Viewing entries tagged
urban conflict

The Dark Side of Urban Resilience

Segregated Distribution of Resources.   Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012, Turkmenistan.
Resilience is a much loved subject these days. I have written extensively in the past about the over reliance on trends in the field of urban planning, including the notion of resilience. But of course there are times that these concepts can be useful, if at least, as a point of reference when exploring a problem. There is also some excellent work out there on the subject, most notably the research undertaken by Diane Davis. Recently, I was discussing with a client the overlap between escalating gang violence the over-burdened transportation system in Tegucigalpa, Honduras when a very simple, but overly ignored notion, occurred to me. The same systems of resilience that are believed to improve cities are also the same systems that undermine their progress.

Before I explore this further, I feel it is necessary to give some background on my understanding of resilience. Earlier this year, in June 2014, I was invited to attend a two-day event entitled The City Resilient, in New York City. Hosting a diverse collection of experts to explore the role of resilience in cities, it was clear that no universally agreed upon definition exists for this concept. I'll never forget when the question "what is needed for resilience" received a response from one guy of "dog parks." I understand his point (nodes for social interaction etc), but if I were to tell the Mayor of Kabul, Mohamed Yunis, to build a dog park... lets just say I'd rather not.

Resilience theory was first introduced in 1973 by Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling and is founded on the premise that humans and nature co-evolve as a single socio-ecological system and this system is constantly in flux. Resilience does not consist of a linear pathway but is composed of interrelated feedbacks, is self organizing, and adaptive. To assess the how a system can engage and absorb stress is to establish not only a series of measurements for a singular system, but to also measure the interaction of micro-systems. Within resiliency theory there is no true homeostasis; rather resilience entails flexibility and turbulence.

From an urban planning perspective, I suspect resilience is a difficult concept to use because a resilient urban system is not necessarily the most efficient. Resilience is about decentralization, a concept frequently at odds with city budgets, management practices and the politics of city government. Constant flux also goes against the grain of the planning profession. The inability of urban planners to implement the concept of resilience is in many ways the fault of the disciplinary structure, as planning is a positivist discipline that attempts to solve problems by implementing empirically organized procedure, and is most often exercised through the construction of large-scale projects such as sports stadiums, shopping centers and residential housing complexes.

In the end, we are left with old school empiricists trying to embrace a fluid concept. Or we might have more dynamic thinkers limited to antiquated tools. Or maybe the tools - dog parks - appear trivial but it is impossible to measure the impact? In many ways, this problem summarizes much of what I find frustrating about the planning profession - the problems are engaging, the empiricism is satisfying, but the tools and the objectives are constantly outdated or are actually irrelevant. Unfortunately, like any discipline, the perception of the participants is restricted by mastery and engagement with discipline itself - this it the same reason thousands of kids go to art school every year to be uniquely creative but as an aggregate, churn out art that all looks the same.

Anyway, the interaction of fragmented, seemingly disparate urban phenomena within the built environment is critical to the sustainable wellbeing of a resilient settlement. To intervene in a manner that adds more pieces to the problem, more micro-systems, is to congest the city and undermine its resilience. I believe this problem can be dealt with in many ways, if we were to adopt a more Bayesian and sequentialist approach to the problem, such as embraced by my own Integrated Planning Process™. But regardless of the method, we can identify that observable benefits and improved health of one site is often due to the offset conditions of other locations, one location enjoys business growth yet an adjacent market weakens. This is not to imply a zero-sum scenario but merely to identify that overall capacity toward sustainable development is not improved. In contrast, the increased resilience is actually a redistribution of existing resources, but often not.

This is where the role of resilience becomes more complex when utilized as a method to improve cities. This also how resilience can harm a city. When an urban environment is healthy, there is a multitude of linkages, and a multitude of "spaces of flow" (to borrow from Castells), which allow the circulation of resources. Yet when an environment is insecure due to crime, war, or insurgency, the instigators of conflict appropriate the micro-systems that contribute toward urban health for their own means (either directly or indirectly). Roads and irrigation systems that once supported the local economy now become systems for the production and shipping of drugs, facilitate the proliferation of arms, and mobilize insurgent fighters. Adjacent micro-systems respond to these changes and the overall urban fabric of the settlement takes on a new shape. The more linkages and circulatory spaces, the more success a broadly distributed network of illicit activity will be able to succeed. The faster the disease spreads and embeds itself, the more resilient it becomes. Eventually the landscape conforms to the demands of the disease - the farms fund the bad guys, the streets serve as their delivery routes, and the cops work for them.

The negative influence of bad guys does not exist in a vacuum. To be clear, an ongoing socio-economic and cultural transformation of the community under the power of the militant group is reflected within the built environment. Drug cartels in Latin America are dependent upon the same transportation, agricultural, and economic systems as everyone else. Understanding the built environment within a conflict is to recognize the nuances of the multi-tiered stage on which conflict is played out. Those who understand the terrain and can connect the terrain to the community will have an advantage and will be resilient to change. But those who have the power to reorient the shape of the urban fabric and restructure the resilience of the site will control the outcome. So by this argument, if I tackle the traffic problem in Tegucigalpa (nowadays considered the most dangerous city in the world), I have the potential to also impact the complex criminal networks that presently dominate the landscape. But to do so, I must identify precisely how the traffic functions within the criminal system.

If the resilience of crime functions upon the same systems of resilience that help communities, establishing security and stability for socio-economic growth is more than a simple matter of removing the people who initiate violence. Security and positive urban resilience requires interventions into to the built environment to reshape the urban fabric so as to maximize local resources, not just redistribute them. But what we do call an intervention designed to remix the building blocks of resilient systems and transform them into socially productive components? I like to call it nothing but good planning.

Deep Water in a Geography of Conflict

Water tap in Lesotho.  Photo for Sutika Sipus LLC by David Lazar, 2013.
I once watched an engineering team install a well in a high-traffic area of a refugee camp in Kenya.  It was an easily accessible public space and it was close to a road making the job easier to bring the equipment and install the well.  After installing the well, the team made sure it worked, and went on to their next project, I believe somewhere in Thailand.  But a few strange things happened during the project and for a long time afterward.

1.  Many mornings the team would arrive to the site and discover the well had been destroyed.  In the middle of the desert with few other working wells nearby, why anyone would repeatedly destroy this precious resource?

2.  At times while working the project, children would throw rocks at the team, and their parents would simply look on, allowing the children to abuse the people who had come to provide a better quality of life with clean, accessible water.

3. When the project team finished the project (clearly after many delays) they exited and people began to use the well.  Within a matter of days there were violent, physical fights among locals at the site of the well.

What does this mean? From the outside, it is easy to say that the engineering team was doing a good thing in the refugee camp and that the local population was disrespectful out of heathen ignorance. Unfortunately stories like the above tend to fuel racism and prejudice among people in developed nations more than actually teach the deeper lessons.

Unpacking the situation is not easy.  To break it down I've composed the simple table below.



Outcomes
Without realizing it, the engineering team had thrust themselves into the spatial center of a long-standing problem of inadequate government policy and local social tensions.  Not only was the project in the geographic center of two populations with a history of conflict, but a series of poorly implemented technologies in the past left these populations with an immediate distrust of any new intervention.  In addition, by not formally interacting with the people living near the well at the outset of the project, their project was seen as an intrusion not a benefit.  Certainly another place to access water is appreciated, but many in the community knew that it would be another finite resource to drive arguments and conflict, not an asset.  But why tell this to the project team?  After all, the engineers were not even polite enough to introduce themselves let alone ask for advice.  Clearly they were the experts.


Beyond
The lessons of this case study should be easy to recognize.  The most basic infrastructure project is not merely a technical process, it is also a social process.  There may have also been actions within the community to mitigate the future problems.  For example, it is possible that the nightly acts of sabotage were intended to force the engineers to create a better and more resilient water well, considering the long history of inadequate infrastructure in the camps (see the context of the chart).  Maybe previous complaints had been ignored?  Unfortunately we can't be certain.

If the team established valid, working relationships among stakeholders in the water well project it would have prevented many of the negative consequences.  It would not have required extensive work by the project team, but maybe one week of interacting with the locals, asking questions, and learning about their lives could have led to a more strategically located intervention with clear lines of ownership, and the cooperation of the community in the project creation.   

The community doesn't necessarily need to be part of the development process, but they certainly have the right to know the project process and objectives in advance. Where relationships cannot be established (such as the long history of conflict between the tribes), at least discovering and acknowledging those obstacles could have provided with the engineers the data necessary to create a better project design.  We cannot know if it may would have become more successful, but at the minimum, it would not have introduced new problems.

Planning for the Future Reconstruction of Syria from Chaos and Complexity



The world is abuzz over the current civil war and the possibility of external military intervention in Syria.  While the conversation is primarily focussed on the use of chemical weapons in violation of the Geneva Charter, there has been little discussion about the long-term implications of the civil war, regardless of the role imposed by outside militaries.  What will be the result of so much bloodshed and how will the nation rebuild?  In what form?

