Review: Urban Planning in Lusophone African Countries

Editor(s) Carlos Nunes Silva
Publisher Ashgate Publishing Limited
Year 2015

Portuguese colonial planning in Africa achieved its heights in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when other colonial powers were retreating from the continent. Nevertheless, little is known about how Portuguese colonial planning developed and changed over time and in what ways it has continued to influence planning at a time when Lusophone African countries celebrate 40 years of independence in a context of rapid urban growth.

This book therefore represents a timely contribution to the literature on urban planning in Africa and the fact that it has been published in English makes it accessible to a wide audience.

Written mostly by Portuguese academics, it is also indicative of a growing interest on the part of Portuguese scholars in the country’s former colonies. In recent years, this rapprochement has been marked by growing trade relations and an exodus of Portuguese professionals to the (until recently) booming economies of countries such as Angola and Mozambique in search of job opportunities.

The book is divided in two parts. The first part covers contributions on colonial urban planning and aims to query the similarities and differences between the Portuguese colonial urban planning culture and the planning culture of other European colonial empires in sub-Saharan Africa, in addition to questioning the role of urban planning in the Portuguese colonial project in Africa.

The second part contains chapters on postcolonial urban planning in Lusophone African countries and aims to deal with the nature and structure of postcolonial spatial planning systems in Lusophone African countries, as well as exploring the colonial legacy in contemporary planning practices and the potential urban planning alternatives that seem to be emerging on the continent.

While different in terms of the relatively late arrival of Portuguese colonial investment and planning in urban development, the book convincingly shows that Portuguese late colonial planning was heavily influenced by modernist planning ideas that flowed between different European metropolises such as London and Paris and across colonial boundaries in Africa. The book is rich in the use of archival material, such as copies of the original urban plans for the extension of Luanda developed over the course of the 1940s (chapter 5), which were based on the ideas of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and further built on by architects and planners who were students or who had studied under students of icons of the French School of Urbanism such as Le Corbusier.

As the main urban centres in Portuguese colonial Africa and some of the most rapidly growing cities in current day Southern Africa, it is not surprising that contributions on the cities of Luanda and Maputo dominate. Only one contributor dedicates some space to Guinea-Bissau in the first section of the book on colonial planning (chapter 3), while a comparative analysis of postcolonial spatial planning systems in the second section of the book includes a section on Cape Verde (in addition to Angola and Mozambique). This is explained by stating that Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe ‘do not have a formal and comprehensive spatial planning system’ (p. 128 in chapter 10). However, knowing that the Office of Colonial Urbanization created in 1944 covered all of Portugal’s African colonies, in addition to Portuguese colonial territories in India, Timor and Macau, it leaves the reader curious about the legacy of this office in other parts of the former Portuguese colonial empire. It also reveals the focus of the book on formal planning systems, even though under colonialism informal or vernacular planning already represented the dominant mode.

There is a tension in the book between some of the chapters that offer critical views on the Portuguese colonial planning system and other chapters that are dangerously nostalgic in their analysis of planning in current day Lusophone African cities. This produces an odd mix of on the one hand chapters that shed interesting light on the gap between the policy rhetoric of racial mixing and the practice of intra-urban racial segregationist planning (eg. chapters 2 and 4), the fact that many urban plans were never actually implemented due to a lack of financial, administrative and technical capacity (chapter 5), and the ways in which the Portuguese ‘civilizing mission’ was enforced through urban and spatial planning beyond the major urban centres in colonial Mozambique (chapter 9).

These chapters stand in contrast to others, which uncritically and with seemingly little historical consciousness, reproduce some of the very same ideas underlying Portuguese colonial planning. Examples of this kind of thinking can be found in chapter 6, which presents Portuguese modernist architecture as the expression of an intent to ‘build more human cities, neighbourhoods and sustainable housing with ecological equipment’, while lamenting the current ‘chaos’ of a city like Luanda and the lack of preservation and valorization of the buildings built under the Modern Movement which are seen as ‘ethical aesthetic model[s] of a high concept of civilization’ (p. 88-89 chapter 6).

Even more concerning is that some chapters combine this colonial nostalgia with a lack of empirical research. For instance, the authors of chapter 11 on urban planning in the postcolonial period in Angola argue that ‘at the present time the only discernible, formal and state-promoted urban forms throughout Angolan territory are Portuguese colonial interventions’ (p. 152). This in spite of a growing literature which analyzes state-led initiatives that have marked urban development in Angola over the past years, such as the one million houses programme as well as the construction of entire new towns.

This is not to say that current planning initiatives and systems in cities such as Luanda should not be critiqued. However, for this critique to be convincing this must be done on the basis of actual research and in conversation with the existing literature, both on Lusophone Africa and beyond, while acknowledging the positionality of the authors.

Compared to the chapters on Luanda, the contributions on postcolonial Maputo seem better researched and more innovative in terms of scope and methodology, such as chapter 16 on street naming and chapter 17 on pre-paid electricity (which unlike most of the other chapters happen not to be written by architects but by a historian and anthropologists).

In that sense, the book perhaps rather represents the state of Portuguese scholarship on urban planning in former colonies than the actual state of planning in these countries. Nevertheless, it is a good start for what are hopefully many more studies and contributions to our knowledge on urban planning in Africa.


Sylvia Croese is a post-doctoral research fellow at the department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town. She has written and conducted extensive research in and on Angola as a researcher and consultant and has an interest in issues related to housing and urban development, local governance and electoral politics in Africa.

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