Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Queen's University Belfast's online course, Identity, Conflict and Public Space. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds One of the things that strikes me that we tend to talk about and in this is the, we’re talking about urban centres very often. Milena, why is it so often that this is about conflict in the urban arena. We know rural areas are important as well. Why is it so often the urban arena? Well on the one hand, I mean, if you look about it in a general sense. We live in a world that is increasingly globalised and globalising. I mean we are already in a situation where most of the population, more than half of the population of the earth lives in urban centres.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 seconds And according to various projections, very soon, within the next couple of decades, we will probably be on average, obviously, that process will differ around the world, close to around 70% of the world population living in urban centres. So this is one kind of general and basic explanation. Another has to do with the variety and intensity of urban life. And the variety and intensity of, if you like, urban material infrastructures that allow for a particularly intense interactions between varied kinds of populations in groups in the city. Cities are also increasingly economically important. They have become, in many senses, seen as independent from the state economically centres.

Skip to 1 minute and 29 seconds So cities are always going to attract that attention and be vital to the economic viability of states and the populations in them. There’s also a purely political reason. I mean we mentioned already that cities are often the seats, especially if you’re talking about capital cities, where a variety of centres with administrative and political power are concentrated. Not to mention, then again talking about capital cities. That they have a huge symbolic importance. They yeah, they are symbolic, it’s amazing how often that - We keep coming back to that symbolic significance.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 seconds Even states that were set up where you’ve got two big cities that couldn’t agree on who was going to be the capital, and you end up with another city having to take that position. And then of course, urban space becomes directly implicated in the conflict in those cases which we mentioned where we talk about ethno nationally divided societies, where the boundaries of the state are in some sense contested. Where urban space and boundaries in the everyday, in the urban space, become proxies in some sense for those state boundaries.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds So the state can find it extraordinarily, in particularly highly contested and divided societies, the state can find it extraordinarily difficult to control what is taking place and there can be very dense urban areas, which in some sense is the state can almost loses its control of completely. I mean we, you know, in the city that we live in, in Belfast, it’s marked by people flying different national flags. Either the British flag for those people that have a British identity. Or the Irish tri colour for those people that have an Irish identity. And it’s interesting to hear the state finds it very difficult to intervene and take down either of those, either of those flags. Yes.

Skip to 3 minutes and 22 seconds And these are spaces where through a combination of historical experience, often experience of violence, and a certain identification with those spaces, as it happens in most cities, when we’ve talked about the link between identity and space. But also a present experience is in everyday life, of conflict continuing, violence sometimes, mean that actually, we are talking about territories. Creating that symbolic landscape. Creating that historical landscape, symbolic landscape, where effectively, for part of the populations. And the population and sometimes part, sometimes the state. Those areas become no go areas for other groups.

Skip to 4 minutes and 9 seconds Well the sheer scale of some cities means that you can have spaces that are controlled by the state and other spaces within the same city which the state cannot control until they become countervailing power bases for the two groups. Yeah. It’s extraordinary. You can think of cities with that sort of, when you think of the Bridge at Mostar, you know, as someone, I’ve never even visited that place. But in the conflict in Bosnia, those sort of symbols became highly, highly evocative, and remain a sort of symbol of the divisions and the potential unity between the peoples that live in Bosnia.

Contestation in urban centres

In the last part of this week’s discussion we highlight the importance of urban space. Milena discusses the role that the variety and intensity of urban life plays in modern societies. Economic and political power is often concentrated in cities but cities also frequently have symbolic importance.

Urban spaces therefore are often implicated in conflicts with ethnic and national divisions. As identity groups coalesce in particular urban spaces so the boundaries of that urban space become proxies for resistance against a state. Again the nature of public space is a vital part of politics. Belfast, in Northern Ireland, is a good example of this. The city has a long history of working class residential areas being predominantly Protestant, therefore unionist in politics, or Catholic, therefore nationalist in politics. A sense of alienation from the state, particularly after 1921 was reflected in Catholic areas, through issues such as the policing of the Royal Ulster Constabulary which was a predominantly Protestant police force. In places such as Belfast the symbolic landscape is intimately linked with political identities.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Identity, Conflict and Public Space

Queen's University Belfast