Fragile Cities: Plotting lesser known urban stories


London, Paris, Madrid, New York…there are a numerous “global cities” that mesmerize us with their power and opportunity. But what about the lesser known cities? That can’t boast such potential? What do we know about them?

To scope out which cities are forging ahead, and identify those that are falling behind, the Igarapé Institute has launched one of the world’s most comprehensive city mapping platforms – Fragile Cities.


Image: World's most fragile cities.

The platform provides visual insights into city fragility – gauges of a city’s capacity and legitimacy – for more than 2,100 cities with populations of 250,000 or more. Data from 11 selected indicators, shortlisted from 1000 possible metrics and numerous databases, underpins the visualization:

  1. Population growth: Speed of population growth over a 10 year interval. Data available for 1,666 cities from UNDESA with the other 434 supplemented with national urban data from the World Bank. The information is available for all cities.
  2. Unemployment rate: Extent of unemployment as share of total labor force. Available for 1,627 cities including from the OECD and America Economia and CEPAL. There are 473 cities for which no data is available from any source.
  3. Income inequality: The category is measured by the Gini coefficient - the distance in income between the highest and lowest quintile of the city population. It is available for 1,769 cities from UNHabitat. Of these, 1,105 cities have information from a range of national statistics office sources. There is no data available for 331 cities from any source.
  4. Access to services: The accessibility to services is measured using a proxy - the proportion of the population with access to electricity (other variables such as sanitation, toilets, floor quality of houses lack adequate coverage). Electricity coverage is available for all 2,100 cities from UNHabitat and the World Bank (African cities). The information is available for a small sample of cities, the values of 1965 cities comes from urban national averages from World Bank.
  5. Air quality: Annual mean concentrations of air quality (particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns) is recorded by the WHO. Data is available for 1,883 cities, with 1,047 of these cities were ascribed a "city average" for the country. There are 217 cities for which no data is available from any source.
  6. Homicide rate: The prevalence of intentional homicide per 100,000 in a given city population is available from the Homicide Monitor. Specific city data is available for just 469 cities. The remaining 1,631 cities are not included.
  7. Political violence: The intensity of reported "violent" events on the basis of a big data mining system of 1,000 media outlets from around the world collected by GDELT. Information is available for 1,529 cities using an algorithm developed by Igarapé Institute. There is no data available for 571 cities.
  8. Terrorist killings: The registered incidents of terrorist-related killings based on lethal violence due to declared ideological motivations collected by GTD. Information is available for all 2,100 cities on the basis of an algorithm developed by the Igarapé Institute.
  9. Exposure to natural hazards: At risk cities were determined by calculating exposure to natural disaster categories - cyclones, droughts and floods - over a population grid - with primary data supplied by SEDAC and CIESIN of the Earth Institute. Igarapé Institute established data for 1,968 cities. There is no data for 132 cities.
  10. National fragility: The countries ranked as "fragile" using the World Bank CPIA score and the presence of an international or regional peacekeeping operation. This accounts for 33 specific countries in 2016 according to the World Bank.
  11. National armed conflicts: The countries in which there is an ongoing "armed conflict", itself defined as an "armed incompatability" involving armed forces of two or more parties of which one is a government. There are 40 conflicts as of 2015 according to UCDP.

Yet, due to the complexity of fragility, the Institute notes that even after collating these indicators, the measurement still has some limitations.

“For one, there are likely unobserved heterogeneity issues. Diversity, divisiveness and heterogeneity within and between cities are very real. What is more, there are basic challenges when it comes to defining the geographic or administrative metropolitan unit – the geographic parameters and population size of cities vary across different structured datasets,” the research team writes.

“There are very significant questions related to data availability, quality and comparability. As such, quantitative measurement of city fragility should where possible be accompanied by qualitative or mixed method approaches. In cases where data is missing, city data can be supplemented with national averages.”

Taking these limitations into account, the platform still provides a valuable tool for researchers, policymakers, and journalists hoping to understand and tell urban stories.

“The data visualization platform shows that fragility is much more widely distributed than assumed. 14% of all 2,100 cities can be considered very fragile (scoring 3-4) including Kabul, Aden and Juba. Another 67% of the cities report average levels of fragility (with an index score of 2-3) ranging from St Louis to Valencia. And just 16% of all cities report low fragility (0-1) including Canberra, Sarasota, and Sakai. Roughly 4% of all cities had insufficient data to register a score at all,” explains Robert Muggah, Research Director of the Igarapé Institute.

“Interestingly, there are no highly fragile cities in Europe, while 52% of its cities experience medium fragility (2-3) and 47% are reported as having low fragility. The Americas - including North, Central and South America - features the highest number of cities with medium levels of fragility (78%) and just 4% with high rates of fragility.”


Image: Hovering over a city provides you with a full rundown of its fragility score.

Leveraging the power of Explorable Visual Analytics (EVA) - a web application for visualizing and exploring large and complex datasets – the platform provides an easy mechanism for users to congest datapoints, drilldown data, and look at different conceptual zoom layers to get the big picture insights as well as the minute details. EVA is also optimized for time-series visualizations - you can explore trends across different time scales to discover patterns and seasonalities.

The digital platform will also be expanded in 2016 and 2017 to account for city resilience, and the research and design team is currently reviewing possible resilience indicators from the more than 35 available frameworks in use around the world.

Explore the City Fragile project here.