Small Wars Journal

A Better Approach to Urban Operations: Treat Cities like Human Bodies

A Better Approach to Urban Operations: Treat Cities like Human Bodies by John Spencer and John Amble - Modern War Institute

Mosul has been wrested from the three-year-old grasp of ISIS. In Raqqa, the cityscape is one of ruin and devastation as efforts to dislodge the group continue apace there, as well. However, a fundamental question remains. Each city has thus far survived the ISIS-related ills that have plagued it, but will they survive and recover from the massively destructive efforts to expel the group?

The honest answer is that we simply don’t know, largely because we don’t fully understand the cities themselves—their strengths, their vulnerabilities, the characteristics they share with other urban settings and those that are unique to them. But equally troubling is that we—the US military—don’t have the means or a method of dealing with urban security challenges that would have been any less destructive than those of the Iraqi forces in Mosul or the anti-ISIS forces fighting street by street in Raqqa. We, too, would have had little recourse other than essentially destroying the cities in order to save them.

Both of these problems stem from a common cause—the lack of a framework that helps us both to conceptualize cities and to map the effects on those cities of military operations in them. Among those that have been put forward, one in particular has gained some traction but deserves much more: understanding cities as dynamic living organisms.

Authors like Abel Wolman, Joel Tarr, David Kilcullen, and a recent cohort of the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group have argued that cities can be understood by looking at their “metabolic flows.” Like living organisms, these authors have shown how cities rely on material (food, air, water, electrical power, fuel), economic, and information inflows while also creating waste outflows, both vital to keeping the city alive. Building on this analogy can help not only to further understand cities, but also to know better how to treat them when they suffer any of a range of ills.

The analogy is useful first and most obviously as a sort of anatomical (or geographic) one. As the body has its core and appendages, a city has a core and peripheries; cells flows through a complex system of vessels just as people, resources, and information flow through a similarly complex infrastructure network; both the human body and the city are complex and adaptive, and both have dependence patterns between their constituent parts that can range from completely obvious to almost entirely hidden to anything but the most expert observer…

Read on.