Divided Cities and the Need to Move Forward

By |2024-01-02T18:53:35+01:00November 13th 2018|Gender and Inequalities, Integrated Planning|

Almost every major city is heterogeneous in terms of culture and ethnicity. This implies that every city is divided to a certain extent. Yet, there are some cities that are ‘more’ divided than others. Gizem Caner analyses development patterns of such extremely divided cities, using examples from Beirut, Berlin, Jerusalem, Nicosia, and Belfast.

In cities, inequalities are spatially reflected through division into affluent and deprived districts. Urban studies tend to offer a two-fold explanation for these divisions. On the one hand, there are the moderately divided cities: multicultural, more or less peaceful cities. Here, divisions occur largely due to production processes, class, race and gender relations, increasing inequality between the rich and the poor, and urban segregation. Well-known examples of multicultural cities are New York or London.

On the other hand, there are cities that are ‘extremely divided’: contested cities, where division occurs due to less negotiable aspects like nationality, sovereignty, ethnicity, or religion. There are fewer of them, but they allow great insights into how division can ruin a city.

Forms of Urban Division

Spatial manifestations of division are immensely pronounced in the so-called extremely divided cities. The specimens are special cases, where each one portrays distinctive spatial configurations.

Consider the pre-reunification Beirut and Berlin, and the still-divided Nicosia, each split in two by a continuous line running through it. Then there is the case of Belfast, a ‘hyper-segregated’ city. Here, the division is much more intricate, articulating itself sporadically, depending on whether residents feel secure or insecure because of the sectarian tensions at any given moment. This type of division creates a deceptive sense of an integrated city.

Another case in point is Jerusalem, where an especially aggressive form of division exists. Separation is propagated by one side of the conflict as a security measure, tearing up the city and the territory, and ostracizing the other, ‘unwanted part’, of the society. Perpetuation of division or reunification in these cities is characterised by a variety of factors, as elaborated in the following.

Nicosia and Jerusalem

Division in Nicosia and Jerusalem materialises very dramatically, since a peace agreement in any form has not surfaced for decades. Urban functions (such as administrative and educational institutions or residential and commercial zones), infrastructural systems, transportation networks, etc. are duplicated and used to keep the societies in their respective sections of the city. Communication between the communities remains limited, through gates, and is possible only with proper documentation.

Traditional urban development patterns are restricted to the structural impositions of the dividing lines, destroying the integrity of the city. The frontier landscape, appearing even in the most affluent parts of the city, adds additional challenges to the city’s prestige and the inhabitants’ psychological wellbeing. This brings up the direst issue of all: people have to carry on living in these cities, experiencing incompatible feelings of surrender, denial, resentment and neutrality, all at once.

Reunified Cities: Beirut and Berlin

Today, Beirut and Berlin are both reunified cities. Before that, in each of them, division had been stark, persisting for decades, and pushing the city to its limits.

Beirut’s civil war produced a city that was split into mini-states, each independently providing most urban functions and services to its own residents. Structures of solidarity and self-sufficiency which evolved during this period kept the East-West divide on the ground even after the peace agreement was signed. Focussing only on the reconstruction of the central city district after reunification did not help to wipe out this deeply entrenched societal division.

Berlin used to be separated rigidly into two halves. Its eventual reunification has been more comprehensive than Beirut’s, emphasising physical reunification, re-establishment as the capital, and showcasing the city. Berlin has been more successful in its attempt to reunify both the city and its society. After all, the divided parties were not so different: the division was not between different ethnic, religious, or cultural groups but was imposed by the occupying nations at the end of WWII.

Belfast is divided not because of a war, but due to a decades-long internal strife, known as The Troubles. Here, division was supported by local and national decision-makers (by providing short-time responses to the wishes of the residents through building the so-called Peace Walls), rendering it much more ‘normalised’ as well as harder to remove. We can assume that the walls scattered throughout the city (there are about 90 of them) will not go down in one day as the Berlin Wall did, since they got built for the residents, not in spite of them.

Development Patterns of Divided Cities

Each of the above-mentioned ‘extremely divided’ cities have gone through certain historical development patterns to eventually reach their present forms. Belfast, Nicosia, and Jerusalem, for instance, have witnessed conflicts that came from within the society, through internal strife or war. Thus, the conflict was bottom-up, making it much harder to be erased. In Berlin, on the other hand, the conflict was top-down, imposed as a result of an international war. This is probably one of the main reasons why finally the Berlin Wall came to be dismantled as rapidly as it had been built.

Thinking in terms of historical processes, we see that apart from Berlin, all the other three had previously been colonies. In terms of urban development, extremely divided cities are greatly influenced by their colonial past. The colonisers’ inclination to ‘divide and rule’ produced urban policies that led to confrontations and eventually transformed cities. Contemporary urban structures of these cities are a legacy of these policies. Including such a historical perspective is important, as it brings a sense of temporality into the equation.

The Need to Move Forward

As a last note, I want to emphasise this aspect of temporality. The distinction between multicultural and extremely divided cities serves to associate each not with an ultimate form, but rather and more precisely with a present form. In other words, these cities are what they are not as a final state, but rather, as a result of a dynamic evolution which carries on.

If we think of them as moving along a timeline towards ‘peacefulness’, what needs to be done is obviously to push them forward instead of backward. As ordinary citizens, practitioners, professionals and politicians, we need to be watchful, thoughtful, and active in order to prevent cities from being torn apart by discord and conflict. Creating ‘peaceful cities’ relies on concerted efforts to ensure the right circumstances for harmonious co-existence of diverse communities. As the phrase goes: United we stand, divided we fall.

Gizem Caner
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