The US Army thinks it needs a plan to invade Lagos

Image: Getty.

So the United States Army has recently been thinking about megacities, that growing cluster of urban giants containing more than 10 million souls. Here are its main conclusions:

  • It's basically inevitable that it'll send troops into a really big city one day;
  • It doesn't think that city will be New York, but it might need to invade Bangkok or Lagos;
  • It doesn't currently have the first clue how to do this;
  • It thinks it can probably learn how to re-establish order, but – and this is a reassuring bit – "this order may not resemble previous conditions".

So, to sum up, everything's going to be fine.

This cheery vision of the future is to be found in a report from the Chief of Staff's Strategic Studies Group (SSG): a sort of internal military think tank which conducts "independent, unconventional, and revolutionary research” into things you can do if you have the world’s largest standing army. When one thinks of the urban studies community, this is probably not the first group that springs to mind.

“It is inevitable that at some point the army will be asked to operate in a megacity, and currently the army is ill-prepared to do so”

– Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for an Uncertain Future, p3

But the SSG gives a number of reasons why it’s decided to start thinking about this topic. The world’s growing cluster of megacities contain a growing share of the world's population; they produce a growing share of its GDP; and they play a critical role in key resource markets ("Some megacities," the report says, "will be conduits for access to critical natural resources like petroleum"). So, the implication runs, war will get one of them eventually, by the law of averages alone.

Actually, the report gives a more tangible explanation for its existence, too: the megacities of the developed world are unusually prone to unrest. They grow quickly, in unplanned ways, and often contain areas (slums, favelas) where government control is tenuous, at best. They bring people of different religions, ethnicities or wealth levels into close proximity, which can generate tension. They're well connected to global transport networks, and are easy to get in and out of.

The result of all this is that “operating from megacities allows hostile actors relative freedom of maneuver as they blend in with the local population”. Or, to put it another way: “We think bad people are there, and we don't know how to find them.”

"Not knowing stuff" is actually the main theme of this report. Historically, when the US has needed to conquer a foreign city, its strategy has basically been (I simplify) to surround the thing and walk inwards until their troops control it. You can't do that with a city of 10 million people: it's just too big. The physical infrastructure is rubbish, so the roads are too narrow to get a tank through; but the technological one is brilliant, so the guys on the other side can use their mobiles to co-ordinate resistance. And the current urban training environment, pictured on p9, leaves rather a lot to be desired:

As a result, “it is inevitable that at some point the army will be asked to operate in a megacity, and currently the army is ill-prepared to do so”. It’s the SSG’s job to make sure the army isn’t ill-prepared for anything; ergo, it’s having a think.

If your job is to ensure that the US military is ready for any war it may one day have to fight, then all this no doubt makes sense. If you’re a mere citizen, however, its conclusions are just a tad worrying.

For one thing, consider which cities it talks about operating within. "Highly integrated" cities – good infrastructure, good government, some control over who goes in and out – are “anti-fragile”, can look after their own affairs, and are therefore fine. The section on New York reads like a cross between a tourist brochure and a panegyric to the fire fighters of 9/11 ("a rich history of assimilation and integration.... supporting infrastructure is not simply rebuilt, it is rebuilt stronger and able to withstand more"). New York City will not face military occupation any time soon.

Work your way down the development table, though, and the attitude changes. Bangkok has decent infrastructure, yes – but it also has soaring income inequality and a lot of coups, so "it is not unreasonable" to think the US army may find itself there on "counter terrorism operations" one day. (You'll be pleased to hear its extensive canal network will help on that score.)

Lagos, meanwhile, has a soaring population, enormous slums, and is in an economically critical country. All this means that foreign assistance could be required one day – “and, considering America's significant economic stake in Nigeria, some US military assistance might be offered".

"Offered" is a key word here: the language right through the report is that of invitation, not invasion. Now to be fair, the vast majority of megacities are in states allied to the US, and in the current climate it'd be more than a little inflammatory to publish a plan for occupying Moscow. Nonetheless, it leaves you with the odd impression that the Americans are cheerfully envisioning how they might go about occupying the biggest cities in friendly countries. Why Lagos and not Kinshasha? Why Rio, not Bogota?

"By 2030, there will be 37 cities across the world that are 200-400% larger than Baghdad" 

– Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for an Uncertain Future, p8

There’s one more worrying aspect to all this: the report gives very little indication of what occupying one of these places would actually mean. The Army explains why it might want to operate in a major city. It explains the barriers to doing so. It contrasts the cities it might invade with those that it probably wouldn't. But at no point does it give us the first clue what a US Army presence in Lagos might actually look like. The comparisons with Rio and so on talk about policing activities; but other parts of the report suggest total war. Are we talking ground troops here? Tanks? Air strikes? It's not clear – and in that ignorance lurks terrors.

The US army isn't planning to invade any of these places, of course. It just wants to know it can. It has a responsibility, the report says, "to prepare itself to provide the right tool to the Nation when contingencies arise".

Before the Iraq War, the US army failed to come up with a viable strategy for winning over Baghdad. It won’t make that mistake again. When war comes to Lagos, it intends to be ready.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.