Divided Cities: A Review

Really quite excellent, Divided Cities covers a tremendous amount of ground in a relatively small number of pages. Exploring five cities divided by conflict – Belfast, in the wake of the Troubles; Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War; Jerusalem between 1947 and and the Six-Day War (and again after 2003, in an epilogue); Mostar in Bosnia, caught between Serbs and Croats; and Nicosia, Cyprus. The divisions and partitions take many different forms: the “Green Lines” that split Jerusalem and Beirut in two and which continue to separate Turkish and Greek halves of Cyprus, the no-man’s-land of the Boulevard of National Revolution in Mostar, and the “interface barriers” erected as needed to separate quarrelsome and violent factions in Belfast.

Each city is given a chapter covering both the history of the tensions and fighting leading to its partition (and subsequent reunion, in some cases), including some much-needed and illustrative maps. I’ll confess my own prior ignorance of much of the details around these specific conflicts, and for filling in those gaps alone, the book was worth it (e.g. the 1990s Balkan wars, the Lebanese Civil War, Israel between the end of World War II and the Six-Day War, the Cypriot independence struggle). But you also begin to get a sense of these cities caught in the middle of something larger, the innocent civilian populations who are made to suffer for another’s cause, the neighbors and friends who turn on each other in the midst of civil wars and sectarian uprisings.

Maps of the five cities covered in Divided Cities.

The last few chapters attempt to discern patterns and commonalities across these disparate cases, at times leading to counterintuitive findings. In Belfast, for instance, individual barriers are still erected by request in areas where Catholic and Protestant enclaves meet. Rather than see the design and construction of them as somehow legitimizing the sentiments that lead to them, urban planners and managers ought to recognize that these really are desired by residents for a sense of security, and that this is one of the most fundamental casualties of conflict. The need for a wall is not something to argue with, but rather to engage with and shape and turn into something more than yet another dead zone on the periphery (Divided Cities is accompanied throughout by haunting photos of the empty border zones between enclaves and the deserted, formerly thriving central mixing areas where they once met).

This tension is explored in depth. Planners fear their work becoming “politicized,” but as can be seen even in the peacetime west, that’s almost an inevitability regardless of specifics or location. As one planner in Mostar said, “planning is always a compromise between a profession and the politics – 50 percent approximately…however, today’s politics outweigh the profession. Its share in deciding today is 95 percent and above.” The key for the planner in a divided city is to get one’s hands dirty; to not refrain from participating in the design of the built environment, however far from ideal it might be.

Other findings seem to apply almost as equally to the subject cities as to today’s increasingly stratified, bifurcated urban polities: “Observable results [of urban partitions] include increased mutual avoidance, apathy, a growing conviction that a rival group uis responsible for assorted social ills, and a lack of interest concerning the activities of residents on the other side of the partition [emphasis mine].”

Many of the cities featured in this survey were divided as a result of British imperial withdrawal. Britain’s colonial preference of favoring a chosen ethnicity or other particular group – at the expense of the others – is well-documented in Jerusalem and, of course, Belfast, and London’s dithering over the Cypriot crisis coupled with an inability to broker a compromise led to the island’s inhabitants taking measures into their own hands. Britain’s persistence in devising constitutions and legislatures predicated on ethnic quotas and representations led to an emphasis on in-group/out-group identity that did not exist in the same way prior to their rule. The legacies of empire continue to last and to linger over these divided lands.

Other similarities emerge, at times verging on the repetitive, but the point is an important one: partition leads to, among other things, a senseless duplication of infrastructure and services, to second fire and police and school and transport and sanitation systems that further drain the already-reduced resources of a city in recovery.

But there is also grounds for hope. Nicosia’s sewage system is impossible to duplicate for a separate northern and southern system, and so a single unified treatment plant and sewers are run jointly by Turkish and Greek engineers. Finding room to cooperate where possible – particularly on a local level, where politicians and leaders are less beholden to national sentiments and resentments – is key to overcoming hatreds and unnecessary redundancy. But this doesn’t come naturally to a divided city.

The lessons of Divided Cities are as relevant as ever. The book was written during the occupation of Baghdad, when US forces erected their own barricades and insisted on religious quotas for the Council of Representatives, ascribing much of the violence in the country to a Sunni-Shia divided (rather than other local causes). With cities frequently cited as the next major battlefield for the militaries of the world, finding a new approach without unnecessary partition will be key to avoiding new sectarian violence. But thanks to this book, we can begin to chart a path forward.

Cross-posted [mostly] from Goodreads.

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