Urban Transformation

These are the world's most fragile cities

The skyline is seen in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., October 19, 2017.  Chicago is one of the U.S. cities competing to house Amazon.com Inc's second headquarters "Amazon HQ2".  REUTERS/John Gress

Cities that are the most likely to collapse due to falling behind in technology, health and security. Image: REUTERS/John Gress

Chris Weller
Ideas Reporter, Business Insider
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Cities and Urbanization

Much of the world is making great leaps in technology, security, and public health. But some cities are getting left behind.

In these distressed urban areas, the unemployment rate is high, equality is low, healthcare and safety are poor, and people fear for their life on a daily basis, wondering whether the government will ever step in to help.

Robert Muggah, a global security expert and research director at the think tank Igarapé Institute, has found 11 such factors that collectively make a city vulnerable to societal or economic collapse. Muggah calls this "fragility."

Using data from United Nations University, the World Economic Forum, and SecDev, Muggah has created a dynamic picture of where the most fragile cities are located. Small blue dots represent stable cities. Large red ones are the most fragile.

Here are the cities that are most likely to fall apart.

This is the world in 2015, the latest year with available data. Generally speaking, sub-Saharan Africa is the most fragile while eastern Asia and Europe are the most stable.

Image: BI

In Africa, a few Somali cities stand out: Mogadishu, Kismaayo, and Merca. By Muggah's calculations, these are the three most fragile cities in the world.

Image: BI

In 2016, Muggah calculated the 20 most fragile cities around the world. Each city's fragility was rated on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being the least fragile and 4 being the most.

Mogadishu was the only city to score a 4. Both Kismaayo and Merca received a 3.9.

"If there's any good news," Muggah told Business Insider, "it's that fragility is not a permanent condition." Countries that want to regain stability can focus on restoring order to their government to better ensure that people have access to basic rights like food, water, and healthcare.

While Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq face relatively low risks, nestled within the area is Syria, a hotbed of conflict and violence. Raqqa, Aleppo, and Damascus are among the most fragile cities.

Image: BI

Muggah said different parts of the world were fragile for different reasons.

The Middle East is fragile because of terrorism and rapid urbanization — caused by extremely high fertility rates — while Central America is afflicted by natural disasters and homicide.

To the east, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cities remain rock-solid.

Image: BI

These urban areas have the benefit of infrastructure and strong government presence. Tokyo is the largest megacity in the world, and China has been building new megacities on an annual basis.

"Megacities" are defined as metropolitan areas with at least 10 million people. Many experts believe they will come to define urban development of the future.

Japan in particular has extremely stable cities. This is despite the country's ongoing fertility crisis, which has been hurting the economy.

Image: BI

Japan has entered a vicious cycle of low fertility and low spending that has led to trillions in lost gross domestic product and a population decline of 1 million people, all within just the past five years.

Experts forecast that if that is left unabated, the country could face a severe economic downturn and a breakdown in the fabric of social life.

India has perhaps the most diverse cities in terms of fragility.

Image: BI

Northern Indian cities struggle with the most fragility, as do a smattering of cities on the southwestern edge.

Many of the country's problems come from a high fertility rate and growing population. The second-most populous country, India is poised to overtake China by the mid-2020s, according to United Nations data.

For being a wealthy and developed country, the US still has its fair share of fragile cities, including New Orleans, Baltimore, and Detroit.

Image: BI

Diversity in state and local governments causes the US to have drastically different rates of fragility depending on the region.

Generally speaking, the Northeast and the Midwest are the most secure; cities in the South and some on the West Coast face greater risks. Muggah said slow population growth and climate change posed the biggest risks overall.

Further south, cities in Haiti and Colombia present a different picture compared with Middle Eastern cities.

Image: BI

Cities like Mexico City, Mexico; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and Bogota, Colombia, struggle with drug trade and violent conflict, Muggah said.

There is also a great deal of inequality. In regions with high population density, the few wealthy residents live among many more in abject poverty.

The picture bears little resemblance to Europe, where nearly every city except Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is stable.

Image: BI

European cities will also need to wrestle with the threat of climate change.

Muggah believes Europe also faces the unique threat of Middle Eastern conflict bleeding north. Refugees are already beginning to settle in countries like Germany and Sweden.

Europeans who can't agree on how to handle the refugee crisis may risk causing destabilization in their countries.

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