Spatial Distribution of Conflict.  August 2013.
The severity of physical and social damage established in the last two years, broad distribution of conflict and the lack of unity among non-state actors within the conflict suggests that the civil war will be a long one, perhaps 10 years or more.   The resolution to this will not be political process as the lack of clearly established leadership among rebel groups positions no one to pursue negotiations with the State.  The massive refugee outflow, consisting 50% of children, weakens the social fabric of the nation and will continue to do so.


Engineering A New Outcome

If you discover that you are genetically predisposed toward a certain ailment, you adapt your lifestyle to mitigate the future.  You hedge your bet.  Likewise with Syria, the most probable outcome right now is protracted conflict followed by a painful reconstruction process (like Afghanistan).  But if examine the current variables, and measure the inter-relations between those variables, we can attempt to coordinate a strategy toward a desired outcome - ie., less war and more rapid recovery.   Because each variable maintains the same potential as a butterfly to inspire a hurricane, we don't have the control as we do with our bodies, but we do have the ability to better position some social and structural elements in terms of probable outcomes.  If this process were to begin now in Syria, it could potentially lead to a better future.

In this case, the goal is for the war in Syria to play out in such a manner that all relevant resources (community groups, finances, areas of destruction vs. preservation, social allegiances and so on)  are best organized for a rapid and successful reconstruction process.  The variables are numerous and so too are the methods of working with them.  So where do we begin?

The role of strategic planning and development within the battlefield is not new.  As an expansion of the Hearts and Minds campaign of Vietnam, development was heavily undertaken by NATO in the Iraq and Afghanistan and implemented via Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The PRTs were designed and operated in coordination with a broader mandate of Counter Insurgency doctrine (COIN). This was not a flawless system, it required massive layers of security that isolated the infrastructure creation process from the populations served, and when the projects were turned over to communities, unsurprisingly the outcomes were not always as hoped. Yet these methods were only viable as a strategy because of the massive allotment of resources.  Furthermore, PRTs had an inconsistent impact across regions and populations.  It is a tactic that will be likely replicated in the future but it simply won't apply in Syria.

In the recent 21 years of conflict in Somalia, intervention was limited to MSF operations, WFP, and other UN backed initiatives typically implemented by local NGOs.  In this regard, Somalia is a better region of comparison to Syria.  The problem here is that such agencies are designed only for humanitarian relief. This is essential, but it doesn't facilitate a resolution as much as institutionalize a process of triage across a fragmented society.  The inequitable distribution of services doesn't maintain a status quo as much as introduce a new variable, randomly redistributing the lines of power among a downtrodden population.  Potential outcomes vary from relief to militarization.


Urban Planning and Development In the Syrian Conflict

Typically when I tell people that I apply urban planning methods to mediate violent conflict, people imagine I'm referring to zoning and bike lanes.  Sigh... thats so boring.  But I suppose on the imaginative level there could be something here as one could argue that territorial patterns of warfare form emergent conflict zones, interconnected by supply corridors - don't forget that al-Shabaab had covered Mogadishu with a complex network of trenches to quickly mobilize troops and supplies yet also grinding the speed of territorial changes to a halt.  Yet these concepts in the current state of the conflict can only apply to analysis and not to planning outcomes.

A more pragmatic approach is to better understand the diversity of stakeholders in the conflict, as the fragmentation of non-state actors is a major obstruction to the peace process.  This obstruction was likewise a major obstacle in Afghanistan and it is no surprise that the suitcases of money provided by the CIA in 2002 to mobilize diverse ethnic groups for a common interest did not build a sustainable peace or found strong governance.  

Expanding and integrating diverse stakeholders is a cornerstone of the urban planning process, and while stable nations have the benefit of easily organizing community groups or legal proceedings,  it remains possible to mobilize stakeholders in hostile territories.  A key feature of this "non-rational" process is that it does not necessarily require strong, easily defined internal leadership.  Rather the process only requires an entity committed to the interest of all stakeholders, committed to a win/win outcome, and who can manage an otherwise neutral disposition.  Notably, this entity will not be successful if all authority is founded on outside power (US intervention for example), but rather this entity must have acquired a local, grass-roots level of respect combined with recognition among high-level community leaders.  At the moment, there is no one of this description involved in the conflict. Yet this can change.  After all, the war could take 10+ years so its completely feasible for an individual or organization to emerge to do the work.

Another critical element toward the future pacification and reconstruction of Syria is the role of the internally displaced and refugee populations.  The role of displaced populations could effect rebuilding of Syria in a combination of ways, yet two possibilities are immediately obvious.  When the war in Afghanistan drove thousands from their homeland, many children were left secluded in Pakistani refugee camps where Saudi madrasas promoted Wahabist beliefs, laying the foundation for the emergences of the Taliban.  During the same time, the war in Somalia drove thousands abroad who were then exposed to a variety cultures, educations, and lifestyles.  The return of Somalis in diaspora has made the sudden rebuilding of Somalia a possibility as they return with new social capital to invest.

Number and Location of Syrian Refugees. US State Department 2013.
At present the 1.9 million displaced refugees are primarily distributed throughout Lebanon and Turkey.  While I don't believe those nations would have a detrimental impact upon the refugee population and the long-term psycho-social advancement of the youth, it is unlikely that those nations have the resources necessary to invest.  At present, Turkey is already hosting 200,000 refugees in camps and has 200,000 refugees outside of camps.  
As you can see from the map, many of these camps are open, but it is clearly getting stretched to a limit. If it is becomes commonly accepted that the the civil war will be long and drawn out, initiatives to excel the resettlement of Syrian families into new communities could provide the investment needed for the future of Syria to be founded on socially productive and worldly populations. 

Fake Pirates, War Journalists and Old White Men

A couple guys on break or a dynamic security force? Depends on who you ask.  Afghanistan, Sutika-Sipus 2012.
I typically prefer to keep this blog limited to subjects of post-war reconstruction, but over the last few days I've been thinking a great deal about all the weirdos I've encountered along the way.  

Since 2003 I've been travelling or working in some fringe locations in the world, some of which are fairly dangerous, so its only natural that I've crossed paths with a lot of unusual personalities.  For example, Southeast Asia is full of old British men who all tout stories about their days at Oxford University, their years as a music producer touring the world, and their decision to return to the outskirts of Cambodia 15 years ago... but outside of potentially being wanted in 48 countries for arms and human trafficking, these guys seem relatively harmless over a beer.  Just don't make any future plans with them. But people that I encounter more often are the pseudo-journalists who have managed to change my perception of journalism, war, and Earnest Hemingway - and not for the better.

Today I stumbled across the article "The Somali Pirate Who Never Was," which exposes an ongoing
ruse of Kenyan-Somalis posing as Somali pirates for journalists.  The article cites Time Magazine and BBC documentaries as victims of this scam, and I find it completely believable.  Not because I have faith that the pirates to be such amazing actors, but rather because I have such little faith in war journalists.

To be fair, there are some exceptional war journalists out there.  I have massive admiration for people like Sebastian Junger who not only embed with combat units, but develop personal relationships with the subject matter and the people around them to tell the story.  But such individuals are rare.  So often when I read an article, I find it has more to do with presenting the writer as a badass than actually giving context or content.  How many articles start open with a sequence like the following:

"Driving down a dark, unpaved road in (insert conflict city here),  my driver pointed at a mud brick house and said 'we must be careful, because of the warlord (insert multi-syllabic Islamic name here) lives in that house.'  We barreled around the corner and stopped at a nondescript door when the driver nervously whispered 'we are here.  I stepped out of the car to discover an AK-47 only inches from my face."

Just one week ago a friend shared a German publication with me about the Gandamak Lodge, a bar and restaurant in central Kabul.  The article read nearly identical to what I just wrote.  Of course Gandamak, like most businesses in Kabul, has security guards, but its location is not a secret and travelling there is not an adventure.  I've also read articles exactly like this about countless African nations, refugee camps, border areas and innercity slums.  So what kind of journalist writes such over-sensationalized copy?

Every war zone or fringe location usually has one or two coffeeshops or hotels with wifi connections and decent espresso.  Inside are men and women with nice haircuts and stylish jeans, obsessing over twitter and talking about how awesome their lives are.  Most the time these individuals grew up in privileged conditions, attended reputable schools for international relations or political science, and without the burdens of student loans and lots of family support, set off to be tourists of the underdeveloped world, and occasionally publishing something between expat parties.

Thanks to the benefits of their upbringing they have a social network that facilitates access to top-tier publications and in the end, all they need to do is be somewhere to become journalists.  As for the coverage, it often doesn't stray to far from the coffeeshop, and that is the part that kills me.   Again, not all war journalists are like this, but there are plenty of the kind I describe to make your head spin.

Then there are of course the kind of journalists who "parachute" into town to swoop up a story.  I'd say this sort of coverage is often even worse because every small thing takes on exaggerated significance.  The child asking for money on the street becomes a symbol for the regional economy, the woman wearing a burka is suddenly representative of national women's rights, and the sleeping security guard at the corner store becomes a metaphor for lackluster national defense.  An entertaining story so often becomes more important than an accurate story.

