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Matter Matters

[Cover of Ralf Brand and Sara Fregonese, [Cover of Ralf Brand and Sara Fregonese, "The Radicals’ City: Urban Environment, Polarization, Cohesion"]

Ralf Brand and Sara Fregonese, The Radicals' City: Urban Environment, Polarization, Cohesion. Surrey: Ashgate, 2013.

The Radicals’ City is a rich and illuminating book on the intricate relations between the urban environment as a material setting and socio-spatial conflict-related phenomena, such as radicalization, polarization, and social cohesion. Brand and Fregonese’s message is simple but raises at the same time profound philosophical and existential questions regarding the human and built environment relations; it invites us to take objects seriously.

For Brand and Fregonese, the urban environment is simultaneously mirror and mediator. Social tensions and conflicts project themselves on the objects of the urban environment, affecting their shapes, locations, dispositions, and functions. However, these objects also mediate conflicts by making it easier or harder for specific groups to act. They provide opportunities for meeting or for confrontation. This conceptualization of the urban environment means that, for example, when studying graffiti, one needs to be not only attentive to their symbolic message and their location, but also to the kind of paint on the wall where they are drawn. The graffiti’s message may mirror the tension of the conflict, its location, and the geography of the conflict, while the paint on the wall may mediate the conflict, by rendering the graffiti possible or not (if it is painted in black, for instance), obdurate or easily removable.

Objects are not the “causes” of the conflict and the way it evolves, but neither are they neutral and inconsequential. Understanding this is crucial in an era marked by the rise of the Fortress City with its securitization and anti-terrorism narratives.[1] It allows a critical approach and an alternative to today’s dominant near-ideological conceptualizations of radicalization and polarization, and their consequences in terms of stigmatization of whole communities, militarization of urban space, and control of political space.

In the following, I will address the book as it is structured and presented, before I discuss the input of this approach on thinking and acting on the urban environment in the context of Arab and Middle Eastern cities.

The Book

The Radical’s City is an easy book to read. With its one hundred fifteen figures and illustrations, it makes the message visual and relatively accessible to a lay reader. In fact, it addresses researchers and students interested in urban conflict and professionals and policymakers involved in urban security—but also, as its dedication says, “all who realize that matter matters.” The book is structured in three parts. In the first, the authors present the research project. The second part presents four case studies: Belfast, Beirut, Berlin, and Amsterdam. The third section examines the research findings and presents recommendations for urban planners and urban security practitioners. In the last section, interviews with major scholars in the field (Bollens, Pullan, Gaffikin, and Calame) interestingly materialize the authors’ reflexivity and transparency omnipresent concerns.

The representation of polarization as a multiform process allows the authors to study very different situations with varying polarization “levels”: Belfast and its “Troubles” heritage[2]; Beirut and its civil war history; peaceful Amsterdam and the tensions in some migrants’ neighborhoods; and Berlin and the low-key presence of neo-Nazis in some parts of the city. Through the richly documented case studies, the authors mobilize a diversity of heteroclite “objects” in their analysis of polarization. In Belfast, they identify the urban environment’s elements like “Peace Walls,” curb stones, and murals that mirror the macro and micro geographies of the conflict at the urban level. In Beirut, they decode the subtle ways the latent conflict projects itself through studying banal objects like trash-cans and the color of stripes in the parking lot of a mall, as well as the less subtle ones produced by defensive architecture, communitarian marking of territory, and militarized urban space. In Berlin, they track neo-Nazis’ semiotics geography and modes of operation through café and shop signs’ fonts, coded graffiti, particular cloth stores, snow-drawn swastikas, flags, and the route and schedule of the U5 metro line. In Amsterdam, they examine how objects like the color and kind of paint in tunnels, a mosque project, the location of alcohol shops, and window openings contribute to the calming or exacerbation of potential and actual intercultural tensions in the city. They also examine the different roles these objects play during diverse temporalities of the conflict.

One of the most expressive examples of the complexity of objects’ role in conflict situations is the sudden rise of communitarian incidents in 2007 near the Westlink motorway separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast, after the construction of a pedestrian bridge over the motorway. This bridge should link a large metropolitan hospital on the Catholic side to Protestant neighborhoods on the other side. However, wheelchair accessibility regulations and requirements, and the need for the building of a ramp, led to moving the bridge forty meters away from the initial position traced by urban planners. Overlooking residential neighborhoods, the bridge thus became an ideal platform for youngsters in their hit-and-run projectiles’ launch on the other side. The unforeseen consequences of simple regulations seem to have had more dramatic effects on the lengthy efforts of reconciliation than any particular event or incendiary speech in this period.

In the four case studies, the authors identify different spatial patterns for different degrees of polarization and radicalization. There are different conceptions of segregation, grievances, ideological propaganda, recruitment, rallying points, and assault strategies, which affect different spaces. Belfast represents the extreme case of polarization and radicalization, where material separation elements reinforce social segregation. The materiality of the conflict—and of the reconciliation effort—concerns first and foremost the areas of the demarcation lines between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. This is comparable to Beirut, which is segregated but not partitioned. The demarcation line and the city center are still the primary areas affected by, and reflecting, communitarian polarizations, but they are not the only ones. Except for certain places, like the seaside Corniche strip, practically every public space reflects or mediates these polarizations at the macro and micro levels. Even private meeting places like malls, wanting to maintain their “neutrality,” are very attentive to the details of their inner built environment (such as the colors of the paint[3]), which should not suggest political affiliation.

