Which cities are most at risk to fragility?

By Robert Muggah

Birds fly as a rainbow arches over houses in a low income neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan, March 11, 2016. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Karachi is a megacity teetering on the edge. The metropolitan area is home to over 16 million residents — 30 times more people than in 1950. Criminal and political violence is part of daily life, alongside rolling blackouts and mind-boggling congestion. More than 2,000 people were murdered there in 2014, making it one of the most lethal cities in the world. Karachi’s elite are busily recruiting private security guards to protect their homes and local shops are deploying metal detectors. Complicating matters even more, Karachi’s population is set to increase by 50 percent in the next 15 years to over 27 million. It is the archetypal fragile city.

It may sound surprising, but Karachi is fast becoming the new normal. Part of the reason for this is that the world is urbanizing at a blistering pace. The statistics are depressingly familiar. Already half the global population lives in a city in stark contrast to the past. Cities are growing by roughly 65 million residents each year. At least 5 billion people will be living in a city by 2030. But not all parts of the world are growing at the same pace. Tomorrow’s turbo-urbanization will occur not in North America or Europe, but in the sprawling metropolises and slums of cities like Dhaka in Asia or Lagos in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Cities are remarkable natural experiments. Many of them generate tremendous prosperity and progress. Others fail to lift off. All of them are exposed to risks of fragility to greater and lesser degree but the intensity of their vulnerability varies. Notwithstanding the remarkable resilience of their residents cities such as Kinshasa or Mogadishu are stretched far beyond their carrying capacity. They are not alone: many cities in low- and middle-income countries are reaching a breaking point. Even mature megacities like London, New York, and Tokyo are susceptible to fragility.

What makes a city fragile? Fragility emerges when the social contract binding municipal institutions and residents comes unstuck. When city authorities are unable or unwilling to deliver basic services to citizens (or when they explicitly oppress local residents), people lose confidence in their government. In such situations, parallel forms of power — from street gangs to violent extremists — emerge to fill the gap. City fragility does not occur in a vacuum. It is exacerbated by certain risk factors — the speed of urbanization, income and social inequality, youth unemployment, criminal violence, poor access to key services, and lack of resilience to climate threats.

So which cities are most at risk to fragility? This simple question is not easy to answer. Part of the reason is that there is virtually no global repository of data on cities. We know surprisingly little about the world’s 55,000 or so cities and settlements. Another challenge is that fragility is hard to detect. Ostensibly “stable” cities can exhibit destabilizing characteristics at the neighborhood level. In cities like Brussels, Paris or Stockholm there are pockets of fragility concentrated in poorer marginal neighborhoods like Molenbeek, Bondy or Malmo. Where there is social disorganization, there is often above-average crime and chronic vulnerability to radicalization and extremism.

A new data visualization released by the Igarapé Institute and partners such as the United Nations University and the SecDev Foundation helps capture the global dimensions of city fragility. It is based on a review of over 100 datasets and consultations with urban planners and geographers from around the world. Today it includes information on 2,137 cities with populations of 250,000 people or more. The data visualization also features a fragility scale (with 1 being low and 5 being high risk). The scale is based on 10 indicators — both human- and environment-related — that are statistically associated with urban fragility.

While still a work in progress, some preliminary findings are insightful.

For one, city fragility is not restricted to poor underdeveloped countries. Yes, urban fragility is concentrated in Africa and Asia, but there are at least as many cities ranking high on the fragility scale (scoring at least 4 or 5) in high and upper-middle income settings as in lower-middle and low incomes ones. Cities like Baltimore and Naples, for example, register similar fragility scores to Cali and Cape Town. Nor are fragile cities confined to countries affected by armed conflict. In fact there were twice as many fragile cities on the fragility scale outside of war zones than in them.

What is more, it is not necessarily the largest cities that are most susceptible to fragility. Rather, it is smaller- and medium-sized cities that are most at risk. Just three megacities (over 10 million residents) and three very large cities (with between five and 10 million people) are at high risk of fragility including Baghdad, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, Karachi, Lagos, and Shanghai. But there are another 56 large cities, 42 medium-sized cities, and 40 smaller cities that are also categorized as fragile. In spite of our fascination with the world´s 30-odd megacities and 600 most productive cities, there are literally thousands of others we´ve never heard about that are likely to define the shape of international security and development in the twenty first century.

The fastest growing cities appear to be most exposed to fragility. The majority of the world´s cities are growing at between zero and three percent. The data visualization detects 87 cities — in China, France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the United Kingdom — that are actually shrinking in size. Yet the most at-risk cities are those that are growing at a pace of four percent or more. Associated risks are especially acute in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia where the vast majority of future city population growth is projected.

Finally, the data visualization shows that the most violent cities in the world are necessarily where you think they are. Some research groups rank cities according to estimated homicide rates alone. While such approaches grab news headlines, they do not capture the entirety of urban fragility. The fragile cities data visualization documents both murder rates, but also reported violence gathered up from over a thousand media outlets. While homicide is highly clustered in Latin American and Caribbean cities, riots, political and extremist violence is also widely distributed in North and Central American, sub-Saharan African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian urban centers.

Fortunately, city fragility is reversible. There are examples of notoriously violent cities such as Ciudad Juarez, Medellin, and Sao Paulo turning things around. What is more, most of the largest cities in the United States witnessed a dramatic fall in violent crime since the early 1990s, even if some of them registered a modest uptick in 2015. There are important lessons from the Americas — a region that has gone through its demographic transition — that are potentially applicable to other parts of the world where the urban revolution is underway.

A precondition to getting fragility under control is enlightened leadership, especially successive mayors who make a plan and stick with it. This is not as straight-forward as it sounds. But when city leaders, business groups and civil society associations are able to work together to define common problems and develop data-driven solutions, safety often follows. And with improvements in real and perceived security comes a renewed trust in city institutions. A note of caution is warranted. The fact is that many researchers are still struggling to fully understand what explains crime drops in cities, even in data-rich settings like the United States.

What are some of the proven ways to make cities safer and less fragile? For one, throwing more police and prisons at the problem is not the most cost-effective solution. Instead, cities that invest in focused deterrence and hot spot policing often see sharp reductions in crime and associated victimization. These effects are amplified when they also curb alcohol availability and responsibly regulate firearms. Among the most powerful ways to turn things around is by investing in inclusive public spaces, supporting predictable transport and promoting prevention measures, especially social protection programs such as conditional cash-transfers targeting low-income single-headed families and young men.

There are no simple solutions to dealing with city fragility. To turn sprawling cities like Karachi around, citizens must come to grips with the risks associated with rapid urbanization, but also with the many available solutions. The good news is that new technologies are already playing a decisive role in helping empower citizens to make their cities safer and more livable. What is urgently needed is a global conversation about what works and what doesn’t and sharing these findings globally. Mayors from fragile cities will need to draw on lessons learned around the world to avoid becoming failed cities. The more proactive among them are already doing so to positive effect.


Robert Muggah is the cofounder and research director of the Igarapé Institute, a think and do tank. He is also research director of the SecDev Foundation. He is listed as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world on issues of violence reduction and has delivered talks at TED Global, the Web Summit and Davos. He will be speaking at the 2016 Chicago Forum on Global Cities.