I'll never forget when a friend in Juba Sudan told me that on the official day of constitutional independence, a large crowd of old white photojournalists trailed behind the central parade, documenting only the costumed dancers, but likewise looking like a parade feature themselves.  Of course they weren't there for very long, as they arrived in the morning and were on another plane that night.  I've witnessed similar reporters, often looking like he or she walked straight out of Williamsburg Brooklyn and into an IDP camp to photograph some kids pumping water from the ground and then leaving again, having contributed nothing to improve conditions but simply having been a voyeur.  Is raising awareness truly enough?  Could that person presence have contributed more to lessening the problems?

As for Earnest Hemingway, I always loved his writing and he was a childhood hero.  I also wanted to move around the globe, go on adventures, and be a good writer.  But today, I suspect I wouldn't have cared for his company.  When I read his work I sense that it is about him, its about looking like a badass and doing things specifically to have the story to tell others, not because the moment happened by chance.  What a shame.

Reinventing the Urban Interface: Service Design for Post-Conflict Cities and Landscapes

Police Checkpoint on Ashura Holiday in Kabul, Afghanistan
Sutika-Sipus 2012
Wars have never had simple, neat, clean endings.  We like to envision that they have, but after the signature of nearly every historical treaty there remain scattered battles and acts of aggression by those who refuse to accept defeat or had yet to hear the news.  Today, the lingering aftermath of war is more obvious, as it is a given that wars never end but continue to trickle onward indefinitely.  Cities such as Kabul, Juba, Mogadishu, and Bagdad are rebuilding, but are not safe or stable.  

There are many reasons for their continued instability and lots of research out there to understand why contemporary wars have no ending.  Current research as investigated the problem from diverse perspectives such as  psychology, natural resourcesepidemiology, or even the notion that conflict simply creates more conflict.  But amidst all the efforts there has been little to no examination of the physical city and its role in promoting or reducing conflict.

Unfortunately traditional methods of security greatly undermine the health and function of cities.  Giant blast walls, police and military checkpoints, and steel guard shacks hinder processes socio-economic and cultural production by disrupting the spatial pathways and linkages necessary for their distribution and replication.  

Here are some examples of how contemporary security will hinder post-conflict urban reconstruction:

  • Detours caused by road blocks force the redistribution and retarded delivery of capital  causing unnecessary losses and social inequities.  For example, the guy who collects and sells firewood must pull his heavy cart an excessive extra distance before getting to his customer base, or because he cannot access his customers, he must compete against another firewood salesman in a more accessible neighborhood, reducing profits and potentially causing territorial conflict.
  • Lack of identification among citizens and the frequency of police checkpoints disrupts the flow of goods and people, and further causes new touchpoints for conflict occur.  In developing countries, most people do not have a birth certificate let alone a license or photo identification.  Just as often the police are illiterate and after long work hours are impatient and tired.  While checkpoints are important for security, they also create points of friction in the community and can inspire new conflicts.
  • Most neighborhoods were founded and grew around tightly defined tribal identities.  Over time these tribal concepts began to deconstruct, yet the emergence of social conflict will re-inspire tribal allegiances   When communities are heavily segregated by tribe, cross-tribal interaction is more likely to motivate suspicion and hostility than friendship and commerce. When physical barricades disrupt the movement of people, it prevents opportunities to again break down tribal allegiances.

Blast walls dictate all movement and transport cooridors in Kabul
Sutika-Sipus 2013
As you see, point of security are also points of disruption and thus obfuscate healthy social interaction. The question then becomes, how can governments and institutions create a viable security infrastructure while also promoting the advancement of the city?


To solve this problem, we must imagine some future possibilities:

  • What if police checkpoints could be design and operated in such a way that 10 years from now, citizens would say "remember when we had that checkpoint?  I rather miss it, that really added something to our community."

  • What if security infrastructure, such as blast walls or Jersey-walls, were created in such a way that their identity could become absorbed into the the landscape over time?  

  • What if urban security was approached as a process of customer service, and thus techniques successful in retail could be infused within security operations?  To extent we already have this, but does a visit to the police station feel like a visit to the genius bar?  Do customers have a way to provide feedback into the service experience for improvement?  Most people are afraid of security providers, how can this be changed?

Unfortunately those with the power to initiate and conduct war continue to forget the lessons forged by existing conflicts.  Take for example the swift path to victory by the French forces in Mali.  Achieving the military victory was possible, but before the militants moved in, Northern Mali was a poor and desperate landscape.  Will it return to the same sad state of affairs?  Likely, or even more likely, it will be worse as France appears to have no viable plan for the reconstruction process.  And if they rely upon the methods currently embraced by the aid/development community of the world, they wil only partly succeed, as evidenced by the lackluster reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Certainly the communities are resilient to certain issues and people will manage to survive, but resilience does nothing to prompt the radical transformation for a sustained peace and enriched development.  It is clear that a new approach is necessary, one that transforms the landscape so as to negate the conditions which facilitate conflict.  For years my company Sutika Sipus has been developing strategies and solutions to facilitate this change, but one company is not enough, others must take part in the process as well. We need to reinvent the interface between security and society in our cities, and to do so, it is essential that we redesign the relationship between security methods and the city itself.

Karte-Seh.  Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2013

Ahmed Jama's Village Restaurant and the Future of Mogadishu Somalia

Ahmed Jama, owner of The Village Restaurant in Mogadishu. Photo Sutika Sipus 2012.
The Village Restaurant.  2012.
A few days ago I learned about a suicide bombing killing 15 people at my favorite restaurant in Mogadishu and I've been wrestling with a terrible feeling since. “The Village” is a popular destination for journalists and repatriating Somalis, owned and operated by a British Somali Man, Ahmed, who also owns a successful London  restaurant the same name.  

Ahmed attended culinary school in the UK and is a good natured, savvy, and considerate man.  The few times I’ve been to his restaurant in Mogadishu he has made a point to introduce me to anyone and everyone nearby.  I’ve met local politicians, entrepreneurs, and a man who was a truck driver in the United States for 20 years.  Bursting with energy, a melodic cockney accent and glassy eyes, this tall slender man seems like someone you would discover in a Charles Dickens novel.  Had Dickens been recounting tales of working class Mogadishu and not industrial London, he would have immediately recognized Ahmed as a robust protagonist, whose disposition and hard work were directly changing the lives of those around him and facilitating the interests of the greater good.  His optimistic nature quickly spreads to everyone around him.  He also frequently refuses to charge me for my meal, no matter how much I protest.


Ahmed's Charcoal Heated Espresso Machine. 2012.
When I learned on twitter that a young man had entered the restaurant at 6 pm and detonated a suicide vest with another attacker at gate, my stomach dropped as I immediately worried about his safety and that of his family.  

What happened was devastating, but Ahmed survived the bombing and he vows that he will not stop trying to pursue his goal to lead Mogadishu, alongside others, into a new era.  He has told me many times that he lives and works in Mogadishu because he is motivated by a goal of broad cultural change and social reform.   He has been a leader in the city's radical transformation.  He also makes an amazing cappuccino. 

Ahmed has been a great contributor to a project I've been doing with the City of Mogadishu for the last few months, and I hope that when we launch or upcoming initiative in the next 6 weeks,  it will provide something to help leverage all the work this man has done, if anything to inspire others to likewise pick up the torch and move the city forward.   We need more people like him in the world and it is imperative that they have all the support we can provide.

Urban Design and the Indefensible Space


I recall the first time I heard an architect talk about programming a building.  I imagined an elaborate process of computational mathematics and structural engineering blended with social psychology.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that programming was little more than a designer saying "this place is for walking between a and b, this place is for sitting, and this place is is for the mixed use of sitting and/or walking."  

Certainly there is some excellent work out there to understand the relationship between human activity and the predeterminations of physical space.  I have a copy of A Pattern Language sitting on my shelf and can't recommend it enough.   But so often the process of programming is approached as formulaic as master plans (frequent readers are familiar with my disdain for old fashioned master plans).  A quick google search will reveal step-by-step guides to programming, but reading through such procedures, one is simply confronted by the usual "rational strategic planning model" to identify user needs within the framework of budgets, time, and materials.  Bottom up and mixed-methods exist as well, but again, how dissimilar is programming from basic decision making?

I suspect we use the term programming because it sounds more impressive.  But more importantly, there is a desire among architects and urban designers to identify and tap into some cosmic body of knowledge that will explain the structural underpinnings of human behavior.  I'm certainly just as guilty as anyone else.  And the evidence of this desire is everywhere.  We have decades of research on central place theory and investigations into complex adaptive systems  along with today's groundbreaking research on the mathematics of cities.  