The case of Beirut is also interesting, as it allows for a questioning of the role of temporality. The same built environment, like the city center’s streets and public spaces, could encourage occasionally large gatherings, like the demonstrations of 8 and 14 March 2005. It can also restrict access or mobility through defensive space devices, as it has done repeatedly over the last few years. Conversely, in peaceful Amsterdam, polarization is not articulated around identifiable parties and their agendas, but rather around cultural differences, such as the tensions between migrant—mainly Muslim—communities’ culture and mainstream Dutch culture. Some migrants’ difficulties in articulating their original culture and that of the host society are expressed through, and are affected by, built environment elements. Strategies of occupying, organizing, and regulating public and meeting spaces in migrant neighborhoods and material devices that serve as fixes in such strategies express it clearly.

In Berlin, the authors chose to focus on the neo-Nazis radical group, and the way they deploy spatially their social and militant activities. What makes territorialization particular here is that it does not want to be seen. On the contrary, it seeks to avoid social and state surveillance by developing coded modes of operation and space-marking. Consequently, and more than in other cases, the semiotic dimension of material objects this group displays—or diverts—in urban space is of strategic importance: it must allow recognition by the insider but evade the untrained eye.          

In the last part of the book, the authors go through the twenty-one recommendations of their proposed Charter for Spaces of Positive Encounter. The charter is divided into three parts: urban environment as mirror; urban environment as mediator; and facilitating friendly encounters. The authors make very interesting recommendations, such as their call for devolving the responsibility of building environment-related interventions at the local level. Recommendations seven and eight argue: “Knowledge generated at the micro-level must find ways to move upstream to inform some interventions at higher levels.… Anti-polarization organizations should be consulted during seemingly ordinary planning processes—and they should proactively seek engagement in such processes.” They also underscore how segregation causes polarization, and how the way it is experienced in people’s everyday life and concrete practices is crucial. They warn against the obduracy of physical partition elements that can “lag” behind the improvement of socio-political situations, indirectly perpetuating segregation and hostilities. As for spaces of “friendly encounters,” they note how perceived security, equal treatment of communities and groups, and the absence of potentially offending symbols in public spaces, as well as the design process of such spaces, are crucial elements for success.

The findings of the authors seem to be shared by the interviewed scholars. As emphasized by Pullan, who sees polarization as “primarily spatial,” and Bollens, who stresses the “power of urbanism,” materiality is definitely seen in emerging urban conflict scholarship as a central concern. The authors emphasize: “After some time, most [habits and ingrained routines that develop around changes to the physical environment due to conflict tension] are out of reach from cognitive scrutiny and can turn residents into some kind of somnambulists.” Understanding the process of polarization and dealing with it is thus crucial for cities: “Almost all cities are characterized by a certain degree of disputes and controversies, but not all of them end up in inferno.”

An Inspiring Approach for Analysis of and Action on Urban Environments in Middle Eastern Cities

In these years of ubiquitous unrest and turmoil in Arab and Middle Eastern countries, this idea that polarization could be better dealt with by being more attentive to the urban environment’s situation is quite inspiring, but also very challenging. Of course, countries’ strife could hardly be reduced to issues related to the built environment’s organization. However, ignoring this dimension would be eluding a substantive element for understanding the ways polarization and conflict take place and evolve. In fact, in the whole region, the materiality of urban space is an essential element in ongoing social mobilization, in the daily evolution of military operations, as well as in the deployment of anti-terrorism preventive measures.

Today, there is a large controversy regarding the rising importance of virtual space and ICT in opening up new channels for political expression and mobilization and, paradoxically, new technologies of control. However, lesser importance is given to the physical form of the city and its role in encouraging or undermining gatherings, stealth movement, barricading, encampment, and other tactical activities that seem to have strategic value in the current evolution of political polarization and conflicts in the region.

Of course, urban form has been long studied as an essential element in conflict situations, especially in urban geography.[4] In the Arab and Middle Eastern region, war-torn cities like Beirut and—more recently—Baghdad have been the “usual suspects” of those studies.[5] But I believe there is an enormous deficit in our understanding of the role that urban space’s materiality plays in polarization in cities, beyond the particular cases of war conflict. In fact, few works treat polarization and the city beyond conflict situations. Based on the study of the demographic, social, and economic evolution of the region in the last decades, many authors did predict change. However, neither academics nor politicians foresaw the speed and the explosive consequences of such change. Would an analytical approach, like that provided by Brand and Fregonese, permit a better understanding of the phenomenon? Would it serve to grasp its actual evolution in different cities?

