Fragile Cities: Karachi And Detroit – Analysis


By Lidia Leoni

The definition of the concept of “Fragile City” encounters certain challenges. Just as the term “Fragile State”, “Fragile City” lacks an authoritative and commonly accepted definition and terminology; contrary to “Fragile State”, however, its relative novelty makes it largely undertheorised. Despite this general lack of consensus on what a fragile city is, a path can be recognised in the stress allocated to the functional role of the city as the central space for economic, political and social development of a country, and of both the local and central governments as providers of the basic services necessary for the fulfillment of this role. Yet, while some definitions look at fragile cities primarily within the framework of fragile states and developing countries – even as a mirror for state fragility itself – others see the phenomenon in broader terms and associate it to urban conditions present in both the developing and developed world. Nevertheless, some general characteristics can be drawn. These are a lack of security and high crime rates. Violence can develop on different grounds, but it usually has a group-related character. Economic downturn, as a result of both internal and external factors, can also be connected to a precarious security situation. In a fragile city, moreover, inefficient management or a lack of funds available with the local or central administration, challenges an effective deliverance of public services.

Two Case Studies: Karachi and Detroit

Detroit Financial District viewed from the International Riverfront
Detroit Financial District viewed from the International Riverfront

Pakistan has become a standard bearer of the term “Fragile State” in recent years, and its economic capital and largest city, Karachi, seems to reflect this development. The city’s main issue is the spread of ethnic violence, especially between the Mohajirs, the descendants of the immigrants from Northern India, and Pathans. At the same time, it is not immune to a growing influence of organized crime and to other forms of group grievances such as religious violence. While group-related violence is the main impediment to Karachi’s stability, the city has increasingly been experiencing problems with the effective deliverance of public services and an ill-managed population overload. This has prompted the creation of slums plagued with problems of lawlessness and inadequate living conditions. The city’s development has been largely uneven – Karachi is home to some of the country’s richest, while parts of its population live in extremely poor and unsustainable conditions. The general imbalance additionally, threatens the city’s economic performance, which is central to Pakistan’s economy itself.

The US, as the world’s largest economy, is usually not associated with fragile conditions. Yet Detroit, once the heart of the American automobile industry, significantly bears the characteristics associated with those of a fragile city. The downturn of the automobile industry and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs have shrunk the size of the city, which went from nearly two millions to less then one million, while entire areas of the city lie abandoned and are “returning to the prairie”. Poorer areas of the city are characterized by a high crime rate – Detroit constantly figures among the most dangerous cities in the US. The uneven development of the city happened along ethnic lines, with the Caucasian population living in better-off suburbs and the minorities, especially African-Americans, in poorer neighbourhoods. While the unemployment rate is not the highest of all American cities, it generally doubles the national average. The near-bankruptcy experienced in recent years has caused a progressive erosion of public services such as illumination and transportation, especially in poorer areas.

The Need for a Definition

The term “Fragile City” is yet to find a universally accepted definition. Nevertheless, it can be characterised as an urban space where high rates of crime, economic downturn linked to both internal and external factors and, a lack of control by the local and central administrations on different grounds persist resulting in a difficult security situation. These general conditions as well as poor management by the city’s administration, make for a highly erratic and corroded system of deliverance of public services.

While a majority of cities that would qualify as fragile are located in developing countries, the phenomenon is not limited to the so-called “Global South”, but is also visible in some cities in developed countries, as projected by the case of Detroit. While the situation in Detroit may not reach the critical levels of a city in an unstable country, as in the case of Karachi, it still bears characteristics of a fragile city. When put in the context of cities in the so-called “Global North”, moreover, Detroit gives ample reasons for concern.

The capacity of fragile cities as a phenomenon, to span across regions and countries worldwide, and the central role that urban spaces play in both developing and developed countries, make these a critical issue in need of universal recognition in order to safeguard cities against fragile conditions. At the same time, it could also be a fruitful starting point for academics to look beyond the traditional identification of fragility as a state-related problem.

Lidia Leoni
Former Research Intern, IPCS
E-mail: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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