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Designing War-Proof Cities 

Can urban design fortify defense?

Words: Thomas Brodey
Pictures: Geoffroy Hauwen
Date:

The recent conflict in Gaza leaves no doubt: In an increasingly urban and unstable world, cities are no longer safe. In the past twenty-five years, brutal combat in Grozny, Fallujah, Mosul, Mariupol, and Gaza has leveled entire neighborhoods and killed thousands of civilians. Every country has an imperative to defend its cities in the most effective and least destructive way possible.

And yet, at-risk cities have thrown away their most important advantage: time. The US military obsessively plans urban tactics and doctrine, but devotes little thought to shaping the battlespace itself. Long-term urban design — mundane things like building codes and the shape of roads— can do far more to protect civilians and defend a city. Just as cities on active fault lines must design themselves around the risk of earthquakes, geopolitically vulnerable cities in places like the Baltics, Taiwan, or Israel should proactively plan for possible war. 

Historically, defense was a vital pillar of urban planning. People went to great effort to build their cities on hills, behind walls, or famously in the case of Venice, in the water. The concern died out a few centuries ago, but when war returned to cities like London, Leningrad, Manila, Tokyo, and Seoul in the 20th century, it found them fragile, flammable, and overfull. Cities today are more vulnerable than they have been at perhaps any other point in history. 

Protecting Civilians

Experience shows that civilians are often unable or unwilling to leave besieged cities. In most cases, they have no choice but to use their own homes as shelter from rockets and bombs. When the Russians closed in on Kyiv in 2022, the public was stunned to realize that its Cold War era bunkers were crumbling and neglected. With proper planning, things can be very different. Consider Helsinki, where efficient planning has created enough bunkers to house the entire population. The bunkers are proofed against chemical and nuclear attacks, and double as recreation facilities and parking garages in peacetime. More countries should follow Finland’s example. 

Another achilles heel of modern cities is communication. Signal towers are large, vulnerable, and dependent on the electrical grid. Mariupol lost all cell service within a few weeks of the Russian attack, leaving civilians and soldiers alike isolated and disorganized. While there is still time to switch, vulnerable cities should transition to a decentralized system, using smaller diesel or solar-powered towers that can better maintain communications in the event of an attack. 

Earthquake-prone places like Japan and New Zealand provide a concrete example of how you can build a prosperous city while preparing for the worst. New Zealand’s construction policy, for example, acknowledges the impracticality of disaster-proofing every house. Instead, it focuses on protecting key buildings like emergency response services, shelters, and the like. We might add retirement homes to that list, since immobile elderly have suffered a disproportionate share of civilian casualties in Ukraine.  

Most civilian deaths in urban warfare come from wide-area explosives, so key buildings require the kind of blast-resistant architecture normally used near oil refineries. One study shows that arches and domes resist blasts better than cubicle-type buildings, and recommends single-story buildings with laminated or glazed glass windows. Reinforced tunnels could also provide civilians with a safe way to evacuate or relocate to hospitals or bunkers.

The end result? By preparing a relatively small number of buildings, a city could preemptively establish multiple self-sufficient safe zones, each with ready access to bunkers, food, electricity, cell towers, and medical care. Of course, cities under attack try to do this anyway, but it’s the difference between the pig who built with straw and the one who used bricks. 

Active Defense 

Designing a city for resiliency and civil protection — so-called “passive defense” — is not enough. Countries must also design cities that are easy for their soldiers to defend. Cities were largely responsible for stalling Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine, and urban centers hold immense military significance. Latvian expert Lukas Milevski, for example, has argued that any Latvian defense against Russia hinges on holding four border cities that command vital rail lines. The trick is designing a city where soldiers can fight while civilians remain relatively safe. 

Defense-minded urban infrastructure enables cities to direct the flow of battle away from population centers. Humane urban planning, on the other hand, can create demilitarized “safe zones” for civilians while fortifying the road network and other strategic areas in separate parts of the city. 

Historically, a city’s defenders have had to hastily improvise strongpoints while under fire. Mariupol’s Azovstal plant (or for that matter, Stalingrad’s famous Pavlov’s house) held off superior forces for months despite not being designed for the job. Building strongpoints in advance, however, means you can place them in key transportation hubs with wide fields of fire, use military-grade materials, and dig tunnels underneath for supply and communications. 

Defense-minded urban infrastructure enables cities to direct the flow of battle away from population centers. Humane urban planning, on the other hand, can create demilitarized “safe zones” for civilians while fortifying the road network and other strategic areas in separate parts of the city. 

These ideas are more illustrative than comprehensive. Any exact plan to harden a city will depend on pre-existing architecture, public support, and economic constraints. There is no one-size-fits-all in urban design. Yet the broad idea of combining passive and active defensive measures will go a long way towards saving lives and minimizing damage to the city. 

Urban warfare will always be a tragedy, but much can still be done to mitigate its destruction. The stakes are high. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the Grozny campaign. 90% of Mariupol’s infrastructure was destroyed. Mosul suffered $42 billion in damage. None of these came as a surprise; in fact, each one was the second recent battle to take place in that city. Like any natural disaster, 21st century warfare follows predictable geopolitical fault lines. Vulnerable cities have an imperative to reshape their battles by reshaping themselves. 

Thomas Brodey

Thomas Brodey is a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Madagascar. His views do not represent the US Government. He has contributed to Inkstick, the Borgen Project, and the Wall Street Journal. He has also worked with the John Quincy Adams Society as part of the inaugural class of the Marcellus Policy Fellows. He graduated Amherst College in 2022. 

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