How does conflict exist within cities? What are the possibilities for conflict transformation within Belfast, Jerusalem and other divided cities? These are two of the many questions that the Conflict in Cities and the Contested State research group are investigating in their ten-year project.
Presenting a flavour of their research last week, at an event generously sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council, the key investigators from the Universities of Cambridge, Exeter and Queen’s University Belfast take a multi-disciplinary approach to their project. With leading political scientists, geographers, sociologists, architects and archaeologists, they seek 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 conflict which pervade and surround them.
One of the areas that the panel discussed was how to effectively manage and then resolve conflict. In many of the cities discussed, the management of warring parties has been through the separation of communities. Initially this was done through the military or riot police but the effects are a lasting reminder on city spaces. The separation barrier in Jerusalem was planned and built by the Israeli state and represents security to some and an obstacle that divides a community to others. Likewise, closer to home, the peace walls in Belfast were built on an ad hoc basis and largely in response to fighting between rival groups. The inherent issues that separation causes, is the entrenchment of division, lack of mixing between different religious and ethnic communities which hampers later cooperation to bring about a transformation of conflict.
The transition away from extreme conflict to one of institutionalised and constructive conflict is a long journey as for many the past is in the present or as William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” The overwhelming message from the research is that progress is possible even with episodic set-backs. It makes me question how best can people manage conflict in its various manifestations more effectively and bring about the results they desire?