Post-Conflict Cities and Neighborhoods

Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”

By Kai Vöckler

Understanding the repercussions of political conflict for urban development is a very important and yet often neglected topic. To grasp the specific role cities play in post-conflict reconstruction and development, it is helpful to recall their inherent spatial logic in relation to the nation state. The territory and the city each represent a distinct logic: a territory with fixed borders, i.e. the modern nation state, is a marker of the inclusion or exclusion of specific persons, goods, and behaviors. The state tends to homogenize those transactions and standards, universally valid and applicable within its borders. The city, by contrast, is a permeable construct, an open-ended and relatively loose framework that encompasses and enables a huge variety of transactions. The city is a hub for the flow and distribution of goods, capital, and human beings throughout the broader territory of the nation state. It is therefore a significant driver of migration and intercultural integration. The city, accordingly, does not homogenize space, but makes it denser and more diverse.

This is not to deny that post-conflict cities are very often divided into ethnically homogeneous parts, as numerous examples show, from Belfast to Nicosia to Mostar. Yet even then, cities have to accommodate all the diverse communities resident within them and so necessarily become a testing ground for innovative strategies—for examining how conflicts may be resolved by non-violent means, for example. Cities may therefore play a leading role in conflict resolution. They are centers of communication and possibly also of reconciliation.

The Need for Innovative Post-Conflict Strategies in Divided Cities

The role of urban planning in combination with government policy in shaping contested spaces has already been discussed in reference to divided cities. There is evidently a need for more research into effective conflict resolution strategies that are developed in everyday practice (“on the ground,” so to speak), particularly those that focus on the specific potential of architecture and urban planning to shape (possibly contested) social spaces.

I outline here one essential aspect of this problem, with regard specifically to the postwar reconstruction of urban neighborhoods. Cities aiming to regenerate themselves after a conflict always face the same problem, namely the fact that war brings about recurrent and drastic demographic shifts. Certain population segments flee a city during periods of armed conflict; and for a variety of reasons, many of them do not return home initially, or ever at all. They see better prospects elsewhere; or they find the political situation in their homeland so altered, that to return there no longer interests them or even poses a risk to their well-being.

In parallel, however, other population segments migrate to cities from rural areas in wartime (as in Kosovo after 1999, or in Afghanistan after 2001). As a result, existing communities disband while new communities rapidly form, and this has an impact on neighborhood infrastructures and everyday life.  It also generally leads to a subdivision of the city into ethnic-homogeneous parts that mirror the (on-going or former) ethno-national/ethno-religious conflict (as in Mostar, Sarajevo, Mitrovica, etc.). But whatever the wartime or post-conflict situation, one crucial fact remains: precisely because cities offer vastly more scope for social mobility and all sorts of transaction, the urban population almost always increases sharply in a very short period of time, owing to the influx of rural immigrants, former residents, and displaced persons from elsewhere (e.g. Pristina after 1999, Kabul after 2001). Such rapid growth dramatically increases demand for living space and therefore leads to an unregulated, informal construction boom.

Full or partial reconstruction of the social fabric is paramount in a post-conflict situation—in every neighborhood and every sector of any (subdivided) city. By social fabric, I mean overall community life as well as basic utilities, and actual bricks and mortar. But people generally make a fresh start “in their own backyard,” engaging in spontaneous, informal building activity that meets their personal needs but fails to take into account the needs of the broader community.  A coordinated, well-designed response to the often serious (technical as well as social) infrastructural problems is imperative, however. The strategy for these new neighborhoods must therefore be to foster a strong sense of neighborhood community at a very early stage of postwar reconstruction, and so motivate individuals and neighborhood initiatives to consider the bigger picture in their city. The United Nations Habitat’s urban community upgrading strategy and similar aid programs are often implemented too late. They would be more effective if rolled out at an early stage.

View on the Spanish Square and the former front line at Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina. Image: Sune Fredskild

Case Study: Mostar

Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina offers a prime example.  Let us briefly recall that when Yugoslavia disintegrated, armed conflicts broke out among the country’s various population groups, each of which hoped to establish an ethnically homogenous nation (however questionable the term “ethnic” may be). Such was the case in Mostar. The Slavs living in Mostar shared a common language and traditions. True, their religious practices differed, but in secular Yugoslav society this had never been of much importance. Indeed, the different populations there had always mixed a great deal. In 1992, however, the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army and Bosnian-Serb paramilitary forces occupied the city. Bosnian-Croat and Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) combat units fought back successfully and eventually drove the Serbian military and the Serbian population out of Mostar. Yet armed conflict over the question of who would rule the city broke out again in 1993, this time between Bosnian-Croats and Bosniaks; and it took military intervention by the United States in 1994 to put an end to it. In the meantime, the city had been completely destroyed, and large segments of the population had left. Of the original 20,000 Bosnian Serbs, only 1,000 still live in Mostar today. The city was then (and is still) divided in two, with Bosnian-Croats living on one side, and Bosniaks on the other. Mostar has not yet become the “multi-ethnic” city it once was, even after twenty-five years of peace, and despite the efforts of the international community. And even though residents are free to visit both halves of their city without hindrance or risk, most of them avoid going to “the other side.” The division of the city is still a crucial feature of everyday life.