Academics, politicians, planning professionals, and social activists are now faced with a situation where our knowledge and understanding of the city is not sufficient—or even useful—to grasp the potentialities and consequences of the city’s form on present socio-political challenges. In fact, the understanding of the built environment and its production as a mirror-projection of structural social relations and inequalities in space long dominated our knowledge of the built environment and its socio-political tensions. It is true that Lefebvre’s conception of the production of space has made room for deciphering the intricate relations of society and built environment on the everyday level, allowing a better understanding of the “city in the making.” But what Brand and Fregonese and other authors propose, inspired by the Actor-Network Theory approach, is definitely a new representation of the built environment as mediator. The urban environment becomes an “actor” not in the sense of an actor with a conscience and will, but in the sense that its very existence and form has consequences.

Methodologically, this means that, in order to understand a certain phenomenon, we should identify the “socio-technical constellation” made of intractably connected human and non-human elements. City places (public spaces, neighborhoods) and city networks (electricity, sewage, roads) are such constellations. Changes in the physical, symbolic, and technical attributes of the non-human elements could have as much, if not more, consequences on the stability, transformation, or even disintegration of these constellations than the desiderata of human actors. This is an excellent framework for mapping and analyzing change, and eventually contributing to it.  

The authors’ recommendations are also relevant in addressing actual socio-political situations. The mobilization of an ever-growing number of new actors in the political—and in some cases, in the security—sphere renders the recommendation defending an enlarged role of the local actors in the transformations of the built environment particularly interesting. In fact, this could contribute to the much-needed pacification of increasingly fragmented and polarized societies. Indeed, pacification goes through answering two pressing and equally important issues: insuring that actors sense a feeling of social and political representation, and that the population at large acquires a feeling of security.

Authoritarian regimes in the region have managed to reach long-term peace through providing security and controlling key players in hierarchal societies. However, today, with the rupture of the political understandings that legitimatized authoritarian regimes and the rise of political mobilization, security starts to crack and can be maintained only through top-down surveillance and military control. In such situations, people and local actors increasingly try to guarantee their security by transforming their immediate built environment, rendering it more controllable, even defensible. But the generalization of such situations can increase fragmentation—sometimes segmentation—of the city, and the fall of public order.

I believe, however, that this should not necessarily be the case. Governments and public authorities can counter these practices by giving, on the one hand, local actors a larger say in the transformations of their local built environment and, on the other hand, providing more creative forms of built environments that a multiplicity of groups and actors can simultaneously use and identify with.[6] Of course, this entails deep changes in political practices, such as more participation, and in urban planning interventions, such as more place-oriented strategies, articulated with Do-It-Yourself spatial practices.[7] Hence, as they contributed to the construction of authoritarian, megalomaniac, oppressive, inequitable, neoliberal, and dull urban environments and landscapes, (creative) architecture, urban design, and urban planning could also help save cities from an “inferno.”      

My main reservations about the book concern the organic interpretation of communities and groups inherent in the authors’ understanding of polarization, as well as the occasional lack of depth in interpreting case studies. Indeed, the authors’ interpretation of polarization misses out on the tensions within communities. The latter are presented as homogeneous units, where individuals are assimilated to the groups they are seen to belong to. As for the case studies, while they surely intrigue the reader, they do not fulfill the promise of reconstituting the socio-technical constellations the authors commit to examining in chapter two. Also, they do not go beyond description, and thus do not link coherently with the different observations. However, I believe the analytical framework provided by Brand and Fregonese is quite inspiring, especially in the actual political context of Arab and Middle Eastern cities. In short, The Radicals’ City is a welcome addition to the literature on polarization, conflict, and urban environment that will certainly have many echoes.


[1] See Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Verso, 1990), and Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London, Verso, 2010).

[2] “Troubles” is the common name given to the ethno-nationalist conflict that erupted in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

[3] In Lebanon, certain colors are closely linked with dominant communitarian parties; for instance, yellow is associated with Hizballah, while blue is associated with Hariri’s Future Movement.

[4] These include works that discuss urbicide (for example, Martin Coward, "'Urbicide' Reconsidered," Theory and Event 10 [2007]) and urban geopolitics (for example, Stephen Graham, Cities, War and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics [Malden: Blackwell, 2004.]).

[5] On Beirut, the works of Fregonese—for example, “The Urbicide of Beirut: Urban Geopolitics and the Built Environment in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990),” Political Geography 28, no.5 (2009), 309-318—are representative of this approach. On Baghdad and since the construction of security walls, there has been work questioning the relations between urban form and conflict (for example, Mona Damluji, "'Securing Democracy in Iraq': Sectarian Politics and Segregation in Baghdad, 2003-2007," TDSR 21(2) [2010]).

[6] A very interesting discussion of such architecture and urban spaces is found in Francesco Klauser, “Splintering Spheres of Security: Peter Sloterdijk and the Contemporary Fortress City,Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28, no. 20 (2010), 326-340. One example is the convention center that allows different shared activities to take place in the same space.

[7] There are different types of Do-it-Yourself approaches; however, they all have in common three basic attributes: they are place-based, participatory, and rely on available, recyclable resources and knowledge. See Tactical Urbanism, Handmade Urbanism, and DIY Urban design.

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