But as we mine downward into the underbelly of social order, what do we do with these new understandings?  Do we attempt to restructure all of society according to some personal vision like  Le Corbusier, or do we simply reinforce these patterns with our design efforts, even if they are imperfect? There are plenty of tools out there to understand the role of space in human activity, but how do we build upon that?  In many ways we are beginning already to implement these lessons, such as the efforts by Washington DC police to look at how land use and development trends impact changes in crime.  But in this instance, it is about redistributing police officers to points of potential crime. As an urban planner, how can I apply these same tools and concepts on behalf of governments around the world?

This issue has been on my mind a great deal lately I have been designing a public green space for construction in the spring and have been thinking a great deal about how the space can be used, and more specifically, abused.  Unique architectural features that might stimulate social responsibility or interest can easily become transformed into vantage points for sabotage, crime, and violence.  Although security has always been a critical part of city planning, the modern idea of creating a "Defensible Space"  has emerged in the 1960s when Oscar Newman was attempting to reduce crime in low-income housing communities in the US.  His conclusions such as the use of street lights, defined walkways, and indicators of clear ownership have all been successfully implemented in communities around the world to deter urban crime.  

Unique Feature or Tactical Vantage Point?
But as I work in an areas where militant aggression and terrorism are daily realities, I'm curious how I can do the opposite.  Everyday in Kabul I see big massive walls surrounded in razor-wire with reinforced steel doors and windows glazed in blast film.  Not to mention that tall buildings have been utilized multiple times now as strategic points of attack by insurgents. Just the other day I was walking past Share-e-Naw Park and I was looking at its tall iron fences, the clusters of foliage, and the undulating terrain.  Now the park isn't exactly an offensive vantage point, yet nothing about its design actually would deter or undermine an offensive actor.  In fact, many of the elements designed in line with Newman's prescriptions just would just well serve as an asset to a criminal - with limited points of entry and exit, absorbing shadows at the edge of the spot-lit walkway and continually obstructed sight-lines formed by vegetation and corner shops.  

Perhaps a better solution is to create the Indefensible Space.  A space or structure that can only be used for its intended purpose that cannot be destroyed, vandalized, or misused as a means to conduct offensive operations.  Such a space or structure could not be formulaic, but site sensitive, and its programming would emerge more from the process of responsive decision making and data collection rather than from within a studio.  But the intentional proliferation of such spaces could transform global conflict.

We already have cities full of defensive structures, and when programming a public space in a conflict zone, it cannot be assumed that the typical recipe for creating secure structures meets long-term social interests.  In fact, I would argue that the more classical interventions are utilized to secure a city, the longer that city will struggle with transitioning between conflict to post-conflict stages and beyond.  If you want to undermine the resiliency and economic sustainability of a city in conflict, then build massive walls.  But if you want to reinforce social forces to maximize social order, then a different prescription is needed.


As for cities like Kabul that are already overwhelmed by defensive architecture, the infusion of indefensible spaces into such a landscape could help lesson the oppression of concrete barriers and checkpoints.  The free-flowing indefensible spaces distributed throughout the city could bolster stability and even economic growth.


Clearly the counter-intuitive nature of the concept yields many weaknesses.  But we already have plenty of tools from which to analyze social spaces and to measure the impact of the built environment.    So how do we transform the knowledge gained through all the analytical tools into an effective programmatic and design solution remains an unrefined art.  So while my proposal for the indefensible space isn't perfect, it poses an opportunity to explore the analytics while lessoning the potential for negative consequences.  The greatest risk is that some unimaginative planner will situate a flat, empty parking lot in the middle of a city and do nothing more.  But as for the potential opportunity for design and the art of programming?  That remains to be explored.

Psycho-social healing as Urban Reconstruction and Planning in Somalia


For the last several weeks I haven't been regularly posting here on the humanitarian space, but with good reason.  I'm working on a series of projects right now that have occupied all my attention.  However, I have also been writing and submitting work for online and print publication throughout the fall. 

Today I have a new article coming out over at the Polis Blog, a collaborative blog about cities across the globe.  The article, A city in healing after two decades of war,   introduces the notion that post-war reconstruction isn't just about rebuilding streets and buildings, but is about healing and overcoming trauma.  This is specifically highlighted by the last 21 years of violence that has consumed Mogadishu, Somalia. 

Why is Post-war Reconstruction and Conflict ignored by Urban Planners

Informal housing adorns Kabul's mountains, complete with no water, no sanitation, and no roads (Photo: Sutika Sipus)
A quick look at some of the more popular urban planning websites and forums, such as Planetizen, Engaging Cities, Cyburbia, or the American Planning Association, and one will discover  articles on a vast array of issues such as rehabilitating industrial sites, methods for inclusive public participation in urban design, suburban sprawl and conservation, and occasionally the generic term "international development."  While I occasionally search these forums to see what new ideas have popped up, its disappointing to find that little of the content relates to my own daily work in cities like Kabul Afghanistan or Mogadishu Somalia, or within future projects in Libya and Nigeria.

Yet whenever I look at these forums, the same question always crosses my mind:

Why are conflict and post-war reconstruction not central to the discussion of 
 Urban Planning as a profession or Urban Planning education?

The Recently Completed Darulaman Road in Kabul (Sutika Sipus)
The topic is rarely discussed, yet reconstruction has been a mainstay of the planning profession throughout history.  One can quickly cite examples of planning and reconstruction, such as the rebuilding of London in 1666,  the rebuilding of Europe after WWII with the Marshal Plan, or the current reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.  Throughout each example there has been a massive demand for skilled individuals with the balanced knowledge of design, infrastructure, economics, and social sciences to design and implement sustainable initiatives.  In Afghanistan alone, USAID has spent 7.9 billion dollars on reconstruction efforts over the course of 10 years, with large portions of that funding directed toward road construction, agricultural development, and education.  Yet where is the discussion of Afghanistan on popular planning forums?  


So who is rebuilding cities in conflict?
In the 6 years that I've been working in urban planning, most of that time has been spent in conflicted or complex territories such as refugee camps, urban slums, or conflict cities.  Throughout this process, I've encountered only 4 other urban planners working in these environments!  There are always plenty of engineers, former military, active military, or aid/developments professionals with social, legal, and political science backgrounds but I've found that planners maintain certain advantages.
  • Planners are trained with a balance of contextual and technical knowledge that promotes clear communication between team members.
  • Planners have an innate understanding of  administrative and management skills
Defensive Perimeter, Kabul Afghanistan (Sutika Sipus)
  • Some consulting firms like to market themselves as skilled in "strategic design" but actually have little or no ability with design-thinking or the design process
  • Architects and engineers rarely have the ethnographic research skills to recognize and integrate subtle social processes into their design
  • Many architects and engineers do realize the value of basic site visits and create plans that are not consistent with the local economy or patterns in land use
  • Most professionals in social or political skills have the research skills, but are weak in areas of communication, presentation, and further more do not have the hard skills to design solutions from the research.  At best, they can only advise on policy or suggest solutions for others to design.
Because urban planners have so much to offer, I've found those working in the field of post-war reconstruction quickly gather respect by their employers and colleagues.  Sure, the sample pool is small, but it has been consistent enough to make me ask, so where are all the other planners?


The career track for most urban planners
Understandably, many graduates from urban planning programs are going to work for local or regional governments or private sector architecture studios.  I know a lot of planners who work for cities like Houston or Portland, and they spend most of their time sitting in public hearings, debating the merits of city zoning changes or traffic plans.  Often this was not the career path imagined while in school, but rather it was the mundane reality they discovered upon graduation.  This isn't unusual as graduate school frequently gives one a false sense of global influence, as if the future of humanity were dependent upon the outcome of your thesis research, but if planning education is so dynamic, why is normative planning practice so dull?  In this case, we as urban planners can blame no one but ourselves.  With so much training and capacity, not to mention an understanding of organizational structure and project management, only to end up working in a field overflowing with of boiler-plated building codes? No one else is at fault.

The more interesting work in the planning profession is frequently undertaken from an architectural perspective, but again, limitations arise.  The world continues to lust for new urban forms and beautifully rendered master plans.  Not a problem.  Yet where is the broader disciplinary attention to healing traumatized landscapes, rebuilding war torn cities, and nurturing emerging economies with scaled, responsive infrastructure?  Typically these sorts of plans are more glitz than substance, and lack the relationship to local informal economic structures or conflict remediation options to be viable.


The Planning Advantage
Art Deco Architecture in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Having started my career as an artist and designer, before transitioning into architecture, planning, and refugee law, credit my foundation in creative problem solving as my greatest asset. Working in conflict cities and post-war reconstruction as an urban planner is not a simple task.  It requires flexibility, creativity, and long hours.  It carries personal risks to myself and my family and demands great sacrifice.  

Yet it is also the most rewarding capacity in which I can apply my abilities to facilitate the collective interest of communities around the world.  By working in challenging conditions, I actually have the opportunity to do far more than my teachers in grad school ever suggested was possible.  I have the daily opportunity to work with all facets of planning, to work with people from many different backgrounds, and to creatively explore options for development that might be otherwise quickly tossed out the window. 

