January 7, 2013

The Demand for Urban Planners to Heal the Trauma of War

Residential Road in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo Sutika Sipus 2012.
Contemporary warfare psychologically traumatizes millions of innocent people every year.  Since the industrialization of warfare at the end of the 19th century, the wreckage inflicted upon humanity  has torn communities apart, crushed families, and rendered vast swathes of land throughout the world useless.  In contemporary war,  the range of actors consists of independent militants, private armies, gangs and criminal elements, and thus the issue of trauma and land use have become additionally problematic as there is no clear end to the conflict.  

Today, the world is dotted by low-intensity protracted conflicts, stretching onward by scattered acts of terrorism and insurgency, thus continually threatening civil society and undermining the development of state sponsored institutions.  The elongation of war not only drains state resources, but reinforces a cyclical condition of violence, as the population subjected to war must continue to live and die in a constant state of fear and aggression.  While contemporary psychology may have individual methods of therapy, tied to the personal history of the victim, how can we move forward at an urban scale?

In contemporary wars and post-war landscapes, the triggers for trauma do not go away.  The also risk remains constant.  On the most peaceful days, the threat of terrorism lurks around the corner and the random loss of a loved one haunts  every family.   How can one overcome trauma when threatened by the possibility of bombings in cafes or the return of insurgents at night to abduct family?  Particularly for those populations who were a major part of the conflict, such as in Rwanda or Somalia, how can psychological change take place, to shift the normative mindset of the community from a culture of war into one of peace, when the environment and the people are always the same?  

Not only does the constant stress drive conflict by twisting normative social patterns, but can induce increased rates of risk in other areas of our lives.  A victim of PTSD may struggle to focus at work, or may become more likely to become subject to physical illness.   A population under stress is less likely to be physically healthy and also less economically productive.  If trauma can have a negative impact in the US alone at $42 Billion a year, imagine how it must affect entire populations under threat of war.

In the post-conflict environment, there is a necessity to rely on traditional security methods, such as the imposition of military installations and checkpoints, but the ability for complete transformation and thus also reduces the level of security over time..  If we drop the traditional security mechanisms then the fear of returning instability dominates the society and the stressful feeling of risk becomes more oppressive.  Solutions must be multifaceted to maintain security and to facilitate healing.

The problem of maintaining military security alongside psycho-social healing clearly demands the attention of urban professionals.  At present, security infrastructure is generally handled by engineers, architects, and planners as technical problems with little regard for the broader impact on society.  Among those who are working to provide social counseling and trauma workshops there is negligible ability to modify the physical environment.  While these conditions are demanding and maintain risks, it would seem that more Community Planners and likeminded individuals would be drawn to this problem, considering the problems of post-conflict transition are not exactly new.  Yet where are they?