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Centre for Urban Conflicts Research


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Conflict in Cities and the Contested State
Everyday life and the possibilities for transformation in Belfast, Jerusalem and other divided cities

The ESRC-funded project ‘Conflict in Cities and the Contested State’ focused on divided cities as key sites in territorial conflicts over state and national identities, cultures and borders. The research objectives are to analyse how divided cities in Europe and the Middle East have been shaped by ethnic, religious and national conflicts, and conversely, how such cities can absorb, resist and potentially play a role in transforming the territorial conflicts, which pervade and surround them. The project seeks to understand divided cities as arenas of intensified ethno-national conflicts, particularly with respect to the role that architecture and the urban fabric play as a setting and background for everyday activities and events. Phenomena related to creating, maintaining, crossing, transcending, and possibly ignoring ethnic and territorial borders, both physical and symbolic, are central to the study. The main research sites are Belfast and Jerusalem, two very distinctive cities - one firmly embedded in the West and one central to the Middle East - and both at different stages of national conflict and peace building.

A team of researchers from three UK universities, Cambridge, Exeter and Queen’s Belfast, are leading the multi-disciplinary initiative that includes: architecture, urban studies, politics, geography and sociology. Teams reflecting the divisions being researched are carrying out work in situ in Belfast and Jerusalem. Seven PhD students have been attached to the programme since September 2008 and, in conjunction with an international network of academics and practitioners, are working on the divided cities of Brussels, Berlin, Mostar, Nicosia, Berlin, Beirut, Tripoli and Kirkuk


Ethnic, religious and national struggles rage in many urban settings, apparently fed by and central to larger state systems and affiliations. Cities may be targeted, yet, as complex, diverse and dense entities, they also generate conflict. We might ask to what extent conflict is part of the urban condition. For if we understand cities as centres of human culture that, at one and the same time, embody some form of structured unity and varying aspects of diversity, conflict would appear to be inherent. It is unclear why in some cities these conflicts erupt, sometimes beyond control, often for extended periods of time. And while it would be naïve to attribute such phenomena only to the larger struggles of the contested state, cities divided by national, religious or ethnic conflicts are regularly determined in some way by the state(s) in which they are located.
We hope to better understand the ways these heavily contested and divided places may be viable as cities for all inhabitants, how urban structures and institutions may bolster cities to withstand state struggles, how their negative aspects may be better recognised and their positive qualities enhanced, and, ultimately, to what extent they may be transformed to be more effective and equitable sites for human settlement. Thus, the aim of our research is not so much to identify ways in which conflict is removed or resolved as to more realistically to identify ways in which it is confronted and absorbed.
'Conflict in Cities and the Contested State' has two main reciprocal aims:

  1. To further our understandings of the nature and dynamics of conflicts over state identity and territoriality insofar as they are manifested in divided cities; and, conversely:
  2. To understand how cities and everyday urban life are used (and abused) in the regulation or containment of these wider national conflicts, and to explore their potential uses for achieving the self-sustaining moderation, constructive channelling or resolution of conflict.

These aims can be stated as four broad objectives expressed through the following research questions involving the inter-relations between divided cities and contested states:

  1. How does ethnic and national conflict (including civil violence and war) shape the socio-spatial structures and physical environment of urban praxis?
  2. What reciprocity is there in the socio-spatial structures and physical environment that influences the ethno-national conflict; how can it aid 'conflict objectives', whether these are to one-sidedly prosecute the conflict, to manage it 'from the outside', or, more optimistically, to moderate and perhaps resolve it through the self-activity of citizens themselves?
  3. How does the conflict affect the everyday life of citizens, and how do they as active agents continue to cope or resist? To what extent are cities robust in such extreme situations? And can civic structures help to ensure the viability of the city, even within the context of national and state struggles?
  4. How have aspects of everyday city life been used by conflict protagonists and managers, and how might the resilience of everyday city life be harnessed to the goals of conflict moderation/resolution, noting that cities are inherently the sites of constructive or agonistic conflicts as well as antagonistic, destructive ones? Focusing on citizens as active agents who can change the structures and circumstances in which they find themselves, returns us full circle to question 1.

The project will bring together a multi-disciplinary research team to explore separate but related urban and national conflict research concerns. The core research programme will focus on Belfast and Jerusalem, two very different cities - one firmly embedded in the 'West' and one central to the Middle East - but both at different stages of national conflicts, so-called 'peace processes' and attempts by states to 'manage' conflicts. There is a supplementary enquiry into other divided cities, such as Nicosia, Mostar, Berlin, Beirut and Kirkuk, to extend the range of contested cities and instances of progress (or lack of progress) toward resolving them. It is expected that the outcomes will make innovative contributions and bring new directions to the contributing disciplinary fields (architecture, political sciences, human geography and sociology), and to correspondingly diverse user groups. In taking a range of cities spanning Western Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East, there are the wider objectives of understanding how culture and way of life impact both on the nature of ethno-national conflicts and on their management, moderation or resolution.

Conflict in Cities and the Contested State is generously funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain. It builds on an earlier project begun in 2003 and supported by the ESRC.

To find out more about the project please see our annual reports below:

2012 Annual Report

2011 Annual Report available to download here.

2010 Annual Report available to download here.

2009 Annual Report available to download here.

2008 Annual Report available to download here.