“The future is urban.”
So starts a Pentagon video, recently unearthed by The Intercept, that describes the near future of cities. If the video is anything to go on, the military expects that near future to be nothing short of a nightmare, with as much in common with 1984 and Blade Runner as it has with Snowcrash and Children of Men. It envisions the dystopian rise of megacities, chaotic, ultra-compressed hives of humanity that make the powder keg neighborhoods of post-war Iraq and Afghanistan look like Peyton Place.
According to The Intercept, which attained the video in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, it was used by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations University to teach students about the sort of skills next generation armed forces will need to deal with tomorrow’s megacities. These are “complex structures that defy both our understanding of city planning and military doctrine,” the narrator gloomily intones over stock imagery of the world gone mad.
According to the Pentagon video, urban areas will grow by 1.4 billion people by 2030, nearly all within the developing world. 60% of the population of these cities will be under 18, living in spaces that “extend from the high-rise to the ground-level cottage to subterranean labyrinths, each defined by its own social codes and rule of law.” Add in a massive gap between rich and poor, rampant unemployment, shantytowns stacked up against skyscrapers, and climate change, and these megacities have the potential to become very dangerous, very fast.
Why does this worry the Pentagon? The video points out that since the days of Sun Tsu, militaries have been taught to avoid fighting in cities and instead establish a cordon. Cities are simply too compressed, too chaotic, and too dangerous to occupy effectively. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has established new counter-insurgency doctrines for urban environments, but even these, the narrator warns, will be powerless in environments where an insurgency by 1% of a city’s population means dealing with 100,000 enemies or more.
So how does the Pentagon intend to deal with such threats? It sounds like it doesn’t have a frickin’ clue. “This is the world of our future,” the narrator says at one point in the video. “It is one we’re not prepared to effectively operate within, and it is unavoidable.”
Is it, though? That’s the question.
Certainly, megacities aren’t just coming, they’re here already: there are 35 cities on the planet already with populations of 10 million or more. But population growth and the sort of hellish urban environments the Pentagon describes in this video do not necessarily go hand-in-hand; there’s a world of difference between Tokyo, a safe megacity with a population of 38 million, and Karachi, a 24 million population megacity in Pakistan with an incredibly high crime rate.
A lot of that discrepancy can be chalked up to sociopolitical factors, but it’s also true that there are many effective urban design techniques that can be employed to lower crime. For example, much of the social upheaval the Pentagon is predicting is based upon an explosive combination of overpopulation and inequality, a problem that can be lessened through smart housing policies and design and the creation of inclusive community spaces. Design can potentially make a difference and improve the lives of the influx of people who will soon populate these cities, avoiding the dystopia portrayed in this video. The question is whether it will be put into practice.
Either way, the military envisions itself needing to operate within these megacities; what remains to be seen is whether the environments of the future help or hinder them when they do.