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The Destructive Age of Urban Reconstruction after Warfare

A fictional writer made a poetic observation that, “cities sleep with the lights on as if they’re afraid of the dark” (Mick Herron 2019). On a night flight, I looked out and down at a city below and thought about Herron’s observation.  I saw a familiar urban layout of darkness and light, placed patterns of people and their movements.  Herron wrote that “up and down the roads, lights clustering at junctions, street lights making daisy chains out of the night, illuminating pavements and hiding the stars”. I thought of my peace-building work in places of torment and trauma as I read,


These chains resemble neural pathways, forging connections between a city’s hemispheres – Cities are made of memories, stored recollections packed into boxes of stone and metal, brick and glass, the brighter its pathways pulse with light the stronger those memories are. On its wider, busier thoroughfares the traces of grant events linger – royal progressions, wartime rallies, victory celebrations – while the circuses where its big roads meet nurture shades of less seemly occasions: riots and lynchings and public executions. Along its riverbanks, quiet moments promenade – a hundred thousand engagements – and in the explosive glow of its transport terminals, a billion arrivals and a billion departures are recalled one by one. Some of these left scars on its memory others a faint graze, but all contribute to the whole, for this is what makes a city.  The slow accumulation of history, of a near-infinite number of happenings in a network of streets that light up at night”. 


I thought of Mosul. Aleppo, Mariupol, and Baghdad and the memories that make those cities, the violent and the loving ones. I thought about the buildings that held secrets and haunted communities, I thought of the everyday buildings now the significant modern heritage of the Infra-ordinary kind. I thought of the post-conflict (reflexive) museums and monuments, the new public and private places, the rebuilding and reusing of heritage and worry that these cities will succumb to more violence, not only physical violence but cultural, structural and political violence. I am reminded of Spenser’s article The Destructive Age Of Urban Warfare; Or, How To Kill A City And How To Protect It. However, it’s  The Destructive Age of Urban Reconstruction after Warfare that keeps me awake at night.  In my experience, there is no better way to rebuild post-conflict cities than to acknowledge and recognise memories of the violence. To do this, one must avoid the temptation to erase the uncomfortable past but take ownership of it. Instead, layer the city new and old, making the city legible to locals and visitors alike. Respect the everyday buildings and the memories they resonate, just as others have the culturally significant ones coveted so stealthily by foreign technocrats. In my view, urban-based peacebuilding has to be done with the built environment as a member of the stakeholder group

I am suggesting the importance of really understanding the full picture of a city’s makeup, to promote the correct response. Often humanitarian actors, governments and their respective architects and designers see their responsibility towards challenge in anthropomorphic terms - as performing surgery, breathing new life into and restoring the soul and heart of culturally significant buildings. These are dynamic and dogged acts which require the urban condition to adopt a submissive role, to remain prone while work is visited upon it. Animating the city in terms of ‘voice’ and ‘memory’ however, reverses this relationship, and builds a stronger platform from which to venture forward. The act of listening enables the city to become an agent in its ‘own’ reinvention and the peacebuilding collective has to work hard to hear what is said.


I am drawn again to Herron's pages as he writes “The grandest of these memories warrant plaques and statuary, the more private are kept out of view, or at least stored in such painful sight that they are unseen”. It is in the unseen, unrecognised (unrecognisable) and whispered-about places where memories are manipulated and reimagined to fuel re-worked narratives that re-energise violence and unrest.


The biggest challenge is still to come – In Jan 2024, UN-Habitat posted a News article by Neils de Hoog, Antonio Voce, Elen Morresi, Manish Ganguly and Ashley Kirk reporting that  Gaza has seen between 142900 – 176900  buildings damaged. The report raises questions on how to rehabilitate Gaza when the war ends  - It reported that


“There is widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure such as schools, universities and shops”.


"This destruction not only kills and displaces civilians, it destroys the sense that these places are home to a particular way of life”.


"If you can’t shop or learn, you can’t form a sense of belonging or call a place home.”



As it stands, we are still to crack the peacebuilding conundrum in general and the urban rehabilitation in particular – Perhaps, the challenge starts with the word rehabilitation (the action of restoring something that has been damaged to its former condition).  I think that restoring a city to a fictitious past hinders progress and destroys the city’s authenticity and historic fabric. In other words, a William Morris /John Ruskin-type of theory....


Neither by the public nor by international peacekeepers in care of a city, is the true meaning of the word rehabilitation understood. It means the most destruction which a post-conflict city can suffer: destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered; destruction accompanied by a false description of the thing destroyed. let us not deceive ourselves in this important matter; “it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture”.


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