Sure, sometimes I have to sit in long meetings, but rarely is it over something as droll as stoplights.  I hope as more planners discover and read this blog they will be compelled to expand their own definition of the urban planning, and in the near future I will have the chance to find more individuals in the field with the sophisticated training necessary to solve some the worlds greatest problems.

Post Conflict Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia

The former Parliament Building, devastated by war.  Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

Today was a massively busy day for meetings.

I had a meeting with the Mayor and Govener of the Benadiir Administration, Mohamuud Ahmed Noor. We discussed his primary vision for the city and regional development, his trials and efforts in the past and the obstacles he faces today.   Around this time I also met some traditional leaders and members of the Benadiir council working on a variety of USAID projects.  I've been greatly impressed by his efforts and those of the Deputy Mayor, Iman Noor Icar with whom I've been meeting regularly.  Aware of the issues of corruption in their country, they continually work with international donors so that no cash transactions take place, rather the donor has full responsibility for handling the funding while the administration simply provides the needed manpower to implement the projects.  With this model, various initiatives in partnership with Turkey and USAID have been seeing great success.

Last night the urban planner working with Benadiir, Mohamed "Shaan", and I discussed at length the obstacles concerning data collection and mapping of the city.  Although UN-Habitat has a large collection of data, unfortunately they are not willing to share direct shape files and thus their information is of no real use to the municipality.  It is truly unfortunate that a UN body would pose such a hinderance to the efforts of the municipality.  Yet thanks to open-source mapping technology and the efforts of my friends at Somalia Report, I believe I can thoroughly solve this problem so that we simply side-step the UN and do the work that needs to be done.

Mitchell Sutika Sipus, Mohamed, and Abdul on the Somali Coast

I also had a chance to explore some of the historic district of Mogadishu.  We were escorted by a Captain in the African Union's peace keeping force and I was able to talk to him about his experience of fighting in Somalia.  The wreckage in this area from 20 years of war is truly profound to see, but it left me thinking a great deal about all the other images of Mogadishu that never come out.



Business is booming in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

While the world constantly sees the destruction in Mogadishu, they don't get a chance to learn about the dynamic change abreast, the massive return of Somalis, the economic explosion taking place from new investments and the visionary work of the municipal government.  Just today I had a cappuccino at a cafe founded by a Somali who lived for a long time in the UK.  It was delicious.  Things are happening and they are happening fast. This is story that is worth telling, it must be told.

Travel Businesses on Mecca Marena Road. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

Arrival in Mogadishu

The Former Parliament Building of Somalia.  Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus.

This morning I arrived in Mogadishu.

I wasn't exactly certain what to expect, although I thought I had a general idea. Somehow some major details slipped my mind.  I knew after departing the plane that there might be some suspicion about who I am, but I didn't expect so many military and police to try to stop and question me.  Tough looking soldiers from the African Union were all around and it was difficult to avoid generating interests.  Fortunately I was immediately accompanied by my security escort within 2 seconds of stepping off the plane, and a moment after by my host, a member of the Benadiir Administration.  They had with them a letter from the mayor explaining my purpose and were kind enough to manage all the border issues, including passport control and visa acquisition.  

The other thing that really jarred my mind is the heat.  It is seriously hot here.  Like Cairo in August hot. But there is a constant steady wind from the ocean which is soothing and it also reduces the dust.  The heat is also offset by the generous hospitality of my hosts.  Over the years I've had the fortunate to learn firsthand about the wonderful way that Somali people treat their guests, and today definitely the people I met all certainly lived up to the reputation.  As the hotel doesn't often have western guests, the kitchen made a kind gift of presenting me with a delicious grilled lobster with dinner.  Cups of strong sugary tea are ever-present as are piles of fish, freshly caught and served with a spicy lime sauce.  I could totally get used to this.  

Today was mostly a day for long meetings and brief introductions.  Soon more serious work can begin as there are a great deal of issues to resolve but in the first 24 hours I hope to simply learn as much as possible before I propose any ideas or tools.  The city is faced with a vast array of obstacles including conflicts over land title claims among returnees, issues of economic development, public health, education, historic preservation and so on.  The city is faced with the challenge of reinventing itself, yet only now that I am on the ground can I begin to see the miasmatic web of complex social and political dynamics that also restrain it from moving forward.  But hopefully in time we can loosen the knot by focusing on simple solutions to widely agreed upon problems. There is a great deal to be done, and somewhere admits the chaos are a few areas of mutually agreeable issues.  And as we uncover these small points of objectivity, we also can uncover the small points of light to widen the window of opportunity that will change the story Mogadishu.

Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia: #urbanplanning, #mogadishu, #somalia, #design4dev

Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu
For the last 7 years I have labored to understand as much as possible about the city of Mogadishu and to determine viable strategies for reconstruction when the opportunity is presented.  I now have the opportunity to implement these concepts and look forward to introducing simple, yet tangible solutions to many of the city's complex urban planning problems in cooperation with the city government.  Some of the solutions are dependent upon traditional planning and humanitarian initiatives such as concerns with historic preservation and sanitation.  Other concepts are far more innovative, relating to processes in data collection, crowd-sourcing, and GIS.  My business partners and I are presently developing a series of phased low-input, high-input initiatives for the city and will begin implementing these projects in the streets of Mogadishu this March.  I look forward to the project unraveling with some fantastic partners at every step and sharing our progress online.

Yet when I tell others about my work, they often ask, "why Urban Planning in Mogadishu, Somalia?"

The answer goes back a few years to 2004, when I spent 90 days hitch-hiking across Northern India, where I lost my money and acquired malaria in the swampy state of Bihar.    I chose to commit my life to reducing poverty, not with a vague belief that I can make the world better, but rather with the sense that I can make it less inequitable through precise, technical solutions.  It was from that experience I was determined to work in development and to build upon my initial training in art and design through the study of architecture.  After I began my studies, I met Aarati Kanekar, an architect who had worked in post-war reconstruction in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Upon meeting her, I expanded my studies to go beyond architecture, and to focus on urban planning.

In 2005, I completed my first year of graduate school in Urban Planning and Architecture, and was faced with the seemingly massive task of choosing a thesis topic.  Overwhelmed by the task, I thought hard about my essential priorities and determined that I should attempt to locate, define, and focus my lifework upon the world's most difficult problems, to work for the interest of the world's most marginalized and vulnerable populations as this is where the utmost improvement is needed.  Uncertain how to proceed, I turned to Google.  

Concise and innovative urban planning solutions
 are in clear demand in Mogadishu Somalia 
I more or less typed all of my priorities into Google in hope that it would reveal something new to me. Success.  It was from that simple search that I first learned of the Dadaab Refugee Camps.  Embarrassingly, at 23, I was quite ignorant to the problems in Somalia and knew next to nothing of the decades of violence, famine, poverty, and displacement.   As I began to invest more time into learning about the situation, I came to two conclusions. First,  I decided that I would find a way to go to Dadaab to research and work directly with the problems of refugee camp design and planning. Secondly, I also decided that eventually, one day for whatever reason, that circumstances in Somalia would change and the city of Mogadishu will need to rebuild.  

After decades of conflict, it is difficult to be entirely optimistic, but in many ways, the prediction from 6 years ago has begun to manifest.  After al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu several months ago, they have had little success in a multi-front battle against AMISOM/TFG, Kenya, and drone attacks from the US.  Although other forces may have strategic limitations, the fact that Shabaab has continued to change their tactics is evidence of continuing instability on their end.  For the first time since its founding, the Transitional Federal Government has full control of the city of Mogadishu.  With al-Shabaab primarily limited to the Kismaay region, there is even an effort underway to begin relocating refugees from the Dadaab camps back to Somalia.

Mogadishu is an ancient city.  Since the 14th Century it has flourished from its strategic location, an epicenter for trade between the Gulf and the Swahili coast.  It is this strategic location that also facilitates regional piracy.  It also serves as an ideal conduit for the trade between internal production and export.  Although dominated by an array of colonial powers over time, from Oman to Italy, it nonetheless retains an internal, structural capacity to again become a major economic hub.  Its urban density, coastal location, european roadways, and interconnection with other cities such as Afgooye or Kismayo have contributed to an urban resilience of the city.  Perhaps one could conjecture that so much physical destruction has taken place in the city because the structural resilience made it too difficult for armed groups to conduct combat, and consequently only through degrading the city could military accomplishments take place.

Now that city is beginning to stabilize and the Somali people are beginning to return to Mogadishu.  With the massive influx of returnees, the city is faced with new tasks.  Jobs need to develop, roads need to be cleared and repaired, sanitation improved, access to water, and systems need to be developed to deal with property ownership and acquisition.  Without the funds to cover the costs, and with the lack of urban planning for a city in conflict, it will require creative and innovative efforts to stabilize and rebuild.  Of course there are greater regional challenges, as many are also returning to Mogadishu because they fear the dangers of living outside the city.   Obviously the key to the success of the city is connected to the stabilization of the region as well.  But for the first time in decades, there is a chance that something can change.  There is an opportunity.  

