War and the Urban “Geopolitical Footprint”

By Michael Dudley

Mushroom clouds blossoming over dense cityscapes. Thousands of gun emplacements throughout Baghdad promising fierce resistance. Civilians killed by the hundreds in open marketplaces, in cars, in their homes. Brutal building-by-building urban warfare, with heritage sites thousands of years old destroyed in the crossfire. Thick oily smoke billowing through the city in a vain attempt to misdirect missiles.

It should, I hope, be apparent to the reader that the impacts of this war are germane to a whole range of concerns integral to the planning profession. Iraqís built environment, its infrastructure, its social fabric, the health and well-being of its impoverished citizens, its natural environment, all have been harmed during this conflict. For these reasons alone this war should be of great concern to urban planners. And indeed, in March, shortly after the attack on Iraq began, the Planners Network Steering Committee released a statement citing six compelling reasons why planning professionals should oppose the attack. Yet planners have far more at stake in these events than one might initially suppose.

I argue that planners must now consider the geopolitical footprints of our practice, in much the same way that we have begun to consider the ecological footprints of buildings, cities and metropolitan areas. The geopolitical footprint is not a new issue, but it has taken on new forms in the present era of globalization.

However much the Iraqi people needed and deserved to be free of Americaís former ally Saddam Hussein, the level of cynicism both internationally and in the US over the actual motives for the war is substantial. According to critics, the Bush administration was always more motivated by securing a geopolitical and strategic advantage over Mideast oil than by neutralizing alleged banned weapons. The recent controversial ad campaign from the Detroit Project linking gas-guzzling SUVs to terrorism played off of the fact that so much of the oil consumed in developed countries comes from unstable Islamic nations where the geopolitical and military positioning for control over oil has literally fueled intense anti-American sentiment that cannot be long ignored or contained.

Before and during the war, one of the principal arguments raised against the attack on Iraq was that the sight of Americans killing large numbers of civilians would be just what Osama bin Laden and other violent fundamentalists would need to spawn more terrorism aimed at the US. Media images of Iraqis mourning over their dead and bloody children in the streets of their blasted cities only confirm that this anger is all too real.

Dark Times for Urban America

The level of anti-American rage now gestating portends dark times ahead for urban America, for it is more than likely that attacks of revenge against the US will take place in its cities. Attorney General John Ashcroftís pre-war announcement that raised the “terror alert” from yellow to orange specifically referred to “soft targets” such as hotels and apartment blocks. More 9/11-style attacks aimed at public spaces, office towers, crowds, apartment buildings, public transit and other urban areas would not only be a tragic catastrophe, they could easily undermine all that we, as planners, work for. Even if no such attack actually materializes, in an urban environment filled with the continual threat of one (even if voiced only by American officials) it may become increasingly difficult to get people to take subways, visit parks and fill arenas much less care about “sustainability.” The civil and nurturing urban life we strive to create may become almost unreachable.

All this makes it crystal clear that planners have neglected something very important that international conflict and injustice are directly related to, and can have an impact on, our planning practice in North America. The context for all our planning, i.e., the wealth and prosperity which we have for so long considered normal, was always a mirage. It was only made possible by globalized inequities so grotesque that they could not endure forever. The philosopher Wendell Berry has said that the globalized economy, which considers such disparities essential and has such devastating consequences for both communities and the planet, has become indistinguishable from a war economy. (See “The Failure of War,” Resurgence 215 (2002) 6-9.)

In Our Ecological Footprint (New Society Press, 1995), Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees point out that our cities appropriate resources from regions outside their own boundaries. A major goal of urban sustainability is to lessen this so-called “ecological footprint” and reduce the amount of “appropriated resources” taken from elsewhere. What is often overlooked is that the extraction of those many resources occurs within a variety of geopolitical contexts and in the case of oil, it is a violent and repressive one. Almost all of the nations in the Middle East from which most of the worldís oil is derived are oligarchies or dictatorships. Our cities, in other words, have “geopolitical footprints” as well as ecological ones; they “appropriate” stability, democracy and freedoms from resource-rich but politically oppressive regions around the world.

The link between this geopolitical footprint and the current war is not difficult to find. In articles printed in the UK in the months leading up to the war, British public health professor Ian Roberts goes so far as to blame urban planners for the crisis. He argues that the very reason the United States is so intent on attacking oil-rich Iraq is because of the sprawling car-dependent cities planners have designed. (Seewww.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,877203,00.html.)

Our Planning is Global

Awareness of the geopolitical footprint of the city confronts planners with new priorities. We can no longer, for instance, see our professional practice in solely local, regional or even national terms; we cannot simply be “American” or “Canadian” planners. Our work occurs in global and geopolitical contexts that we ignore not only at our peril, but the peril of people a world away. We can no longer design a car-dependent suburb without acknowledging that the fuel needed to shuttle its residents to work and home each day may have come from a country seething with hatred for America, or an environmentally and politically ravaged place such as the Nigerian delta. We cannot design a discount “power center” without knowing that most of the cheap goods that fill its shelves have been manufactured in sweatshops in unstable and repressive countries with some of the worst human rights and environmental records on Earth. We cannot assist in designing an office park for multinational corporations that have been accused of unethical or criminal practices internationally without becoming a participant in those acts.

It is, ultimately, not too much of a stretch to say that the decisions we make regarding the local built environment are fundamentally connected to the peace and stability of the world.

I urge the planning profession to consider two principles. First, consider that war, and in particular, this war, should be opposed and disavowed. Our practice is about working with people to create livable environments, not about imposing new order on the unwilling and unconsulted. Second, we need to re-evaluate the context of our work in a world of want and violence. The March anti-war statement from Planners Network is correct; we cannot entirely “design” security into our cities, any more than the Department of Homeland Security can stop terrorism through vigilance alone, and particularly not through a clampdown on civil liberties. We must begin by working towards a more equitable world where resources are not hoarded and squandered by a few. We must begin by empowering and working with, and most importantly listening to, the disenfranchised and disempowered. We must begin by respecting other cultures and traditions, not imposing our own homogeneous models of development and political structures on them. Such processes can only be accomplished through collaboration and multilateralism, and they are quite in opposition to the “unipolar world” currently being pursued by the Bush administration and its intellectual partner, the “Project for the New American Century.”

While such strategies can hardly be considered novel, they have taken on a new imperative. What we need is nothing less than “regime” change, regime in the sense of a pattern of action. We need to begin to transform our world from one of exploitation and immoral inequities enforced through globalized capital and military might, to a more just world where all regions are empowered to better and more fairly use and manage their own resources for the benefits of their own citizens, and to do so within organic political structures arrived at from within.

Planners are significant players in creating the sort of world we want. We need to ask ourselves if the world we are now seeing emerge is one in which we want to share credit. The peace movement did not stop the attack on Iraq. But perhaps, in what I shall optimistically refer to as the “post-war” world, planners can work to prevent its sequel.

Michael Dudley is at the Institute of Urban Studies, University of Winnipeg. For more information on the Detroit Project, visit www.detroitproject.com. For more information on the Project for the New American Century, visit www.newamericancentury.org.

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