Modern American Urban Terrain Analysis
Note: this an adaptation from my non-fiction book Suburban Warfare: A cop's guide to surviving a civil war, SHTF, or modern urban combat, available on Amazon.
Urban terrain is unique in that it affords lots of visual obstructions, concealment, hiding places, and even cover. It can be as exposed as a pool table and as confusing as a maze. High vantage points, natural and artificial, can put observers snipers above you. You will frequently find yourself boxed in by walls and fences.
Cities are contradictions when it comes to battlefield terrain. Each advantage is often countered by a disadvantage. Uniformity on a map doesn’t translate to reality on the street. The considerations are not just physical geography as inside every city there is a population that can be with you, neutral, or against you and how you fight can change that dynamic. Analysis of urban terrain is a social and spatial exercise.
While we can discuss the physical elements of fighting and maneuvering, a deep understanding of your community at the human level is necessary. We have to think beyond simple geography and consider the human terrain, demographics, as the population itself is an adjunct to the lay of the land. Demographics and interpersonal politics may dictate the outcome of confrontations or events.
In terms of observation and fields of fire, walls, structures, and landscaping block views and reduce distances. Long streets, open plazas, and grid designs can open up very long sightlines. These same sightlines might be great on top of a house but lousy at street level where a retaining wall limits cuts the view at a man’s standing height. High buildings or elevated terrain can be a great vantage point for an observer but also increase the conspicuousness of that observer and draw fire.
At the same time as there are plenty of cover and concealment in modern cities, there can be very little. Conscientious defenders may not be able to hide behind or inside a building because civilians are inside. A block wall may protect the people behind it from view while those on the other side are caught naked in the open like a rat in a bucket.
Long range observation
Sightlines will be long, usually along streets and in open spaces. For non-arterial streets, this means up to 300m within tracts, usually 200m or less. A quarter to half a mile is not unusual especially on main roads or where elevation is involved. Sightlines will be interrupted by terrain and objects. You might be seen at half a mile down an arterial street, but parked cars, trees, shadows, etc. might make effective shooting at that distance difficult. Other visual obstructions may be:
There are gentle undulations in every road that we seldom notice. From a driver’s perspective a rise of three or six feet in the roadway might as well be flat. At eyeball level, or lower in a gunfight, that height is significant. Like any elevation change, it can either work in your favor or against you.
Arterial streets will have danger zones of around a half mile to a mile, however, accurate fire is not to be expected beyond one quarter mile. Cross exposed roads at their narrowest points preferably where curves obscure you from one or both directions.
Streets with landscaped medians or roadway edges can provide concealment to bad guys. Terrain and plant life may conspire so that an observer may see you approach while you don’t see them. For example, someone half a mile away and slightly downhill can see your legs while all you see are tree branches above the pavement. Newer cities and developments will have less in the way of mature trees and landscapes, whereas the older ones will.
Arterial streets can turn into small canyons with little cover if both sides are bounded by obstacles. In master planned suburban areas tracts built in the last half century will probably be like this. In these funnels, you cannot run far enough away fast enough to survive. Avoid the walled side or double-walled in streets. If you must traverse them, each man should be able to jump a wall on his own with full kit on. Consider carrying a small, rope or compact ladder.
Many modern American suburbs have commercial and shopping districts along wide arterial streets to handle the high volume of traffic that the businesses generate. This is different from older towns and cities (and European ones) where the main or “high” street shops are right along the street. The advantage to this is you’re not right underneath a bunch of windows and roofs or in front of the storefronts. The American shopping area is like open ground perhaps dappled with more concealment.
Some streets and their adjoining properties or spaces may be so open and wide that they are practically uncrossable safely. You may need to regard this open space as an artificial terrain feature that is technically traversable, but not without great risk of snipers, etc. Freeways are the easiest example. They, and major thoroughfares, often form the boundaries of different gang territories, although this is mostly for expedience than necessity.
American retail has moved into the big box, big parking lot phase. Older communities tend to have big box stores in stand-alone lots, whereas newer communities (or new build commercial developments) tend to centralize the stores into one large sea of parking lots. This may or may not include elements from strip malls. Smaller stores tend to be clustered into strip malls. A huge portion of suburbanites do their shopping in a land of comparatively widely spaced buildings, parking lots, and decorative trees.
