I picked up Divided Cities while rummaging through the urban development section of my college library and I was immediately captivated. For one thing, the book spotlights several cities with which I am quite familiar. Nicosia, Cyprus is a place I traveled to and studied extensively in a Peace and Conflict Resolution seminar last year. Belfast, Northern Ireland is a city I lived in relative proximity to when I was ten years old. Finally, Beirut and Jerusalem are both places I’ve studied through religion classes and hope to one day visit. Besides this familiarity, the book drew me in because its authors, Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth, are writing on a topic that, as far as I know, has never been explored with this level of detail in a book. Divided Cities is about urban areas that have been physically partitioned due to ethnic, religious and political conflict—from the Green Line in Beirut that divided Christians and Muslims, to the “Peace Lines” that separated Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast.
The book profiles partitions in the four cities mentioned above—plus Mostar, Croatia—analyzing the factors that created such walls and barricades, as well as the effect they have on each of the city’s residents. Divided cities are a significant area of study because, as the book explains, “they function in part as emblems of larger political struggles in which individual enclave residents are enlisted to fight battles not directly serving their personal interests” (Calame and Charlesworth 211). In addition to this exploitation, divided city residents are usually the victims of poverty, either before the walls came up or because of their construction. Calame and Charlesworth write,“Property values tend to go down near the boundaries of contested areas regardless of, and often due to, the presence of walls. Those who live along these interfaces typically lack better housing options” (158). Thus, urban partitions contribute to increases in poverty and homelessness, and often in areas that were already experiencing economic downturn.
These observations about overarching trends in the various divided cities are the book’s greatest strength. For instance, I was fascinated to learn that most of the cities were described as cooperative, peaceful places where people of different backgrounds coexisted before each conflict arose. Another pattern that runs through the featured cities is the division of residents along multiple lines—ethnic, religious, and political. The book shows that these identities were lumped together by extremists who wished to exploit divisions to gain support for their causes or hasten the climax of a conflict. For instance, in Cyprus, Greek-speaking residents were told that their identities as Christians and people of Greek origin were both integral to maintaining power against their Muslim, Turkish-speaking opponents in the north. We see the way that a church or mosque can be transformed from a symbol of devotion and sacredness to an emblem of discord within an urban space.
One of the most valuable tools in Divided Cities is a table at the start of each chapter that breaks down the basics of each city’s partition including its context, location, size, materials, and the various players and groups that it divides. These tables make the book quite accessible, even for readers who know little about the cities and their conflicts.
My favorite chapter in the book was one called “Professional Responses to Partition” in which the authors explore the limitations and potentials of working with architects and city planners in divided cities. As Calame and Charlesworth explain, “The effectiveness of design professionals in the context of a divided city is limited by the extent to which their training and original assumptions bar them from operating under social conditions they perceive to be distasteful and dysfunctional” (167). Essentially, the authors argue that design professionals are losing out on opportunities to change the terms of urban division because they lack the training or confidence to involve themselves in political disputes. The authors suggest that architects and planners should be empowered as constructive peace-builders, even if their initial successes appear small.
One thing that bothered me about Divided Cities was that it never mentioned Berlin, Germany—one of the most well-known divided cities in history (and another city to which I have close ties). I suspect this is because the authors focused on cities that developed divisions over time and usually through municipal channels rather than international intervention per say. Still, it seemed like an oversight to completely ignore Berlin, especially when they did address the affects of third party intervention from the British, for instance, in places like Jerusalem and Cyprus (namely, that it is harmful).
Besides that omission, Divided Cities was an engaging and educational read. After informing me about well-known conflict landscapes, the book ultimately left me considering the ways that even minor divisions like highways and fences effect the cities in which I live. As an interdisciplinary person, I especially valued the authors’ research into this intersection between conflict, politics and urban space. If you’re interested in any of these topics, you should see if your library has a copy of Divided Cities.