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Environment / Climate change

Urbicide: the killing of a city is an attack on the human condition

Urbicide. Like all –cides, it is an evocative word. Tracing its roots back to Latin – ‘urbs’: city, cide: ‘killing’ – it defines the deliberate wrecking or ‘killing’ of a city. Violence, although often reserved for other humans, can be just as damaging when levelled against the urban spaces around us. Imagine finding your home destroyed; the shops where you once bought food flattened; and just about everything else that you’d built your life around gone. Attacking the buildings on which so much of our existence is contingent upon is an implicit attack on the human condition.

Despite its savage etymology, the word was first put to real world use when describing the fairly benign environment of city restructuring. Originally conjured up by the fantasy and science fiction writer Michael Moorcock in 1963, it was later used by critics of urban planning in the US during the late 20th century. In what novelist James Baldwin famously dubbed “Negro Removal”, African-American neighbourhoods were destroyed for “urban renewal” – essentially making room for incoming white residents.

Although the term only crystallised in academia over the past half century, urbicide is hardly new. Think of the Romans destroying Carthage; the Mongols wiping out their static neighbours; Dresden, Nagasaki – all deliberate obliteration of people’s surroundings.

It was during the fall of Yugoslavia, and the accompanying slaughter, that the word ‘urbicide’ was used in the context of real death. Cities like Dubrovnik, Vukovar and Mostar were razed and left uninhabitable for their residents. Meanwhile, the targeting of the Sarajevo Library and Ferhadija Mosque of Banja Luka were deliberate attempts to destroy buildings of great symbolic value.

A map showing the damage to Dubrovnik. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Perhaps the most iconic act of destruction during the war was that of Mostar’s Old Bridge, an Ottoman structure that had connected two halves of the city since the 16th century. The footage of its collapse in 1993, after having been struck by over 60 shells, remains one of the more harrowing events I have seen. 

The Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic recalled feeling more sorrow when presented with an image of the river in which the bridge was noticeably absent, than when confronted with a photo of a woman whose throat had been cut. In an elegy entitled Falling Down, written a month after The Old Bridge’s collapse, she wrote:

“The bridge, in all its beauty and grace, was built to outlive us; it was an attempt to grasp eternity. Because it was the product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destiny. A dead woman is one of us – but the bridge is all of us, forever.”

A photo of Mostar’s Old Bridge taken in the 1970s. Image: Josephine W. Baker/ Wikipedia Commons. 

Only after the tragedy of the Balkans during the 1990s did glimpses of urbicide start to appear in legal systems. The Serbian President, Slobodan Milošević, was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for “wanton destruction” against the religious sites and cultural monuments of the Kosovars. In the ICTY cases against various military commanders, notions of urbicide were rolled into that of genocide – its bigger, and far uglier, older brother.


The implication of not treating urbicide as distinct phenomenon is that the weight of international law cannot be brought against its perpetrators. In recent years, the Palestinian city of Jenin, the 700,000 people affected by Zimbabwe’s Operation Restore Order, and post-Katrina New Orleans all fell victim to mass destruction of their built environment, leading to accusations of urbicide. Unfortunately little can be done without a fixed definition in domestic and international law.

Whilst bureaucrats move glacially to enshrine urban devastation in law, city scapes will remain the plaything of the powerful. Urbicide can be both destruction and construction, but its ultimate goal is always to control those living in the targeted cities – the people who define the space around them, and in turn are defined by it.
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