Shopping centers and big parking lots, any commercial area really, has a lot of concealment and little cover. If you are fighting in most shopping centers, you are fighting in a lightly forested plain that has really hard ground. It’s like being caught in the open on the savannah except you are a lot less likely to want to flop down on the asphalt when being shot at. You will be shooting through concealment, which may be cars, landscaping, or more natural vegetation. Figure on effective ranges of approximately 100 yards but shots up to and beyond 300 yards are not improbable.
Be very wary about building fronts, especially if you must traverse open areas. Look for open doors, broken windows, or sudden activity at your appearance in the open. Shooters inside the business will, if they are smart, fire from inside the room or entrance so that they are not visible from the outside (and no muzzles protrude from the door/window). If you must go past the front of commercial buildings, hug the front. In an emergency, you can break in and escape through the rear of the building or fight from inside.
Shopping centers that are out of business (abandoned, looted, burned) may be popular with looters, rioters, refugees, and the homeless. Retail and commercial areas should be treated with special caution as this is where people have learned to associate these places with the acquisition of things. Any businesses that are open will generate traffic and attention, positive or negative.
Always be prepared for vehicles to make a surprise appearance. Assume it is in concert with an attack or vise versa. However, don’t automatically light up a car because it coincidentally appears when you see someone or come under fire. Before shooting at a vehicle, attempt to ascertain its intentions. Potentially hostile signs:
Experiences in Iraq would correlate. You can’t assume that because someone is speeding up and driving towards the gunfire that they are part of it. A lot of drivers are so stupid that they can only think about driving forward and fast to get away from danger, even if it takes them through the middle of a gunfight.
Storm drains (above ground)
A storm drain is a great way for low profile movements, but absolutely sucks in a gunfight. There is no cover or concealment. Shots taken down the channel are as close to a shooting range environment anyone will ever get in combat. The only way out is probably up the side and into the surrounding yards or terrain. The sides may be steep or vertical. Ladders or other access can be easily controlled.
Due to limited access points, the direction of travel and potential divergence points for someone using the drain are easy to predict.
The tall buildings in most American suburbs will be multi-story apartment buildings and offices. Typical height is three to six stories. The maximum reasonable height for an elevated shooter should be less than one hundred feet above street level. Taller buildings may be encountered in suburbs and almost surely in the downtown cores of large cities.
The proximity of a tall building will increase the range at which you are in danger of rifle fire. Once you get about thirty feet up, you’re over the tops of most trees used for landscaping and parking lot decoration. Lower buildings put shooters at treetop height, limiting how far one can see and shoot. Ground level can improve the distance by moving out of the way of obstacles, but then the height advantage isn’t present.
Be prepared for long-range rifle fire from tall buildings; long range being over 300 yards. Beyond 300 yards, the average person with an AR-15 and unmagnified sights will begin to have difficulty in hitting a target. Trained and better equipped shooters will be effective with an AR out to 800 yards or so, larger caliber rifles probably up to a quarter-mile. This would be your untrained sniper or someone in perhaps a fourth-story apartment building taking potshots.
Multi-story buildings that are not high-rises will be a favorite for troublemakers, psychopaths, gangs, and defenders. Expect to have certain places covered by snipers or elevated shooters who watch these areas to take a shot. Such places include intersections, open space, common pathways, or cover that is exposed to a distant building one side.
The US military MOUT field manuals are full of great advice on how to navigate through ruined buildings in a city. Unfortunately, this manual has its origins in planning for WWIII, so the buildings are typically European ones. American construction is not the same and has only been diverging from the kind of European Theater urban combat the manual writers had in mind.
It would be great to go through the side of buildings using mouseholes and navigating a strip mall this way, but it is unlikely to happen. Most American construction is wood frame, meaning that buildings that are knocked down will either become match sticks or burn. Suburban construction is low on masonry and high on materials that play well with a hammer and nails.
Comments are closed.
Author Don Shift
Don Shift is a veteran of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office and avid fan of post-apocalyptic literature and film who has pushed a black and white for a mile or two. He is a student of disasters, history, and current events.