bowl is connected to the Gulf of Mexico. We are going to have to close those inlets and then pump it dry.'”
But pumping the flooded city dry will be a “hard task,” according to the somewhat characteristic understatement of the BBC, in an article that then outlines the various steps of the engineering strategy involved (included new causeways, steel sheets, and 300-lb. sandbags).
But even if New Orleans is “pumped dry,” even if the city is eventually drained, even if commerce returns and the Big Easy’s population goes back to life as usual, there is still a much larger problem to face.
The Economist: “America’s Geological Survey has estimated that if nothing is done by 2050, Louisiana will lose another 700 square miles of coastal wetlands. Various local groups have long called for reconstruction of the marshes along the lines of the troubled $10 billion Everglades rejuvenation project. The New Orleans version, which would cost $4 billion more, would divert some 200,000 cubic feet of water each second from the Mississippi 60 miles through a channel to feed the existing marsh and to build two new deltas. The plan, which would also shut canals and locks to keep out salt water and would build artificial barrier islands, may find more adherents.”
Artificial barrier islands; 200,000 cubic feet of water each second; two new deltas: if at first you don’t succeed… try ever more elaborate feats of hydrological engineering. More of the disease is the cure for the disease. (See here for a much older – yet no less impressive for being small-scale – example of complex hydrological engineering).
Katrina, in this context, becomes a problem of landscape design.
The “hurricane” as an atmospherically-interactive, military-hydrological landscape problem.

[NASA satellite image: the Mississippi delta – several hundred square miles smaller than it should be.]

It’s a question, in other words, of human geotechnical constructions and how they interact with the complex dynamics of the earth’s tropical atmosphere and waterways.


[Image: Nearly all of the Atlantic’s equatorial reserves of warm water contributed to the strength of the storm. A few levees didn’t stand a chance.]
So what may soon become known as the destruction of New Orleans was simply the violent and undeniable clarification of how bad certain examples of landscape architecture really can be. This should surprise no one – horrify everyone, but surprise no one.




[Images: The total collapse of the manmade landscape has all but drowned the city, turning it, in the words of the Associated Press, into “a ruined city awash in perhaps thousands of corpses, under siege from looters, and seething with anger and resentment”; and the complete failure of urban infrastructure – including federal emergency response, management, and planning, which has hamstrung itself by sending first-responders to fight in Iraq – has made what is fundamentally a problem of landscape design much worse.]

Financially, could things have been different? Could the money now being spent in Iraq and on bogus Homeland Security projects have gone elsewhere – into FEMA, for instance, or into hydrologically better-designed levee projects on the outskirts of New Orleans? Or into some of those “artificial barrier islands” mentioned above (that BLDGBLOG would love to help design)?
Yes, the money could have been spent differently. But is further entrenching a particular manmade landscape – really, a kind of prosthetic earth’s surface, a concrete shell, of valves, dams, locks, levees, and holding ponds installed upon the lower Mississippi – really the answer? Perhaps; but equally possible is that *there should not be a city there*.


As Mike Davis writes in *Dead Cities*: “Nature is constantly straining against its chains: probing for weak points, cracks, faults, even a speck of rust. The forces at its command are of course colossal as a hurricane and as invisible as a baccilli. At either end of the scale, natural energies are capable of opening breaches that can quickly unravel the cultural order. (…) Environmental control demands continuous investment and systematic maintenance: whether building a multi-billion-dollar flood control system or simply weeding the garden. It is an inevitably Sisyphean labor.”
Davis then describes the 19th century novel *After London: or, Wild England* by Richard Jefferies, a book in which “the medievalized landscape of postapocalyptic England” is explored “less [as] a nightmare than [as] a deep ecologist’s dreamwish of wild powers re-enthroned. (William Morris reported that ‘absurd hopes curled around my heart as I read it.’)”
After its destruction, then, this is London: “As fields, house sites, and roads were overrun, the saplings of new forests appeared. Elms, ashes, oaks, sycamores, and horse chestnuts thrived chaotically in the ruins while more disciplined copses of fir, beech, and nut trees relentlessly expanded their circumferences.”
The city is soon home to huge flocks of kestrel hawks and owls; wild cattle; and thousands and thousands of cats, “now mostly grayish and longer in body than domestic ancestors.” (As per the film *Logan’s Run* – or see CNN: “New Orleans residents who return to their homes [will] face ‘a wilderness’ without power and drinking water that will be infested with poisonous snakes and fire ants.”)
Eventually, Davis recounts, “new species or subspecies [evolve] out of other former domesticates, (…) [and] the monstrous vegetative powers of feral nature begin a full-scale assault on London’s brick, stone, and iron skeleton.”
“As marsh recovered the floodplain, (…) [t]he hydraulic pressure of the flooded substratum of the city – underground passages, sewers, cellars, and drains – soon burst the foundations of homes and buildings, which in turn crumbled into rubble heaps, further impeding drainage.”
A “200-mile-long inland sea” soon forms: “Jefferies’s extinct London, in short, is a giant stopped-up toilet, threatening death as an ‘inevitable fate’ to anyone foolish enough to expose themselves to its poisonous miasma.”
It becomes, that is, a flooded city.

[Image: A corpse floats in the oil-coated lake that was once New Orleans.]

This thread continues in Katrina 2: New Atlantis (on flooded cities); and Katrina 3: Two anti-hurricane projects (on landscape climatology) – both on BLDGBLOG.