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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Assessing Urban Terrain Features for Dense Urban Environments

Effectively assessing urban terrain is necessary to effective operations -- military, policing and humanitarian.

Negotiating conflict in urban environments is a demanding undertaking. First, it is essential to recognize that cities – megacities, and megacity clusters – are likely to play major roles in future global power distribution and therefore have profound strategic importance. Next it is important to acknowledge as the world becomes increasingly urbanized that urban operations are of profound importance to military, police, fire service, and humanitarian actors.

This requires an understanding of the urban environment as a complex operating environment. This complexity exists at many levels with density of population interacting with terrain, compact spaces, built infrastructure, and diverse populations. Cities (and built-up areas) range in size and character from peri-urban mixes blending urban and rural features (as seen for example in the urban-wildland interface that challenges firefighters), to urban edge cities to metropolises, megacities, megacity regions and megacity complexes or clusters. Megacity complexes like the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster or Pearl River Delta cluster that comprises Hong Kong, Macau, Shula, Shenzhen. Densely populated megacities, linked to nearby megacities with complex economic, political, and infrastructural connections “demand both tactical precision (to ensure precaution) and an understanding of operational and strategic interdependencies.”

Intelligence Preparation for Operations

Operating in the urban environment entails comprehensive planning for a range of operations. For the military, these include non-combatant evacuation operations, peacekeeping, defense support to civil authorities for civil strife (riots and high intensity crime), counterterrorism, humanitarian disaster response, and full-scale armed conflict (including both international and non-international armed conflicts). This preparation includes developing an understanding of the “Urban Quad”: population, terrain, infrastructure, and informational contours of the urban space. This requires a mix of approaches to understand the operational environment.

The current NATO approach favors a “Comprehensive Preparation of the Operational Environment (CPOE).” For the urban environment, this approach can benefit from earlier efforts such as the Marine Corps Urban Generic Information Requirements Handbook (GIRH), Street Smart: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield for Urban Operations, and Intelligence Preparation for Operations (IPO) as developed by the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning (TEW) Group for civil urban operations. Traditionally this includes terrain analysis or understanding topographical features, but also human terrain (population) and terrain effects considerations for maneuver: OAKOC Factors – Observation and fields of fire, Avenues of Approach, Key terrain, Obstacles, Cover and concealment as described in Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) (ATP 2-01.3). To effectively perform a comprehensive analysis, it is essential to define the core elements of urban terrain. These elements place the city into spatial context of both place and flows (the space of places and flows) and place the urban area into context with the rural hinterland, peri-urban zone, transitional zone, and the urban core. It also requires looking at global connections such as international and offshore flows – legitimate, gray area, and illicit – including networked diaspora communities.

Categorizing Urban Terrain

Effectively assessing urban terrain is necessary to effective operations (military, policing and humanitarian), and in military and law enforcement operations urban terrain assessments are instrumental to protecting civilians and the populace from the effects of kinetic operations and attacks that affect works and installations containing dangerous forces. I have identified the following urban terrain facets to facilitate planning and operations in urban terrain with an emphasis on dense urban terrain (DUT). These categories result for the confluence of research and my operational experience in urban policing and emergency operations in several major metropolitan regions. The four facets (or categories) in my typology are: I. Vertical (Supra-surface); II. Surface (Ground); III.  Subterranean (SubT) (Subsurface); and V. Interface. 

These four facets are interactive with each other and other conceptional dimensions of battle or operational space (OpSpace) such as time, space (land, sea, aerospace), four dimensions comprising ‘humanspace,’ and cyber – a fifth dimension or ‘cyberspace.’ The four facets of urban terrain are listed in the following table (Table 1). All of these features of urban terrain (both topographical/natural environment and the built environment) interact with the population (human terrain) to form a system-of-systems or dynamic urban ecosystem. Attention to specific population areas, such as prisons, slums (favelas), and criminal enclaves (including feral cities and narcocities) is also essential to ensuring both effective operations and protecting the populace.

Special attention needs to be placed on the interfaces where different terrain features converge and interact. Three critically important features are the Electric Power Grid which enables many critical systems and lifelines to function and thus can trigger cascading failures if disrupted. Water supply, which is essential to sustaining the populace, and the Cyber Infrastructure. Cyber capabilities such as SCADA (Supervisory control and data acquisition systems), which control critical automated functions including transportation and port infrastructure that can be disrupted from cyberattack with both disruption to data systems and physical facilities (including physical effects). Cyber is and must be integrated into all planning and operational maneuver and response actions. The urban-littoral and urban-wildland interfaces are also critical components of the interface feature. Both can be expected to become more important as urbanization continues.


