Cities matter. They matter for fighting climate change, for fighting pandemics, and, as the Urban Warfare Project continues to demonstrate, they matter for the future of fighting itself. The heightened importance of urban spaces results from demographic developments, with the global population advancing toward 70 percent living in urban areas by 2050, and from recent trends in terrorism, counterinsurgency and stabilization efforts. Both people and the fight are converging on cities.

But recognizing the importance of the urban domain is a very different thing from knowing a particular city, or even knowing urban areas more generally. After all, there are many cities—according to UN data, there are around one thousand urban agglomerations with populations of half a million or greater—and they remain difficult to know.

One way to meet this challenge is to identify the types of cities that require doctrinal understanding. In their much referenced 2014 report, “Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain Future,” the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group made the case for the importance of megacities—those at the extreme end of the population spectrum, with ten million or more residents. “It is inevitable,” the report observed, “that at some point the United States Army will be asked to operate in a megacity.” In 2016, Michael Evans criticized this emphasis on megacities. “Despite the complex and multi-varied pattern of urbanization,” wrote Evans, the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College,“recent Western military research on urban warfare is narrowly focused on operating in megacities.”

Another option, rather than focusing on city typologies, is to focus instead on specific cities in strategically important nation-states. John Spencer and John Amble recently undertook one version of such an exercise, looking beyond mere demographics and outlining criteria for prioritizing the development of urban intelligence and identifying cities that might emerge as areas of focus from such criteria. This is consistent with Evans’s observation that “military researchers must learn to distinguish between the global city of influence, the megacity of sprawl and the emerging middleweight city, and between smaller peri-urban, semi-urban and inner-urban forms of human habitation.”

But even when the question of which cities, or which types of cities, is answered, a challenging question remains. What sort of intelligence do you need to operate within a city? Undoubtedly, some of the knowledge needed will be technical in nature, not unlike the detailed maps collected and produced by the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army between 1950 and 1990. These maps—which included representations of over 120 cities in the United States, one hundred in the United Kingdom, and at least two thousand other cities around the world—featured a dizzying array of local infrastructure and topographic data, including load-carrying capacity of bridges, the density of forests, and the speed of rivers. The vision is of the master planner looking at the city from above.

Such an approach, focused on technical information, is crucial for any campaign that provides service delivery along the “sewage, water, electricity, and trash” (SWET) model—a condensed form of the broader SWEAT-MSO framework favored by US military doctrine. It is also largely consistent with the US military’s approach that breaks a city up into three units of analysis: physical terrain (or what urbanists would call the built environment); the human population; and supporting infrastructure.

But even where such knowledge—data-driven, mapped, and formal—is available, it has significant limitations for any effort beyond strict clearing operations such as occurred in Fallujah or more recently in Mosul. Such was one of the conclusions in the “Lessons of the Iraq War” section of the Army’s recently published, two-volume history of the Iraq War. “The Army should consider reassessing trends that emphasize the use of metrics at the expense of difficult to measure professional judgment,” concluded the authors. “In some ways, Army leaders have become too enamored with the ‘fetishization’ of statistics and metrics.” The authors continued:

While our Army relishes quoting Carl von Clausewitz, in practice we have come to rely excessively on the Jominian theory of war and its emphasis on scientific method, an imbalance that requires adjustment. As a force, we should re-emphasize the traditional German military concept of “Fingerspitzengefuhl,” which loosely can be considered a commander’s sense and intuition of the battlefield in making decisions.

In outlining the lessons learned from urban combat in Basra in 2007, Ben Baker, a British Army officer, made a not dissimilar point. To be sure, Baker affirmed the importance of the built environment—Basra’s micro-environments of boulevards, alleyways and compounds. But he cautioned against a “veneer of understanding” that can come from a knowledge of buildings, infrastructure and transport routes. “It is easy to conflate the temporary physical securing of key terrain,” Baker wrote, “with dominating the will of a living and breathing city.” Contrasting British knowledge of Belfast with that of Basra, he noted that this “veneer of understanding” often hid a lack of “intuitive understanding” of Basra. “The nature of the city,” Baker observed, “added ambiguity over even the seemingly straightforward questions of who we were fighting and why.”

As it turns out, the distinction made by both the authors of the history of the US Army war in Iraq and Baker have their analogy in the history of urbanism. Over the last one hundred years, the study of urban areas has moved its focus from the University of Chicago–driven emphasis on the material and physical space to the more bottom-up, self-organizing dynamics of urban spaces captured in “assemblage theory.” Here the vision is less that of the master planner than of organic social space constituted of exchange between people and between people and space. This can sound very theoretical, but put more simply, urbanists have moved toward an increasing recognition of the complex, temporal, and often hidden nature of cities and urban areas.

