Visions of African urban futures yet to come

“African cities don’t work”, writes AbdouMaliq Simone at the beginning of his book For the City Yet to Come‘Or at least their characterizations are conventionally replete with descriptions ranging from the valiant, if mostly misguided, struggles of the poor to eke out some minimal livelihood to the more insidious descriptions of bodies engaged in near-constant liminality, decadence, or religious and ethnic conflict.”

What is imagined of the future of African urban spaces? What ‘visions’, visual images, are used to ‘picture’ what can become of places as diverse as Douala, Eldoret, Ballito, Lamu, or Enugu? Simone reminds us that, for many writing on urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa and other urban places of the global South, a ‘future’, in any meaningful and acceptable sense of the term, is not really possible. What future can be hoped and planned for in the liminal flux of uncertainty, change and displacement? There is no future. There is only survival and adaptation, playing it by fear.


Konza Techno City.

But new visions of African urban futures, driven by local political elites and the dazzling CGI of large international planning, design and property development firms, are quickly emerging.  Examples includeWesCape outside Cape Town (South Africa), Tatu City and Konza Techno City in Kenya, Appolonia (‘The City of Light’), Hope City and King City in Ghana, La Cite du Fleuve in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the new master plan for Kigali in Rwanda.

Many of these large-scale developments and ‘new cities’ are planned for peripheral areas of existing large urban centres. Some commentators have likened them to the Garden City plans of the early twentieth century. But these places strive for the tantalising neoliberal goal of ‘global competitiveness’, for the dream of being ‘world class’. And they pre-emptively cater for Africa’s middle-class to come.

In principle, building ‘satellite cities’ in an attempt to develop polycentric urban regions, channelling growth away from already congested urban nodes, is not a bad idea. African urban growth does need to be managed more effectively and sustainably, and growth management needs to proceed hand-in-hand with physical and social infrastructure development. Millions of people need access to potable water, sanitation facilities, food, education and social security networks.

However, what African cities do not need are hugely expensive niche developments, catering for a connected elite, which only serve to pull even more capital and infrastructural resources from the vast majority of urban residents and the places in which they already reside.

Like the visions of Africa’s capitals inspired by the gaining of independence, these ‘new city’ visions are quintessentially modernist in their focus on the future, on aesthetic order, on progress, on human agency, on the notion of it being Africa’s time ‘to become’. They also retain an attachment to the spectacular and iconic. They speak of great African ambition, and the demand for international recognition. In the aptly named Hope City, Ghanaian businessman Roland Agambire wishes to construct Africa’s tallest building, designed by Italian firm Architect OBR. These places are not just about neoliberal economic development and aesthetics, they are also about power and distinction.

Yet, the fine print of these ‘urban fantasies’ promise a growth in urban inequality. They provide a playground for the digitally and socially connected, yet fail to accommodate the immense majority of urban residents in their flashy renderings. In places where the majority of inhabitants earn their living through some forms of informal work, no clear possibilities for this crucial form of employment exist. What is to become of informal livelihoods? Will they disappear within the folds of formal, high-technology employment?

It could also be argued that these developments are exceedingly ambitious in their projections of demand and affordability. An obvious illustrative case here is the ‘ghost town’ of Kilamba in Angola, where the China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) has designed and built a new satellite city outside Luanda at a reported cost of $3.5bn, but which now stands empty due to the inordinately high rents expected of residents.

(On a more personal aside, which is an indulgence I dare to entertain given that this is an opinion blog, I believe that these plans are ugly, with New Urbanism-type sculpted layouts and shiny buildings, which would not provide attractive urban living environments even if it was possible that they could be realised in a form anything like that depicted by graphic artists huddled in Singapore, Canada, South Africa, or wherever. The juxtaposition of such glittering developments alongside the Spartan living conditions of the average urban denizen will be an irony lost on few).