This brief essay puts forward a typology of key urban terrain facets and features that can help military planners and other police and humanitarian counterparts to better understand and negotiate the complex dynamics of urban operations. This essay does not possess the weight of doctrine or replace existing IPB or CPOE practices, but it is hoped that it will inform the much-needed discussions to prepare both defenders and attackers for the urban operations of the future.

Table 1. Urban Terrain Facets
I.                Vertical (Supra-surface)
·       High Rises

o    Commercial, Hotel, Mixed Use, Residential

o    Supertall Structures

o    Towers (Broadcast, Communication and Cell Antennas)

o    Jails/Prisons*

o    Hospitals*

·       Skylobbies, Skybridges, Urban Escalator Systems

·       Aerial Tramways, Elevated Railways, Elevated Highways

·       Aqueducts, Viaducts

II.              Surface (Ground)
·       Street Grids

·       Neighborhoods and residential clusters (including slums and favelas)

o    Plazas, Highways/Freeways

·       Railways (Freight, Commuter, Interurban, Light Rail)

·       Airports/Heliports, Helispots (Landing Zones)*

·       Urban Canyons

·       Rivers, Canals, Streams, Beaches, Marshes, Lakes, and Ponds

o    Culverts*

·       Critical Infrastructure/Lifelines

o    Powerplants, Electrical Power Grid (Transmission Lines)*

o    Water Supply

o    Sewers (Storm, Sanitary)

o    Police Stations

o    Fire Stations

o    Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs)

o    Hospitals*

o    Wildlife Corridors

·       Dangerous Forces

o    Dams, Dykes, Nuclear Power Stations, Petroleum/LNG Facilities

·       Ports & Harbors

§  Piers, Quays

§  Locks

·       Cultural Facilities

o    Houses of Worship

o    Museums

o   Archeological Sites

III.             Subterranean (SubT) (Subsurface)
·       Subways (Metros)*

·       Tunnels

·       Underground Concourses

·       Basements

·       Pedestrian Underpasses

·       Utilities

o    Pipelines, Steam Distribution

o   Gas, Water, Power, Sewage, Storm Sewers, Fiber Optic Lines

IV.             Interface
·       Transportation Facilities*

o    Bus Terminals, Airports*

o    Bridge/Tunnel Interfaces/Culverts*

o    Transportation Terminal (Stations/Hubs)

·       Cyber and Information Systems (including SCADA, Traffic Control, Video Monitors, Sensors, the Cloud, and Metaverse)*

·       Urban-Littoral Interface / Urban-Wildland Interface

Source: Author’s Analysis  * These features can and often do exist in multiple facets.

Select References

Dave Dilegge, Robert J. Bunker, John P. Sullivan, and Alma Keshavarz, Editors. Blood and Concrete: 21st Century Conflict in Urban Centers and Megacities. (A Small Wars Journal Anthology.) Bloomington: Xlibris, 2019

Russell W. Glenn, “Megacities: The Good the Bad, and the Ugly.” Small Wars Journal. 17 February 2017.

David Kilcullen, “Westgate mall attacks: urban areas are the battleground of the 21st century.” The Guardian. 27 September 2013.

Jamison Jo Medby and Russell W. Glenn, Street Smart: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield for Urban Operations. Santa Monica: RAND, 2002.

Ralph Peters, “The Human Terrain of Urban Operations.” Parameters (The US Army War College Quarterly). Vol. 30, no. 1. 2000.

John Spencer, “The Eight Rules of Urban Warfare and Why We Must Work to Change Them.” Modern War Institute. 12 January 2021.

Dr. John P. Sullivan
Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer, now retired. Throughout his career he has specialized in emergency operations, terrorism, and intelligence. He is an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California, Senior El Centro Fellow at Small Wars Journal, and Contributing Editor at Homeland Security Today. He served as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, where he has served as a watch commander, operations lieutenant, headquarters operations lieutenant, service area lieutenant, tactical planning lieutenant, and in command and staff roles for several major national special security events and disasters. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He has a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia, an MA in urban affairs and policy analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a BA in Government from the College of William & Mary.

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