Geography Military Geographies of Urban Space and War
Anna Danielsson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0269


In military and academic circles, there is today an acknowledgment that war is urban and, for some commentators, that the urban also is war—in the sense of an ongoing militarization of cities and urban environments. Indeed, that war is (partly) urban has been the case for as long as humans have lived in cities and towns. What is new at present though is the recognized topicality of the manifold links between urban geographies and war. Until the last couple of decades, urban war and urban warfare were considered phenomena either of the past or of the future, but less of the present. It was only in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the significance of urban spaces in and of war became widely acknowledged, partly as an effect of military and everyday wartime experiences from places such as Grozny, Mostar, and Sarajevo. Other coinciding developments involve the post–Cold War revival of geopolitics, as well as emergent scholarly linkages between (critical) urban geopolitics, on the one hand, and studies of the military, war, and peace, on the other hand. However, this is not to say that military organizations themselves have not historically been preoccupied with urban spaces. With a focus on both intrastate and interstate urban conflict and urban war, the contribution at hand offers an understanding both of the academic study of military urban geographies and of military geographical approaches to and imaginaries of urban warfare and urban space (without going into military urban warfare practices as such). This is done over five sections, each with a specific theme that also illustrates the many links between academia and the military when it comes to cities and urban environments. The first section frames the topic. It offers a broad introductory perspective in the sense of an overview of academic literatures that are often combined in the scholarly study of military urban geographies. First are the conventional and the critical approaches, respectively, to military geography, and second is the literature on urban war that to a varying degree targets geographical aspects. The second section addresses in more depth conventional military geographical approaches to urban spaces, in a way that includes both academic works and military treaties and doctrines. The third section develops further conventional military geographical approaches to and imaginaries of urban space. It details some of the more recent military operational and strategic modes of imagining and approaching urban geographies. The fourth section shifts the focus back to the scholarly study of military urban geographies, but from critical perspectives. As further developed here, critical scholarship on the topic shifts attention to the conditions and effects of military presence on cities and urban spaces and to how military operations are both constituted by and constitutive of urban spaces and sites. The fifth and final section introduces a specific subtheme in critical scholarship on urban spaces in and of war: the literature on urbicide.

General Overviews

The study of military geography of urban spaces in and of war is highly dispersed. It can broadly be divided into three overarching perspectives or themes: First and second, there are conventional and critical literatures that offer, exemplify, and/or debate and criticize military geographies of urban spaces. Third are works that discuss urban war more generally and that contain more or less emphasized geographical components. To better grasp the following sections, this overview introduces these overarching perspectives. First, conventional military geography emerged as a distinct academic subfield in the nineteenth century. As an applied science, it focuses on how the application and use of geographical concepts, tools, and technologies can help solve military problems. Early works concentrated on describing the natural and physical terrain of battles and operations. From the mid-twentieth century onward, more analytical works emerged as well as works that included the human landscape. O’Sullivan 1983 provides insights on the significance of geography for military logistics and of climatology for military operational planning. Palka 2003 offers an overview of the origins and development of military geography. The edited anthology Galgano and Palka 2011 exemplifies traditional studies of military geography and more recent developments. Critical military geography/geographies is a younger subfield. Apart from the discipline of geography, it is closely tied to critical war studies and critical military studies. Rech, et al. 2015 develops how geographical concepts can enhance critical studies of military matters. Woodward 2004 argues that a key contention of critical military geography is that war and military operations shape geographies and that these phenomena are themselves geographically constituted. Finally, there exists by now an extensive literature on historical and contemporary instances of urban war. In a book that covers early forms of urban fortifications as well as 20th-century insights on cities as battlefields, Ashworth 1991 targets the relationship between urban spatial forms and defense activities. Spiller 2001 describes the physical, nonhuman, as well as human characteristics of cities and discusses how these influence military operations. In a recent book, King 2021 gives an overview of contemporary military thinking of the metropolis. King argues that urban wars today are instances of micro-sieges where rival forces struggle for control over specific urban spaces and sites. The contributions in the edited anthology Keogh 2019 discuss urban geographies from a variety of perspectives, including how military imaginaries of urban space can have far-reaching implications that stretch beyond the immediacy of war. Various more or less dystopic perspectives have portrayed cities as future battlefields. Contributions in the anthology Goebel and Keene 2011 explore the late-nineteenth-century and post-1918 apocalyptic urban imaginaries of intellectuals, artists, and writers, which worked to provide meaning to actual war experiences.

  • Ashworth, Gregory J. War and the City. New York: Routledge, 1991.

    The book discusses urban wars and urban warfare predominantly from a perspective on defense activities. It is particularly insightful with regard to earlier defense measures and forms such as, for example, urban fortifications.

  • Galgano, Francis A., and Eugene J. Palka, eds. Modern Military Geography. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    While not strictly focused on urban matters, this anthology offers a set of contributions that both sheds light on military geography and its history and puts geographical approaches into practice in historical case studies.

  • Goebel, Stefan, and Derek Keene, eds. Cities into Battlefields: Metropolitan Scenarios, Experiences and Commemorations of Total War. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

    This anthology investigates how the emergence of “total war” greatly shaped cities and urban centers in the era of the First and the Second World Wars. The contributions span apocalyptic imaginaries of workers in different professions as well as emplaced experiences of wartime urban destruction.

  • Keogh, Tim, ed. War and the City: The Urban Context of Conflict and Mass Destruction. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh/Brill-Group, 2019.

    Based on previous conference contributions, this anthology targets the intersection between war and cities. It makes empirical use of both historical and contemporary cases of urban environments in war, including London and Vukovar.

  • King, Anthony. Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2021.

    A thematically organized contribution to the study of urban war and urban warfare. The book argues the importance of declining force sizes for the recurrent trend of urban war. It demonstrates this argument in relation to various themes, including a chapter on the significance of walls in urban warfare.

  • O’Sullivan, Patrick. The Geography of Warfare. London: Routledge, 1983.

    The book offers examples of the role of geography and geographic knowledge in historical and present-day warfare at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.

  • Palka, Eugene J. “Military Geography.” In Geography in America at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Edited by Gary L. Gaile and Cort J. Wilmont, 503–513. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    As part of an anthology that gives a state-of-the-art assessment of geography in the United States, the chapter offers a comprehensive exploration of the origins and development of military geography from the early seventeenth century onward.

  • Rech, Matthew, Daniel Bos, Neil K. Jenkings, Alison Williams, and Rachel Woodward. “Geography, Military Geography, and Critical Military Studies.” Critical Military Studies 1.1 (2015): 47–60.

    DOI: 10.1080/23337486.2014.963416

    An important article that brings together critical military studies and critical geography. It focuses on key geographical tropes, including landscape and scale. The article also calls for a greater reflexive commitment in critical works on military geography.

  • Spiller, Roger. Sharp Corners: Urban Operations at Century’s End. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, 2001.

    An overview of the physical and human characteristics of urban environments as operational environments. The study does not seek to conduct analyses of specific battles or operations.

  • Woodward, Rachel. Military Geographies. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470774793

    A seminal work for the establishment of critical approaches to military geography. The book explores how military presence and militarism control and shape local spaces and environments. It uses empirical examples, mainly from North America and Europe.

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