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Feral Cities
Alex Steffen, 8 Jan 05

We live on an urban planet. More people live in cities than outside them, and the megacities of the developing world are growing at truly phenomenal rates. One of the key questions with which we grapple is, "How do we create urban futures for the developing world which are stable, prosperous and sustainable?"

But a question almost as important is, "What happens if we fail?"

If we fail, we may wind up with feral cities.

"Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power. Such cities have been routinely imagined in apocalyptic movies and in certain science-fiction genres, where they are often portrayed as gigantic versions of T. S. Eliot’s Rat’s Alley. Yet this city would still be globally connected. It would possess at least a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants would have access to the world’s most modern communication and computing technologies. It would, in effect, be a feral city.

"[T]here has been a significant lack of concern for the potential emergence of failed cities. This is somewhat surprising, as the feral city may prove as common a feature of the global landscape of the first decade of the twenty-first century as the faltering, failing, or failed state was in the last decade of the twentieth. While it may be premature to suggest that a truly feral city—with the possible exception of Mogadishu—can be found anywhere on the globe today, indicators point to a day, not so distant, when such examples will be easily found. ...

"In a feral city social services are all but nonexistent, and the vast majority of the city’s occupants have no access to even the most basic health or security assistance. There is no social safety net. Human security is for the most part a matter of individual initiative. Yet a feral city does not descend into complete, random chaos. Some elements, be they criminals, armed resistance groups, clans, tribes, or neighborhood associations, exert various degrees of control over portions of the city. Intercity, city-state, and even international commercial transactions occur, but corruption, avarice, and violence are their hallmarks. A feral city experiences massive levels of disease and creates enough pollution to qualify as an international environmental disaster zone. Most feral cities would suffer from massive urban hypertrophy, covering vast expanses of land. The city’s structures range from once-great buildings symbolic of state power to the meanest shantytowns and slums. Yet even under these conditions, these cities continue to grow, and the majority of occupants do not voluntarily leave.

"Feral cities would exert an almost magnetic influence on terrorist organizations. Such megalopolises will provide exceptionally safe havens for armed resistance groups, especially those having cultural affinity with at least one sizable segment of the city’s population. The efficacy and portability of the most modern computing and communication systems allow the activities of a worldwide terrorist, criminal, or predatory and corrupt commercial network to be coordinated and directed with equipment easily obtained on the open market and packed into a minivan. ...

"Globally, large cities are already placing significant environmental stress on their local and regional environments, and nowhere are these problems more pronounced than in coastal metropolises. A feral city—with minimal or no sanitation facilities, a complete absence of environmental controls, and a massive population—would be in effect a toxic-waste dump, poisoning coastal waters, watersheds, and river systems throughout their hinterlands."

(Another great find from Anne; if you don't read her blog, do yourself a big favor and start now)

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    As one who advocates the wealth of feral lifeways, I'm highly disappointed that "bread crumbs" have lead me to a blog that looks down on wilderness (being feral) and anarchy. First of all, if you have a city in the first place, then you don't have anarchy nor wilderness. All cities have states, which are the antitheses of anarchies, and coincidently, all anarchists are against states; but ironically, not all anarchists are against cities. I just don't think that they make the connection, which is why most of them aren't advocates of feral lifeways in the first place.
    Second of all, people have to settle down a whole lot to form cities. Feral people are nomadic hunter/fisher/gatherers with temporary shelters. They may have a little horticulture/pastoralism, but they generally don't even constitute a village let alone a city that's mixed in with the rest of civilization. They are tribal people like most of the Andamanese islanders and the !Kung San aborigines. All of this vying and disease are common problems of crowding, which is a common problem of sedentary lifestyles.

Posted by: Kete on 8 Jan 05

Great post, thanks! I'm actually working on the Articles of Incorporation for a non-profit which will build small tree-centric parks in cities, emphasising indigenous flora. I have been inspired by all the stores here on World Changing to start a non-profit.

I'll keep you posted on it.

Posted by: Michael Mosher on 8 Jan 05

Parts of many cities are feral now and have been for years. I remember the late, late night I walked by Penn Station in NYC and heard the cry of human predators who saw me as quarry.

Folks might want to take a look at Samuel R. Delany's _Dhalgren_, a novel which evokes a feral city and anarchy better than anything else I can recall. His two memoirs of his life in 60s NYC are good too for that urban edge and his meditation on the Disneyfication of the Deuce, _Times Square Red, Times Square Blue_ might just adjust your idea about what is feral and what is civilized.

Then again, Joe Sacco's books on the wars in the former Yugoslavia like _Safe Area Gorazde_ might be seen as examples of the feral city or just read Riverbend's dispatches from present day Baghdad on

Of course, the best book I know of on how a city actually works is Will Eisner's _Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood_, a history of the Bronx from the time it was farmland up until yesterday. Eisner, who died this week, was a master and will be missed greatly.

Another visual example of feral cities might be the most recent version of _Black Orpheus_, the one with music by Caetano Veloso, which seemed to be more realistic about life in the favelas of Rio. At least compared to the original bossa nova version filmed in the early 60s.

Posted by: gmoke on 8 Jan 05

yet another reason to move out.

What a shame that dystopias like Robert Silverberg's The World Inside, in which rural and urban people are almost different species, are coming true.

Posted by: Daniel Burstyn on 9 Jan 05

If you live in the region around a city that goes feral, moving to the country ain't gonna help you any...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 9 Jan 05

As the redoubtable Mike Davis notes, there were 921 million slum dwellers in 2001 and the number is rapidly approaching one billion. The phenomenon of urbanization and slum creation in the developing world is overwhelming in just about every way imaginable. Davis spells out a taxonomy: bustees, chawls and zopadpattis, katchi abadis, kampungs, iskwaters, shammasas, umjondolos, intra-murios, bidonvilles, baladis, gecekondus, conventillos, favelas, villas miseria, and colonias populares.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 9 Jan 05



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