Critiques of the socio-economic feasibility of large-scale, peripheral developments are well noted (see Prof Vanessa Watson of the African Centre for Cities and Association of African Planning Schools on the proposedWesCape development near Cape Town). But here I would like to raise a different question, particularly in the wake of the recent popular urban uprisings in Turkey, where urban citizens have mobilised, according to Mustafa Dikeç around their ‘political ideals, dignity, and aspirations’, triggered by the violence unleashed by police on protestors whom disputed the redevelopment of Gezi Park in Istanbul. But these protests, Dikeç insists, are about much more than the construction of an unwanted shopping centre in an urban green space – they are a revolt against state-led neoliberalism and non-participatory property development inculcated by the demands of private profit maximization.

The question is this: why are top-down abstractions and visions of urban space not being met with similar critique and concern in most sub-Saharan African urban places?

We see African cities with immense infrastructural backlogs and abysmal shortages of housing and basic services pursuing exorbitant plans. Yet Lagos has not had a Taksim Square, despite the State Government’s propensity for forced evictions, as was clear in the recent clearing of large sections of the fishing community living in ‘Houses on the Lagoon’ in Makoko. Why are developments such as Eko Atlantic accepted as an appropriate (indeed, a desirable) path of development for the city? And there is no need to pick on Lagosians, as none of the aforementioned developments would be possible without a significant degree of buy-in from political actors and civil society. We also see citizens, planners and political actors stand by as ‘slum areas’ and informal settlements all over the continent experience state-led eviction and demolition, clearly infringing upon the human rights of a tolling number of local inhabitants; the recent violent evictions of an organised land invasion in Philippi are but one example.

Why has the spirit and frustration of Tahrir and Gezi Park not spread to other cities south of the Sahara? Why are there basically no concerted and unified ‘right to the city’ movements in sub-Saharan Africa? Why is it not easier for alternative visions of the future to be assembled through the gathering and ‘commoning’ of urban inhabitants? No simple answers can be given to these questions. Popular uprisings and movements exist in African cities, to be sure, and many take their cue from the issues related to the production of urban space, but they tend to remain localised and rarely grow to encompass political contestations over issues beyond those immediately affected (water and sanitation service delivery, specific mistreatment by local government, etc.). Some may point to the fragmentation of civil societies on the continent (relative to other Southern regions), or at least their sedimentation along religious and ethnic lines.

I am no expert on these issues. But I will venture one hypothesis, pertaining to the psychological ‘lines of flight’, or possibilities of escape, offered by the plans of Rendeavour and other international property firms. Suppose a contributing issue to the situation is the clear gulf, the inversion between the ideas and images prevailing in international media and ideoscapes, seeing Africa as the place of despair with no future, and these new diagrams of progress writ anew into the urban landscape. Perhaps these new satellite cities are simply too attractive, in relation to their ‘planet of slums’ alternative, to turn down. In many ways, these fantasies are themselves the alternative, the way out. They offer some figure of hope in the midst of crisis. They act as a substitute for that unattainable Real: a modern, orderly and efficient Africa. They are the seat of desire, identity and aspiration in an attempt to encounter an African utopia, as bequeathed by the great independence leaders, but forgotten by their heirs.

What is clear, and worthy of emphasis, is that an equitable, prosperous urban future will not be possible without collective mobilisation of ordinary urban residents around some urban common, some demand for equitable, incremental and sustainable urban growth. This common political and aesthetic terrain does not need to be torn between the extremes of glamorous orderliness and abject poverty.

In the next blog in this three-part series, I go on to discuss some of the concepts and practices that we may consult in our task of imagining alternative African urban futures.

This article originally appeared at Urban Africa on 31/07/2013
By James Duminy

James Duminy is a researcher in the African Centre for Cities, and acts as General Secretary of the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS). He holds an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology (Rhodes University), a Masters in Town and Regional Planning (University of KwaZulu-Natal), as well as an MA in Urban History (University of Leicester, UK).

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