So how might the division of the city be overcome? Four possible strategies have been outlined and discussed:

  • The Mostar city administration is de facto divided in two so its master plan for urban development of the entire city—(infra-) structural planning across the divide, so to speak—has so far failed.
  • Civil society initiatives working to create shared spaces that are “neutral” and acceptable to people on both sides of the divide are, therefore, all the more important.
  • It is equally important to deal with the city’s architectural heritage, a potent testament to the shared history of the now divided community. But even the past is contested. For example, reconstruction of the historic city center, including its pearl and major tourist attraction, the “Stari Most” (Old Bridge), has come to symbolize reconciliation, international cooperation, and the peaceful coexistence of different cultural, ethnic, and religious communities; and yet, despite having had the desired effect in the global political arena, it has barely had an impact on local conflicts. In Mostar, as in many other post-conflict cities, rolling out a reconstruction agenda has proved to be a double-edged sword: the new “Old Bridge” belongs more to the international community than to the city it was meant to reunite.
  • An important role in overcoming the division of post-conflict cities is played also by “Thirdspaces—Other Real-and-Imagined Places”: spaces, namely, that relate in a particular way to the city as a cluster of contested spaces, either physical or imaginary, real or virtual, permanent or temporary, but that, most crucially, both adopt and adapt the symbolism of contested space. To cite just one example, new ways of mapping and reading the city (in this case, Mostar) open up new perspectives.

The primary challenge for planners, architects, artists, and civil society activists is to give new and positive meaning(s) to contested spaces. In particular the architecture and design disciplines, as well as spatial planning in its broader sense (i.e. land use, urban, regional, transport, and environmental planning, and the related areas of economic and community planning) must make a concerted effort to meet the overarching needs of diverse communities in post-conflict cities.


References and further reading

Bittner, R., Hackenbroich, W., Vöckler, K. (2010) “UN Urbanism.” In: Bittner, R., Hackenbroich, W., Vöckler, K. (ed). UN Urbanism / UN-Urbanismus. Berlin: Jovis, p. 16–29

Carabelli, G. (2018) The Divided City and the Grassroots: The (Un)making of Ethnic Divisions in Mostar. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan

Carabelli, G.; Žuljević, M. (2012) “(Re)collecting Mostar. Mapping Public Space to Generate Memory Collections.” In: Vöckler, K. (ed.). SEE! Urban Transformation in Southeastern Europe. Vienna: LIT, p. 102–104

Gaffikin, F., Morrissey, M. (2011) Planning in Divided Cities. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

Held, G. (2005) Territorium und Großstadt. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag

Soja, E. (1996) Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Malden, Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell

Vöckler, K. (2008) Prishtina is Everywhere. Turbo Urbanism: The Aftermath of a Crisis, Amsterdam: Archis

Vöckler, K. (2014) “Four Strategies to Counter the Division of Cities.” In: VOLUME, no. 40.  Architecture of Peace Reloaded; Insert: “The Good Cause. Architecture of Peace—Divided Cities,” (=exhib. cat., Munich Architecture Museum 2014), p. 28–31

Kai Vöckler is a founding member of Archis Interventions and program director of the South Eastern Europe (SEE) Network. He has taken part in urban development projects in South Eastern Europe and urban research projects in Europe and Asia. Kai Vöckler is an urbanist, publicist, author, editor, curator of exhibitions and lecturer on art and urbanism themes. He gained a PhD in Art History on urban spatial images and has professional expertise in landscape, architectural and artistic competitions and design projects, solo and in teams of architects. Vöckler is currently Endowed Professor for Creativity in Urban Contexts at the Offenbach University of Art and Design, Germany.

Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:

Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.

Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.

Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.

Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, 18 September 2019.

Paul Sigel, “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood-Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War, 25 September 2019.

Allam Al-Kazei, Beyond the Atomic Bombing: The Revival of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods, 2 October 2019.

Mohammad Hassan Khani, War Emigration and its Impact on Post-War Reconstruction of Neighborhoods: A Case Study of Khorramshahr after the Iran-Iraq War, 17 October 2019.

Namariq Al-Rawi, Baghdad Neighborhoods: Processes of Resilience against the Internally-reflected Conflict of 2006–2008, 24 October 2019.

Kefah Ahmed M. Najjar, Youth Teams and Reconstruction, 7 November 2019.

Zoya Masoud, A Treasure of Heritage for the Poor of Aleppo: Neighborhoods between the Hammer of Political Insecurity and the Anvil of Warlords, 14 November 2019.

M. Wesam Al Asali, Majida Malo, and Iyass Shahin, Informality for Reconstruction: A Possible Partnership, 21 November 2019.

Mamoun Fansa, Post-conflict Analysis and Post-war Reconstruction Strategies: Sociopolitical Considerations Using the Old City of Aleppo as an Example, 12 December 2019.

Citation: Kai Vöckler, Post-Conflict Cities and Neighborhoods, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.12.2019, 

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2019, 27. Dezember). Post-Conflict Cities and Neighborhoods. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 25. Juni 2024, von

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