Urban Planning in Kabul with a Low-tech Drone: #kabul, #urbanplanning, #gis


Earlier today I wrote a post about the idea of utilizing drones for urban planning and design. Although little more than a digital camera connected to a flying helicopter, the idea of a personal "eye in the sky" would allow urban planners to collect real-time spatial information for analysis.  However, while this might be an excellent improvement over the traditional use of weather balloons for aerial photography, the high-profile nature of drone research would not be suitable for hostile environments.  As drones vary in size, from large aircraft to small bird-like robots and gliders (or even as small as insects), the role of drones within contemporary combat undermines the ability to use one for spatial urban research.  

A couple hours later I was driving through Kabul when I saw some children playing in the street and a new idea struck.

Kites.  

Every night the Kabul skyline is dotted with kites of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Children and adults fly kites at a range of altitudes from the street, rooftops, mountaintops, ruins and street corners.  Kites are a common feature throughout the city and while they lack the specificity of a remote-controlled craft, a sufficiently strong kite and a small/light camera would easily allow one to photograph the city from the sky without objection.  It would not attract any unwanted attention and could be flown at any time of day.  Of course one would need a super small, lightweight camera, but such a thing a possible.   I've seen tiny cameras in big box stores in the US and all over the internet. Acquiring one on the spot in Afghanistan or elsewhere simply requires a little advance planning.

It does raise questions about invasion of privacy, but I would posit it depends on how one uses this strategy.   If it is merely to analyze urban infrastructure and broad social patterns such as traffic, then it really isn't an invasion of privacy any more than google earth.  The only difference is that it is faster, cheaper, and provides more immediate flexibility.  

Certainly much work would be necessary to adjust the images into an accurate rendering of the landscape, but ultimately the necessity of accuracy is relative to the demand.  This would not be a good method to map property boundaries or any surveying work, yet it would be a great way to determine times of traffic congestion or bottlenecks.

The idea of using a kite for aerial photography and video makes me wonder as to what other local-technologies might offer for urban research within conflict.  Of course this strategy won't work everywhere, but I am certainly curious about the results this experiment will yield in Kabul in the near future.

Urban Planning and Design with a Drone: #urbanplanning, #gis, #drone, #design


As an Urban Planner who teaches in a Computer Science department in Afghanistan, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to apply emerging technologies to analyze and solve problems in cities, informal settlements, and refugee camps.   I've been interested in this area ever since I observed the massive economic impact of a single mobile phone tower in the Dadaab refugee camps.  A couple years later I read about the role that communications infrastructure has had to improve security within Afghanistan, and was attracted to the idea due to its low cost and high output.  

Working in developing countries, I always keep in mind that development ideas conceived in the global north may do more harm than good in global south.  This is clearly evident whenever one looks at a formally constructed refugee camp, where it is common for engineers to clear all trees and vegetation before laying out a nice gridded settlement in a country where featureless, sterile grid communities are an oddity.  Conversely, I also support an argument made by Jeffrey Sach's that one of the primary roots of poverty is concerned with a gap in access to technology.  Clearly there is friction between the two ideas, yet upon occasions that technology is appropriated and implemented as a local solution, it is frequently a success.

Notably, when working in conflict zones, I've found that technology-based research and analysis provides far more opportunity than technology-based initiatives.  Most the time.  Yet this is a greatly untapped area for planners, to go beyond a simple reliance on pre-existing GIS databases or a survey distribution to collect real-time, meaningful data.  Quite honestly, it is hard to get good information, and it is even harder to get good information that is up to date.  If you buy it, its expensive, and if you do it yourself, it becomes a full-time job.  Consequently I'm always looking for strategies that are fast, cheap, and capable.  This might include the use of mobile apps or crowd sourcing strategies, but I believe an untapped area is the use of small consumer drones.


Recently a trend has emerged in journalism to collect information with readily available, consumer-market drones.  The use of drone journalism has been of great use in areas of political activism and chaos, such as protests in Moscow (stunning drone photos here) and Syria.  With increasing use of this method, the University of Lincoln-Nebraska has even founded a Drone Journalism Lab for further exploration.  

With the increased use of aerial video data collection by journalists and easily accessible with products such as the AR Parrot, I've recently been exploring how this same method could be of value to urban planners.  In some incidents, the answer is fairly obvious, as planners could simply use small flying machines to conduct mapping procedures akin to balloon-based aerial photography.  Utilizing a remote-controlled device rather than a weather balloon, it is possible to collect more specific data and at a much greater scale.  


Unfortunately, so far it appears that this method is not suitable for areas of conflict, given the role of drones within warfare. While the device of course is mobile and therefore does not put the researcher at risk (win), the necessity to physically collect the item at the end of the research process does put the research at risk (fail), or at the very minimum, raise local suspicions and create difficult conditions for further research (fail).  There may be opportunities to conduct such aerial research in an open and acceptable manner, but such instances are too rare to merit much utility.  

Finding #Kabul on a Map - The Challenge of Acquiring #GIS Data in #Afghanistan


Lately I've been working hard to improve my skills with Geographic Information Systems.  As a Planner, GIS is a critical tool for researching, deconstructing, and analyzing human settlements.  I've been using GIS for several years, yet was never confident in my ability to utilize the software packages or the datasets.  I could do the work, but it was never intuitive.  Fortunately that is beginning to change.   Recently, GIS has taken on a new role in my life as I've been using it to determine and model advance indicators of insecurity.  While there are plenty of competing organizations and individuals out there hoping to find ways to asess the probability and locations of conflict  before it happens, the truth is, all these systems are bulky, expensive, slow, and not feasible for an individual user.  Yet there is a demand among individual users and so my goal is to create a  reliable statistical tool for common individuals with basic internet access, not to reinvent the wheel of security and defense.

Image via Spatial Networks
Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle hasn't been acquiring real-time data. Thanks to recent developments in social media, it has been remarkably simple to acquire and filter information on recent events as they happen.  When a problem takes place in Kabul, I have full details on that situation within seconds and after only a matter of minutes am able to fully assess its scale and location.  Knowing when and where things are happening is the easiest part.

Google Maps - Map of Kabul
Instead, the biggest challenge has been the acquisition of a useful base map.  In short, maps of Kabul are terrible.  Take for example this map acquired from Google.  You will notice that the streets outlined in yellow do not remotely correlate to the actual roads in the satellite image.  Someone should be fired for this.

WikiMapia - Map of Kabul
Other typical map options are equally limited.  In the past I've been a solid user of Wikimapia, as it allows individuals to upload information and draw vector-boundaries around areas of interest, so its useful for studying remote geographies.  It has been of great value when studying Somalia, and it is clear from the example that Wikimapia is densely loaded with relevant information in Kabul as well. Clearly this is better than Google, yet it has one majore flaw, it does not allow one to export the maps into any useable format.

Options do exist out there in the world to obtain high quality geographic data on Kabul, such as found through Spatial Networks, but if you are like me and must do the work with a limited budget, options are slim.  Using ESRI's online ArcExplorer, I was able to pull up a collection of maps for comparison.  Although they look suitable in the small examples to the right, once you actually begin to zoom inward, all feasibility of use at street-scale is lost.  Bummer.

Today I made the breakthrough and found the winner to be OpenStreeMap.org.  It functions basically like google earth, allows one to customize the map like wikimaps, but best all, allows the user to export the map as an XML file.  The result is that I can integrate this map with my datasets and an actually useful product is in the making.   I'm excited about the prospects of this new tool and look forward to sharing updates on its development in the near future.   If any other GIS users out there have insight on ways to obtain useful data and maps for less-documented places like Kabul, feel free to send me an email or something - I'm always looking for new information.

Urban Planning in Kabul - Convention vs Demand; #Kabul, #Afghanistan, #engineering, #transportation

Urban Planning is more than an attempt to solve existing problems.  Urban Planning is about directly shaping the future and I would argue that a sense of vision is the greatest skill needed by Planners.   Yet somehow there is a common disconnect within the discipline, where graduate programs encourage rich brainstorming and imaginative concepts, or individual architectural studios pursue elaborate renderings of the future - but in the end, the final projects are unimpressively droll.  

Frequently this disconnect is due to the over-reliance upon trends, conventions and buzzwords.  In the last 10 years, thousands of Planners have pursued their work within the confines of new urbanism, transit-oriented development, and sustainability.  The danger of course is that Planners can and do make decisions that dehabilitate future development in the name of social advancement, or they fail to account for pre-existing variables because those variables do not fall within the confines of the trend.  An obvious example is the manner in which NYC planner Robert Moses frequently advocated the needs of automobiles over local communities - yet Moses was merely working within the conventions of the era.  In his mind, automobiles and transportation were the most critical asset to urban health and it was impossible for him to assess the negative repercussions.  How many planners today make the same poor decisions as Moses, but in the name of sustainability or economic growth?  