Accompanying the shift in thinking about urban spaces has been new and creative thinking by sociologists, historians, and anthropologists about how to gather information about a city and how to “intuit” urban spaces and neighborhoods along the lines advocated by Baker. One way of thinking about this challenge is the divide between techne and metis. In Seeing Like a State, James Scott famously drew on these types of knowledge to explain the failure of large organizations and institutions and experts to work in complex environments. Techne, Scott noted, is impersonal knowledge, focused on processes, rules, logic, and data, and available through books. Such knowledge is highly represented in Soviet maps and, for that matter, on Google Maps today. Metis, meanwhile, defies mapping. It is a form of knowledge acquired through practice, often passed on through generations, and cannot be routinized or standardized. Like the sense of a master sailor in a storm, metis favors quick adaptation coupled with strategy in complex, non-repeatable environments. In the urban context, as Richard Sennett has recently explored, such knowledge is commonly known as “street smarts.” Once ingrained, such smarts lead to “instinctive and swift responses.” Another way to think about intuiting urban spaces is what Keller Easterling, an architect and professor at Yale, has called disposition—or a city, building, or piece of infrastructure’s “propensity within a context.”  Is a city or neighborhood sitting on edge and more volatile than would seem at first glance—like Mogadishu in 1993, Fallujah in 2004, or Basra in 2007? To know a city’s disposition is also to know it intuitively.

Such knowledge is expensive, idiosyncratic, and hard-earned, and does not easily scale. In other words, it is exactly the type of knowledge large, global organizations and outside experts, as David Kilcullen has shown, struggle to access. Nonetheless, a multidisciplinary approach combined with lessons learned from previous engagements in the urban domain might offer some general observations regarding access to intuition.

First, how you think about cities and urban areas matters. Cities must be considered, not simply by what makes them similar across countries if not continents, but also what makes them unique. This echoes of the observation by the urbanist and historian Lewis Mumford in his mid-century classic, The City in History, that  “general truth about cities” can be found in ”their marked individuality, so strong, so full of ‘character’ from the beginning that they have many of the attributes of human personalities.”

Second, the unique nature of each city requires that analysts use a wide net for information gathering and analysis. The ability to intuit a city, will also depend on a range of knowledge that extends far beyond the enemy and the built environment. Delivering on the approaches outlined by Spencer, Evans, and Kilcullen will require everything from an understanding of a city’s history to a familiarity with its public transportation system (informal and formal), its economy (informal and formal), and power players (informal and formal). Any such military effort in practice would likely require extensive interagency collaboration, including with embassies and consulates, as well as collaboration with the intelligence community. Done in an open-sourced fashion, it could also include consultation with the over three-hundred city networks now operating around the world that serve as hubs for urban knowledge and expertise, as well as with international organizations such as the World Bank, many of which are building out their urban practices.

Third, and finally, urbanists and psychologists, as well as historians of the Iraq War, offer similar lessons regarding the influence of mobility and speed on our knowledge of urban spaces. Urban walkers, the French cultural critic Michel de Certeau argued, are expert at shortcuts and routes that do not appear on maps. More recently, Sennett has explored the relationship between speed and information intake. Greater speeds mean less detailed observation: “The cyclist knows more, neurologically, about the city than the motorist.” The sociologist Eric Klinenberg has studied the way different types of infrastructure and place encourage or discourage social bonds. “Social infrastructures that promote efficiency tend to discourage interaction and the formation of strong ties.” Finally, Jan Gehl, among the most influential urbanists of the last two decades, has studied the relationship between distance and social knowledge. In terms of both sight and sound, specific interpersonal recognition begins around seventy-five feet, with detailed conversation and observation beginning around seven feet. Speed and distance come at the expense of intuition. SWET, it seems, might need a partner in WIST (Walk, Interact, Stop, Talk).

These rather abstract guidelines for developing urban intuition or street smarts are borne out in many of the lessons identified from urban warfare in the Iraq War. 3d Battalion, 6th Marines’ foot patrols in the Iraqi city of al-Qa’im, for example, included “eats on the streets,” during which time Marines stopped by local food vendors. These patrols and stops were not presence for the sake of presence, but rather, according to the recent Army history, “related to the counterinsurgency precept of population control, conducting censuses of the population and buildings near each battle position to enable [the Marines] to understand who and what was around them while compiling detailed records for follow-on forces.”

In Invisible Cities, the Italian novelist Italo Calvino explored two different ways of analyzing cities—one embodied by the emperor Kublai Khan and the other by explorer Marco Polo, between whom Calvino imagines a conversation. Kublai rests in his imperial seat reviewing technical information on taxes, horticulture, and topography. Polo arrives to offer his own style of report. “I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs,” Polo tells the emperor, in what would be a perfect description of the approach taken by the Soviet Army’s Military Topographic Directorate. But Polo stops short of offering such details: “I already know this would be same as telling you nothing.” Instead, he offers Kublai a second method for understanding his cities, one less rooted in the sciences than in the humanities, in history, literature, art, and design, one predicated on the feel of a city. Polo proceeds: “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corner of the streets, the gratings of windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

Intuition, in other words, isn’t cheap. It’s a dear prize; and to intuit the city, knowing its corners, segments, and rhythms, ultimately requires more time and more people moving at slower speeds.


Ian Klaus is Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was formerly Senior Adviser for Global Cities at the US Department of State and Deputy US Negotiator for Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.


Image credit: Staff Sgt. Jason T. Bailey, US Air Force