A manifesto for the fragile city

Robert Muggah


The city is at the centre of global geopolitical, economic and demographic transformation. However, fragility is no longer confined to nation states, with insecure, disorganised and violent urban areas potentially giving rise to national unrest, civil conflict and urban insurgency. This article considers the form and character of the fragile city, and four key risks influencing urban fragility: transformation and concentration of violent, rapid urbanisation, an expanding youth population and new technologies. It calls for a conversation on what works in making cities safer as a starting point to reversing city fragility and highlights recent examples from cities around the world.

While some believe that empowering cities will inspire and consolidate deliberative democracy and build a more cosmopolitan global commons, the economic, political and social divide between the wealthy and poor is frequently reproduced spatially in cities. In this paper, fragile cities are defined as cities that exhibit declining governance abilities and/or willingness to deliver on the social contract.

New approaches to law and order and social investment in Rio de Janeiro, including a pacification programme, saw murder rates drop by 65% in 2012. Although issues still remain, this has led to re-investment and the return of self-exiled residents in some areas. Similarly, Sao Paolo’s homicide rate has dropped by 70% since the 1970s. Improved institutional coordination and coherence at the city-level is positively associated with the delivery of improved safety and security, especially when accompanied with robust and real-time data collection.


The paper suggests four issues that influence urban fragility:

  • The hyper- concentration of violence to a few streets, at certain times of day, among specific people. In Bogota, Barranquilla, Cali and Medellin, the literature shows that lethal violence has occurred in a concentration of less than 5% of each city’s streets.
  • Rapid urbanisation correlates with rising crime and violence. For example, Karachi – considered one the most violent cities in the world – has expanded from around 500,000 in 1947 to over 21 million in 2015.
  • Many low- and middle- income urban areas are experiencing a youth bulge that will continue to grow. The mean age of residents in Bamako, Kabul and Mogadishu is around 16 years. Further, being unemployed, under-educated and male puts one at more risk of killing and being killed.
  • Digitally savvy criminals and radical groups in regions with high rates of urban violence capitalise on new technologies and greater connectivity to organise and advertise their activities, extort money and hire contract.

Consequences of city fragility include: fragmentation of public and private urban space, the depletion of social capital and cohesion between neighbourhoods and neighbours, and the reproduction of new manifestations of insecurity and fear. Their fragility is intimately connected to the wider structural dynamics of urban agglomeration, as well as to the interests of – and power relations between – competing groups.

Comparatively little is known about how fragile cities cope and rebound from shocks and sustained violence. Evidence suggests purposeful investment in inclusive public spaces, social cohesion and mobility is the most sustainable way to promote safer cities; Medellin is one prominent example. However, other – perhaps shorter-term – possible approaches include:

  • Dialogue between cities about common problems. As in the case of the Mayors of Bogota, Cali and LA.
  • “Twinning” cities with healthier and wealthier ones, as cities across America and Europe have done since WWII.
  • Focusing on hotspots through investment in real-time data collection and problem-orientated law enforcement and technologies such as Compstat and Domain Awareness Systems.
  • Devoting more resources to mitigating violence committed by young, unemployed males with a record. For example, mediation efforts to interrupt violence between rival gangs are widely practiced across the Americas.
  • Investing in smarter cities to attract talent and close the divide between and within cities.


Muggah, R. (2015). A manifesto for the fragile city. Journal of International Affairs 68 (2), 19 - 36.