In Kabul, urban planning and development is subject to the same conceptual limitations although the city contains an seemingly more complex array of variables.  I would argue however that the variables are no different than any other metropolis, but rather the organizational methods and logistics  for implementation contain more obstacles.  Regardless, various discipline-centric examples can be found for planning the future of Kabul.  For example, within the proposed project, City of Light, great emphasis is placed upon developing a skyline to accentuate the mountainous horizon lines following the city.  Other proposals focus on typical urban planning strategies such as sector-based zoning, green corridors, centralized business and historic districts and residential living.


Yet why?  Why should Kabul develop according to these guidelines?  In fact, the city has remained in place for thousands of years, and while never emulating the mountains in its skyline, has managed to capture many hearts with its beauty.   Likewise, while I appreciate the sense of vision, I also wonder why the planners simply ignored the most common and visible feature of Kabul - the hillside residential sprawl.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the most obvious characteristic of Kabul is the verticality of its organization.  The hillsides are covered with formally and informally constructed housing, stretching far up the mountains and on all sides.  There are no paved roads up the mountains, rather residents must walk along narrow pathways and hand carved staircases.  Running water is inconsistently distributed but many of the houses have electricity.   To my understanding, the houses along the mountainsides are fairly new, all constructed sometime in the last 10 years.  I was told that majority of these houses are the result of mass displacement in outlying provinces, as millions of people have sought safety and economic opportunities within Kabul.  Unable to secure housing in the central valley, housing has been informally constructed from the bottom upward.  This also implies that the communities are composed of mixed ethnic groups, potentially with a collection of diverse languages and cultural practices.  In addition to localized sociocultural identities, they may also contain localized economic traits, and each community is the foundation for new identity constructions, in particular among the youth who must balance imported identity constructs with local Kabuli characteristics.  

The upward residential sprawl also reflects a spatial settlement structure consistent with an earlier time in western countries.  The wealthy classes live in the middle of the town and the poor live in the difficult to access outskirts.  As Kabul continues to stabilize and develop, this settlement pattern will change.  In many ways, it already has begun to change.  Just as large-scale housing and condominium developments have been constructed along the outskirts of Kabul, near the airport, attracting large segments of the population, the settlement structure between the mountains and the downtown neighborhoods will likely invert.  When improved transportation and utility infrastructures are installed, the mountains will become a site for high-end housing.  Some of the high quality housing will be a consequence of incremental consolidation among existing structures, where  families will continue to expand and upgrade their own housing.  Yet much new housing will also be constructed and as many of the existing legal structures lack a legal claim to the property, inevitable conflicts will emerge when wealthy developers acquire legal titles to property then raise existing settlements in the name  of progress.

Although seemingly separate, one must also recognize that one day a tunnel will be constructed through the mountains, most likely within the next 40 years.  At this time, all transportation is bottlenecked as the city remains bisected by the mountains (illustrated in blue).  Once a tunnel is constructed, the future urban morphology of Kabul will make a dramatic shift, reformulating itself according to new traffic patterns.  New centers of business growth will take root while existing locations will deteriorate.  

If the city can become more integrated with regional developments, such as improved logistical pathways to China and Pakistan, perhaps there will be limited negative repercussions, otherwise one must assume that this aggressive and inevitable demand by the transportation infrastructure will harbor large-scale economic impact.  It also suggests that most urban development plans will be rendered arbitrary, perhaps even harmful.

So what does this all mean?  It means that the most visionary planning will become impotent if the microstructures, points of existing demand, and regional connections are ignored.  It means that the entire functionality of a city can change with a single project when that project is in aggressive demand.  I would argue that within areas of conflict, that these singular interventions can provide the greatest degree of impact, and therefore large-scale planning is fairly limited in its applicability.

Kabul's historic legacy is rooted in its location.  It has always served as the point of intersection between India, China, Central Asia, and Western Europe.  Ultimately, the success of the city has always been founded in its ability to connect disparate points of activity, serving as a critical intersection.  While vision is essential to lead Kabul into the future, this vision cannot exist in a vacuum, and any feasible planning must build upon Kabul's geographic centrality.    Today, urban growth patterns generated by conflict have resulted in a bifurcated city.  In many ways, this division undermines its prospects for stability as the dehabilitated infrastructure supports systems of chaos and undermines the logistics of social order.  Notably, solutions exist - the construction of a single mountain tunnel (high cost, but difficult to sabotage unlike rail transit, and short-term construction time unaffected by seasons) can redirect the entire urban assemblage.  The upfront high-cost becomes proportionately low-cost given the generated value of financial revenue and increased stability.

Stability Planning amidst Global Conflict and Chaos: #London, #riotinlondon, #

Poverty and Riot Clusters UK
Massive riots in the UK. 


Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. 


Conflict and famine in the Horn of Africa.


Poverty and conflict in South/Central Asia.

Riot Activity Distribution UK
The situations listed are all unique, with individual drivers, contexts, and actors.  Yet there remain consistent trends among these situations.   It is easy to quickly fall into a Marxist critique of all situations, wherein the conflict is described by class battles, especially considering how insecurity and poverty are strongly correlated.  One can see from a map of wealth distribution in London (the bluer the richer, the more red is the most poor) that the riots are most concentrated in low-income neighborhoods.  Yet as riot participants are mobile, it is difficult to determine from afar who is participating etc.  A broader picture of riot-related activity may reveal that the mobility of its participants and the broad distribution of activity negates the viability any land-use/gis analysis.

The UK is generally considered to have a stable and accessible government with a low corruption index and is considered one of the most developed nations in the world.  Consequently, one can only assume that the the riots are grounded in stresses between internal social structures, and is likely based on a socio-economic dilemma.  All nations suffer from such conditions, but in general, the international community would become distraught if the UK government attempts to suppress the riots through aggressive or military intervention, as has been the approach to suppressing protests and social upheaval in Syria, Libya, Iran, and so on.  Consequently the government has been left to explore other stabilization options, such as technology-based solutions and an expanded police presence.  It is reasonable that the government would implement a large body of force to secure the city of London from future disruption, but then what?  How do things change so that it stays pacified and such events don't happen in the future?

Theorists and practitioners always want to determine and address root causes. The greatest difficulty is that is it nearly impossible to determine why the riots are taking place.  If one were to ask 100,000 rioters why they are participating, there would be 100,000 responses.  Responses could vary from deeply rooted experiences of social strife and racism, or for many, they could simply be youth looking for a good time who want to steal a television or get  a new ipod.  Consumerism and "first world problems" concerning cultural identity and alienation could be a major undercurrent.  Regardless of the reasons underlying the riots, the question emerges, is there an alternative way to pacify and avoid future riots?

An urban planning approach would advocate the fusion of participatory processes with local community institutions to create pathways for social mobility,  community cohesion, and economic growth.  The difficulty however is the determination and mobilization of viable institutions.  Many classic institutions - such as churches, schools, and local government - simply lack the capacity to facilitate any real change.  With the constant slashing of institutional budgets offset by raising demands in services, one could argue that the riots taking place in the UK are not the consequence of poverty, rather that the riots are the consequence of incapable local  institutions.  Such institutions are not inept, but in contrast are merely unable to accommodate demands.

One could change this situation in a variety of ways.  There could be an effort to return classic institutions to function on par with demand.  One could also work to create new institutions altogether, although this often requires new infrastructure such as sports facilities, buildings for meetings and administration, recreational spaces.  Even if consumerism were a driver of conflict, are there shopping centers and jobs for youth to indulge themselves?

Unfortunately no matter the approach, it requires resources to be injected into the community.  To measure the amount of resources injected in relation to the rate of absorption and local re-production reveals that any viable solution will also require a sufficient body of time.  Ultimately the only way to offset that time-demand is to quickly allocate and facilitate the already functioning nodes of production (churches with successful youth groups, community outreach programs, amateur sports leagues).  Of course this is easier said than done, and it still requires a vast supply of resources.  But in the end, good governance is not enough, as a community needs not only a shelter over its head, it needs to stand on a strong foundation.

#Stuxnet Lessons for Urban Planning 2 of 2


In the previous post I gave a brief overview of how Stuxnet worked and discussed some of the perils Urban Planners face within complex conditions, notably within conflict.  Below is a closer look at how Stuxnet can apply to urban planning.


Stuxnet and Urban Planning 
1. Stuxnet was designed and operated reflexively, rather than strategically.  Its code was structured like a Russian doll, with one layer contained with in another, and so on.   Configured as such, it had the ability to continually unload an additional set of internal tools when the situate presented itself.  Yet when the conditions were not present, the structural integrity remained intact. 
  • Too often development plans are developed and executed while overly reliant on contingent variables to maintain their integrity. If Part A occurs properly, Part B will go into effect... yet if Part A doesn't happen, the project is at risk of failure.  This is partly the fault of the discipline of Urban Planning and its tradition of  creating"Master Plans," long term projections into the future with a constant effort to fine tune socio-economic conditions in space.  Yet as the conditions constantly change and the implementation of Part A will have unforeseen effects elsewhere in the urban space, master plans are rarely equipped to meet the changing demands of the urban environment and are doomed to fail.  

