Conflict in cities and the contested state

Pullan 2 copyResearch by Dr Wendy Pullan of the University of Cambridge  

In collaboration with Professor James Anderson and Professor Liam O’Dowd of Queen’s University Belfast and Professor Mick Dumper of the University of Exeter

New research explores how cities in Europe and the Middle East have been shaped by ethnic, religious and national conflicts helps us to understand what role these cities can play in transforming the conflicts that surround them.

The research, led by Dr Wendy Pullan of the University of Cambridge, was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and accredited to the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research.

The project focuses on a number of divided cities as key sites in territorial conflicts over national identities, cultures and borders,’ said Dr Pullan.

‘There is a particular focus on Jerusalem and Belfast, two very distinctive cities at different stages of national conflict and peace building, and exploring the possibilities that exist in these cities to both confront and absorb conflict.

‘The research shows that two extreme conditions – fragility and robustness – are integral to the urban condition and figure as significant factors of conflict resolution.

‘We found that while cities are often targeted by both internal and external forces, and the density of their populations and complexity of their systems helps to injure them, these vulnerabilities also make them stronger.

‘These qualities produce a diverse and rich urban experience which fosters ways of dealing with challenges.’

The research also found that while ongoing violence manifested on the streets is usually organised by higher powers, everyday urban practices are remarkably resilient. As a result, it is important for there to be an emphasis on policies and practices that take into account the requirements of not just a functional city, but also one where the experience of urban life can be enjoyed.

‘If one wants to understand ethno-national and religious conflicts, a focus on the urban condition is indispensable.’

Dr Wendy Pullan


Throughout the project, Dr Pullan and the research team have produced over 50 publications, including four books. ‘Locating Urban Conflicts’ and ‘The Struggle for Jerusalem’s Holy Places’ are two of the titles. The project also published a series of briefing papers, including ‘Urban Conflicts from Local to Global’, ‘The Politics of Heritage’ and ‘Sharing Space in Divided cities’.

The team has also produced more than ten photo essays focused on conflict in Jerusalem, Belfast, Nicosia, Vukovar, Berlin, Beirut and Guben-Gubin.

As a result of the conflicted cities programme run for graduate students, seven PhD studentships were awarded through funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and collaborating universities.

The team’s work has been cited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) and forms part of the Unispal Report from the United Nations Meeting on the Question of Jerusalem.

New procedures for council in Jerusalem were introduced following the development, by the research team, of a framework for cooperation entitled ‘An Inter-Religious Council for Jerusalem’.

At the request of the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the team hosted a workshop to explore the future challenges confronting the agency, including the consideration of refugee camps and the impact of political changes and future trends in the region.

In November 2014, Dr Pullan wrote a piece for media website The Conversation UK entitled ‘Jerusalem: where religion divides but lives are entwined’. Within just two days, the article was viewed more than 6000 times and has since been re-published across a number of other media websites.

Future Impact

As cities around the world continue to experience ongoing and violent conflict, it is expected that government and the third sector, both within the United Kingdom and overseas, will look to the work of the conflicted cities research team for realistic solutions to the challenges faced.

The Centre for Urban Conflicts Research, directed by Dr Pullan at the University of Cambridge, builds upon and extends the work of Conflict in Cities. 

Further Information