African slum

To round off the year before I go on holiday, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learnt about African cities from Africa’s Urban Revolution1 – a new edited volume that’s been doing the rounds.

To get things rolling, here’s an overview of how urban Africa has become (I didn’t realise the extent of this). It’s now the world’s most rapidly urbanising continent, with more city dwellers than Europe, Australasia, North America or South America – only Asia has more. 40% of Africans now live in urban areas, according to the UN definition, and the urban population is expected to double in the next two decades or so. Part of this growth will come from migration from the countryside, but most will be due to the natural growth of existing towns and cities. Most urban residents, it goes without saying, continue to live in slums.

Infrastructure and planned housing to accommodate this growth is only rarely being provided. But the reasons for this only partly relate to a lack of institutional and financial capacity at local level. More profoundly, there appears to be a denial among national policy makers that an ‘urban revolution’ is actually taking place.  Edgar Pieterse describes this as a “prevailing government attitude that urbanisation is something bad or undesirable that needs to be prevented and, failing that, reversed through effective rural development policies, leading to a refusal to provide for the ‘illegal’ urban dwellers”.  He goes on to explain that

“many national governments…hold a deep disdain for urban life and the ‘modern corruption’ and defilement of pure African identities found there, which are seen as essentially a product of the exploitative colonial experience. From this perspective, African urbanism is a material expression of Western dominance and vice, and therefore something that is only grudgingly acknowledged and engaged with”.

The (often rather neoliberal) arguments we hear about the inevitably beneficial potential of urban life may therefore meet with a rather unreceptive audience in Africa.  Such arguments are problematised by another set of arguments in the book (nicely summarised, along with some of their implications, on the Global Urbanist blog). These relate to the general understanding that urbanisation and economic growth go hand-in-hand. Urbanisation is seen as necessarily driven by economic growth – and rapid growth by industrialisation in particular. But this relationship doesn’t appear to hold true for Africa, which in many cases has experienced ‘urbanisation without growth’. Equally, the evidence is far from clear that African urbanisation has always led to economic growth. The fact of urbanisation, in short, doesn’t in itself give us hope for Africa’s future.

All this only feeds my growing suspicion that we have become dangerously entranced by the increasingly dominant discourse that cities are the key to global sustainability. What I argue in my own research – in a nutshell – is that the idea of the ‘city’ itself is poorly conceptualised in much related policy making around the world.

But now you’ve got me started. So I’ll stop there, with wishes for a happy August.


31 July 2014, London



1 Parnell, S. & Pieterse, E. eds. (2014). Africa’s Urban Revolution. London: Zed Books.