2. Stuxnet not only penetrated multiple systems, it provided opportunities to change in response to those systems.  The code maintained a series of entry points in the event that the present layer of the 'russian doll' doesn't quite fit the conditions.
  • Markets do not exist in an equilibrium, neither do the less tangible social forces, therefore it is essential that plans are designed and implemented as fluid enterprises.  Rather than craft a plan that is project-oriented, consider how projects function as a larger process, and thus changes and tweaks are determined in terms of maintaining momentum with the process, not within the operations of a single project.  In other words, to craft a successful small project, consider it at a regional scale. Evaluation of the project and suggestions to change  are best designed in terms of regional necessity, not at the smaller scale of 'project success.'

3. The systems exploited by Stuxnet varied in Code (as operating systems) and as networks (peer-to-peer, hardware based, intranets, closed and open systems).  It jumped between code and network style, adapting to not only new terrain, but new communication protocol.

  • Planners in conflict need to visualize human settlements as  4-dimensional and not as static compositions.  The traditional overhead map will only provide a fraction of the information necessary.  If the problem is defined by conflict between two social groups, situate these groups in a space, and visualize their interactions within that space over periods of time.  The environment will inform the actions of those groups.  Over time the environment and the groups will influence each other and thus create a new set of conditions. The problem will again change once an intervention is introduced.  
  • This doesn't exclusively apply to conflict cities.  If one were to count the bus stops on a street then count their occupancy at different times of day, and each day of the week, a succinct pattern would emerge.  Introducing a new transportation option would change this pattern.  Yet before a new option can be introduced, such as alternative transport, additional buses, or an alternative route, the pattern must be first determined in terms of space and time and a variety of research methods may be used to acquire this information.

4. Spend less time attempting to building sectors and invest more time into the linkages.  Embedded within Stuxnet were three different layers of code to exploit three different situations.  It used the connections between Windows OS to Siemens and then to PLC.  Its primary set of tools took action at the final stage.
  • Likewise the function and productivity of any sector is only as strong as the transition point from one sector to another.  Rather than devoting hours to the study of transportation and a separate study on economic markets, condense efforts to understand how markets flow and interact based on available transit corridors.  

5. Identify target indicators within those linkages, but these indicators  must also be 4-dimensional.
  • To continue the above example, a rapid observation of wheel thickness among vehicles will tell you the condition of roads, the distance between production and supply points, the amount of wealth generated within processes of exchange and the frequency of exchange. The better the conditions of all circumstances, the thinner, lighter, and newer the tires on bicycles and cars.   This single indicator can inform the health of sector linkages and simultaneously communicate the health of individual sectors.  It should be noted that the indicator itself may actually serve as an ideal point of intervention.

6  Stuxnet simultaneosly spread through multiple networks so that points of failure were inconsequential. While the mechanisms of the intervention may be complex, the linkages need not be.    If an intervention is crafted upon a continuous series of dependent variables, it will not succeed.  If an intervention directly impacts multi-sectoral linkages and multiple locations at different points in time, it will have a higher probability of success.  It may require fine tuning in some locations or at some points in time, but such changes need only be subtle and responsive.


The greatest difficulty of behind planning an urban intervention while utilizing the Stuxnet approach is the challenge of measuring the impact of the plan.  Stuxnet was designed to relay information back to some website databases, yet working in a community does not provide the same immediate information supply. Rather one can only measure the impact of the project by assessing the actual problem at hand, such as fluctuations in conflict, market stabilization, transportation flows, and the production of goods.  The problem emerges when specifying causality, specifically connecting the value of the project to the mitigation of the urban problem.   Certainly it can be done, but it will require creative thinking.  After all, if one simply continues to add more layers of indicators, markers, measurements, links, etc. to the production cycle, the project will lose its streamlined sophistication and  become too self-burdened to operate efficiently.

#Stuxnet lessons for Urban Planning in Conflict. 1 of 2


In July 2010, the Stuxnet computer worm surfaced as a powerful destructive force that targeted specific industrial systems.  While most computer attacks are constructed to exploit the weaknesses of Microsoft systems, Stuxnet is unique because it functioned on 3 different layers.  It used Windows OS in the intial stage and then  transfered to another operating system, Siemens WinCC or PCS7. After installing itself on WinCC, it then installed itself on a PLC device (Programmable Logic Controller).  PLC's are basically small computers designed to operate industrial equipment and generally do not receive commands through a network.  Although all the details of Stuxnet are not determined, it is clear that it sought PLC's with the intent to control frequency converters and thus modify the speed of mechanical motors. Stuxnet also relayed false information to monitoring devices so that everything appeared to function as normal.  Upon discovery many feared that Stuxnet had the potential to bring global industry to a halt

Impending doom is never appreciated, yet in the case of Stuxnet, it was also quite unlikely. Remarkably, Stuxnet only affects machines with particular characteristics and that do specific tasks and there are few industries in the world that contain such characteristics.  It is believed that Stuxnet was created by a western government to undermine Iranian attempts to create nuclear materials for combat purposes.  Some suspect Israel, others the United States, yet the designer of of the virus is completely indeterminable.  

What is apparent however, is that the creator had expansive resources, a specific objective, and was faced with significant limitations.  If destruction or at least the tampering with Iran's nuclear facilities was the intended objective, the designer had to create an streamlined yet sophisticated tool to modify the mechanics of uranium enrichment.  Most importantly, this enrichment system is not accessible online, and attack had to be introduced at the periphery and then distributed through continued USB use and internal networks.  The virus likely reached its final objective, considering Iran began having difficulty in May 2009 with operational centrifuges (IFPM Report, 17).  Stuxnet was only noticed a full year later.  Roughly 1/5 of their centrifuges were destroyed.

Stuxnet, Urban Planning and Conflict Stabilization
Urban interventions confront a variety of constraints and limitations, such as limited budgets, poor communication and disruption among social groups, and lack of capacity for implementation.  At all times, urban planning also has to straddle the void between top-down 'expert' interests and the will of the 'bottom-up' community.  No matter the situation, Urban Planners nearly always use the same problem solving strategies.  Planners consistently rely upon a Logical Framework Approach or combine this with Participatory Action strategies.  These strategies are typically sufficient, yet there are many times in which the obstacles are too large or the network of contributing factors is too complex.


I recall an architect who constructed IDP shelters in Somalia. She said that she "didn't bother asking people what they need or want because it is a waste of time, she just gave them the best solution" and when I asked about that solution, the area was first bulldozed of all surviving vegetation, drawn into a grid and an Australian engineer introduced a concept for mud brick houses.  Local acts of violence escalated shortly after as no one had shade from the hot desert sun and small fights between frustrated youth grew into tribal combat. When the houses went up everyone was relieved until families began to die from collapsing structures. Of course the architect wasn't around to witness the consequences of her decisions as she had already moved on to other projects.  Clearly, the most direct and expert-oriented solution is not necessarily the best solution.

Looking at Stuxnet, I see a product that imitates a perfectly constructed urban planning intervention. Severely constrained by technology, geography, and security, destruction at the Nantez nuclear production plant required a clever, unorthodox design and  streamlined  precision.  The designers had to work as a team to mobilize dispersed resources, to consolidate those resources in a fashion that could penetrate a complex network and accomplish a specific objective with re-percussive impact.  Although Stuxnet was introduced at a single point, the fluidity of its design allowed simultaneous access to multiple communication networks, applying to those that fit the targeted criteria and skipping others. At its end point, it made only minor tweaks to an already existing process, barely noticeable to the population yet large scale in consequence.  How can Urban Planning function in a similar manner? Planning interventions within conflict could greatly benefit from the lessons of Stuxnet.  

Reading #Conflict in the Urban Terrain of Kismayo, #Somalia


Recent reports from Somalia have described a helicopter attack on al-Shabaab fighters near Kismayo.  Originally reporting the death of two fighters, it now appears that 15 died in the missile attack.  Kismayo is an al-Shabaab stronghold where a great deal of fighting has taken place. 

A quick look at the city on Google Images reveals a large section of the city blackened by explosions and fires.  The pattern of scorched buildings is consistent with the major transportation corridors highlighted in red. As the conflict in Somalia is highly mobile and fast moving, gains are established by taking hold of the roadways, thereby assuming control of the neighborhoods pinned between roads.

If one isolates the individual locations of attack, a subtle collection of patterns emerge.  The largest areas of combat often take place at transportation intersections.  This provides  the largest variety of logistical and operational  input/outputs, such as improved range of vision and horizontal expansion of battle space.

Yet further analysis also reveals two primary bands of conflict.  Both bands are curvilenear, suggesting 2-3 primary points of entry for troops.  The band on the left, situated on city limits, shows on large point of conflict followed by a series of smaller points.  Either the conflict began at a fever pitch and tapered off, or it built to a climax in the first band.

As the conflict continued and forces swept into the city, the second band emerged. They traveled most likely from the lower corridor which contains clear horizontal roadways and is less entangled in the labyrinth of smaller, internal side-streets.  Al Shabaab would have likely traveled northward, continuing to take advantage of major transportation arteries and as the land came under their control, the intensity of conflict would subside.