The City in International Political Conflict

By Scott A. Bollens (University of California, Irvine)

In this time of increased hostility and competition among groups defined by ethnic, religious, and nationalistic identity, I contribute to our understanding of fractured cities and nations in my UAR article, “National Policy Agendas Encounter the City: Complexities of Political-Spatial Implementation”. In examining two urban areas of enduring and deep inter-group violence, I reveal the contentious relationship that exists between the national political realm of policy agenda setting and the urban realm of implementation. I focus on the city and its role in perpetuating or attenuating inter-group conflict. I concentrate on how urban dynamics are both shaped by national political goals and capable of disrupting the implementation of these national programmes. I investigate two urban settings—Israel’s program aimed at sole sovereign control of Jerusalem and Northern Ireland’s effort to build peace in Belfast. I carried out seven months of in-country research and 122 interviews in 2015 and 2016.

I focus on the city because while nationalistic conflict is associated with broader national and international geographies, urban centers are increasingly focal points in peacebuilding programs and humanitarian efforts. My focus on the urban level does not dismiss attention to the national level. The state remains an indispensable partner in any political effort to move beyond societal division. National leaders sign political agreements, not city officials. This article’s attention to the urban argues, however, that it is essential to examine the dynamic nature of the relationship between these two important actors – city and state. The relation between the state and the city is not a clear dominate-subordinate one. As observed by Magnusson (2011) and Simone (2010), city politics and everyday dynamics commonly exceed the regulatory effort of the state. The state in its policymaking and interventions seeks to impose order, schematic visions, and regularity (Scott 1999). Yet, the city presents a mosaic of local histories, geographies, and power relationships that can disrupt and otherwise distort mandates and goals established by the national state.  

I highlight how difficult it is for national governments to implement national goals in politically contested urban space. I also show how social and ethnic interests operating within the city are capable of disrupting the implementation of national policy agendas. The article illuminates how national political goals are not clearly operationalizable at the urban level. Rather, what I find is more complex and paradoxical. National political goals are put into force in cities in ways that produce ineffective outcomes, at times unintended and even contradictory to the national goals themselves.

Political goals of ‘united Jerusalem’ in Israel and ‘shared future’ in Northern Ireland become problematic when implemented as they confront micro-scale urban dynamics and resistant patterns of community power. In Jerusalem, implementation of Israel’s political goals aimed at solidifying Israel’s hold over Jerusalem face contradictions and challenges. Obstructions include the location of the separation barrier and its distorting spatial impacts, the extent of unlicensed Palestinian development that is bypassing Israeli formal development restrictions, and territorial settlement expansions that entangle Israel in difficult security and political predicaments. In Belfast, the translation to urban space of national political peacemaking goals in Northern Ireland (shared space, equality, good relations) is a process that produces complexities and contradictions that thwart and disrupt national goals. National movement toward peace is hindered by the material, political, and psychological legacies of thirty years of civil strife. Working class neighborhoods remain the protectorates of strong community voices who work to maintain the status quo of separation.

On a theoretical level, I contribute to policy implementation and to urban regimes and governance debates. Regarding policy implementation, the Israeli case reveals the problems of “intercurrence” (Orren and Skowronek 2004). This takes place because the implementation of policies takes place through “controls asserted through multiple orderings of authority whose coordination with one another cannot be assumed.” Due to the complexity and multi-faceted nature of the Israeli unilateral political program, different policies produce impacts that are at times unintended and create counter-productive impacts on sole sovereignty motives. The Belfast case shows the utility of the interpretive approach to understanding policy implementation (Yanow 1996). We witness a “struggle for the determination of meaning” during policy implementation of Northern Ireland’s peace goals that is influenced strongly and distorted by ethnic-sectarian and political motivations. Underspecified peacebuilding goals are stymied in their implementation by local spatial and power dynamics and community actors that create distance between stated intent and on-the-ground action.

The article also highlights the role of local stakeholders in influencing outcomes of the policy process.  Both the Israeli and Northern Ireland cases reveal how cultural, ethnic and social forces are able to operate outside formal governance structures in efforts to resist and distort governing mandates. These organized interests operate outside of formal, sovereign political structures and processes that are emphasized by urban regime and urban governance theorists. Self-organized interests employ urban materiality and space in asserting non-sovereign authority vis-à-vis the state. Palestinians build in urban space outside the Israeli regulatory regime and Protestant loyalists claim authority and control over neighborhood territoriality.

A national policy agenda aimed at managing a city of deep political differences is handicapped because it requires a political-spatial process of implementation that produces erratic effects. I find national-urban disjunctions in fundamentally different national programs— one pursuing unilateral control and the other promoting shared co-existence. This exposes the inherent disruptive quality of urban dynamics and community stakeholders in resisting national mandates. This is not only a story about Jerusalem and Belfast. The complexities and obstructions faced by national policy agendas when they encounter the city extend to numerous urban regions beyond the two cases reported here. Much urban growth today is taking place worldwide not within the ‘formal’ city but in burgeoning slums and informal settlements of inadequate shelter, insecurity of tenure, and inadequate access to services (UNHSP 2006). These vast peri-urban territories often exist unmanaged and ungoverned, residing at the uncertain, contestable frontiers of state control.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Kaeli Hearn on Unsplash

Author Biography

Scott A. Bollens is professor in the department of urban planning and public policy and Warmington endowed chair of peace and international cooperation, University of California, Irvine. Bollens studies urbanism and political conflict in contested cities. His research has investigated Jerusalem, Belfast, Nicosia, Beirut, Sarajevo, Mostar, Johannesburg, Barcelona, and the Basque Country. His new book is Trajectories of Conflict and Peace: Jerusalem and Belfast Since 1994 (London and New York: Routledge, 2018). E-mail:

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