Africa’s urban dynamics: a review of Africa’s Urban Revolution

Editor(s) Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse
Publisher Zed Books, London; UCT Press, Cape Town
Year 2014

Africa is indeed passing through an urban revolution of immense proportions as attested to by the number, size and morphology of mega, big, medium and small cities on the content. Although urban growth and development in Africa predates colonial adventurism, Africa’s urban transition has been accentuated by the varied colonial experiences when small sleepy settlements became big while their numbers multiplied. In addition, rapid rural urban migration led to increased growth of these towns and cities and the political edification of primate cities led to them being transformed into mega cities. It is not surprising, therefore, that Africa, which is regarded as the least urbanized amongst the world’s continents (at 40% urbanization) has more people living in cities than Europe, Australia, Asia, North or South America. This attests to the astonishing pace at which the African urban revolution is taking place.

Unfortunately, the phenomenal pace and resulting number and density of African cities has not curried the needed attention of researchers within and outside the continent. The few that waded into this area have neither understood the proximate drivers of this increasing city growth nor the pattern, processes and social or politico-economic consequences of such dynamics.

This is why Africa’s Urban Revolution, edited by Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse, presents a refreshingly new and detailed insight into the origin, growth and rapid expansion of Africa’s cities, the transformation of some of these into mega cities, and the consequences of such transformation. This edited book of fourteen chapters examines different aspects of Africa’s urban revolution starting from a kaleiodospic analysis of the revolution through conflict and post war transition in Africa’s cities, religion, transport, planning education, infrastructure and economy, to urbanization and policy with a postscript to make the new urban transformation sustainable. These chapters, written by eminent scholars and urbanists, have been carefully chosen to examine and document the urban transition experiences in Africa as attested to or manifested in the governance or leadership structure, the urban institution to nurture and administer the cities, the technical capacities and capabilities and the financial solvency of the cities.

Thus, the overall aim of the book is to tell the African urban revolution story as never before from a rich, informative and participant/observer/performer point of view. The goal is to examine the nature of the shift in the size and location of the population, assess the associated changes in the pattern, content and aerial extent of settlements and examine the relevance of these for policy and urban governance in Africa. The authors argue that the anti-urban knowledge bias on and about Africa is not only outdated but it has also lost all academic and/or professional relevance.

The book ably meets its goals. Chapter Two features the influence of wars on the contemporary African city. While wars may not necessarily be urban based, cities are often the unfortunate recipients of a large influx of people uprooted by wars and their attendant consequences. Chapters Three, Four, Thirteen, and Fourteen variously examine the content and context of urbanization in Sub-Sahara Africa and its ecological footprints; the African economy where poverty and informality hold sway and especially where infrastructural inadequacies contribute significantly to the poverty of urban livelihood pattern and returns on investment. Unfortunately, as Chapter 14 amplifies, there are few functional urban strategies, driven by astute innovative policies, to solve most of the challenges thrown up by contemporary urban transformation processes.

Religion is both crucial and critical to the survival of urban Africans, providing socio-psychological balance and economic survival as attested to by Rakodi in Chapter 5. This is a valuable addition to this collection as its absence would have been a minus to a proper understanding of the African in town. In- migration and natural urban increase have made many cities and towns in Africa very food insecure, not necessarily because of non-availability as Gushand Frayne argues, but because of lack of access to food as a result of poverty, unemployment and poor infrastructure. This then becomes a policy issue in the unfolding urban transformation/revolution drama. Rural-urban synergy and enablement of access through policy innovation are therefore indispensable.

The book delves into sectoral aspects of the transformation process when transport, planning law and planning education are examined in Chapters Seven, Nine and 10 respectively. The imperatives of these sectors to the success of urban revolution in Africa are visible especially in practice. Existing laws governing urban Africa are mainly colonial in origin and have hardly been contextually revisited to suite contemporary challenges in urban areas. The same is true of education and research, both of which should benefit urban Africa but the converse is true. The authors of these chapters argue that unless and until there are policy changes in these sectors to address contemporary urban reality ravaged by poverty and adverse informality, the current urban revolution will not deliver the required dividend of improved urban livelihood.

Using Kinshasa as a metaphor, Pieterse in Chapter 11 provides a quote on poverty (being synonymous with lack of freedom, death, illness and suffering) as being the major affliction of urban Africans. This is because over two-thirds of urban Africans live in slums — another word for poverty. This, thus far, has made the urban transformation a failure. This is a failure driven by the absence of proper understanding and contextualization of the urbanization saga by African leaders, the use of authoritarization and amplification of sectarianism by the political and professional elite, poor funding of urban programmes, poor response and inadequate understanding of urban challenges by the different shades of urban civil societies and the general lack of accountability for urban programmes and projects. Yet, were the civil society groups to understand the urban challenges in their right context, many of these problems could have been solved.

There is indeed a paradigm shift, intellectual and attitudinal, from resistance and aversion to the understanding of urbanization and growth of cities in Africa to a wide acceptance of urbanization as an abiding phenomena that is irreversible. This wider acceptance and understanding can lead to greater and faster strategic development. If there is any continent or region of the world where this is most amplified, it is in Africa.

This book by eminent scholars has dealt with its chosen areas well, especially in attracting and focusing attention on the African urban revolution processes and patterns which have long been neglected.

Informative and educative as the book is, I found the arrangement of the chapters a little awkward and lopsided. After the introductory chapter, which contextualized the goals of the book and the elongated discussion of some of the chapters, one is at a loss as to why the conflict and post-war chapter should follow. Ideally, Chapter 14 should follow Chapter One to provide a necessary context of African urbanization, especially its theory and practical realities. This could be followed by Chapters 3, 4 and 13. Chapter 11 and the postscript should follow each other as they contain critical views and recommendations towards a sustainable urban transformation/revolution in Africa.

On the whole, this book is a must read for academics, professionals and practitioners. It should be an essential companion to policy makers and politicians. In this regard, perhaps a synthesized version of Chapters One, 11 and the postscript could be made for policy makers, politicians and urban administrators for easy reference and understanding of Africa’s urban dynamics – its processes, problems and possible solutions.

Angelil, Marc and Hehl, Rainer, 2011. Building Brazil: The Proactive Urban Renewal of Informal Settlements, Ruby Press, Berlin
Olufemi, O. 2013. Concepts in Food Security, Kraft Books Ltd, Ibadan

Professor Babatunde Agbola is based at the Department of Urban & Regional Planning, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

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6 Responses to “Africa’s urban dynamics: a review of Africa’s Urban Revolution”

  1. John

    Hi Sue
    I would like to purchase the book.
    Please can you direct me in this regard?
    John Visser

    • Matthew Hutchinson

      Hi John,

      Where are you located and I’ll direct you to your local distributor.


      Zed Books

  2. Barry Pinsky

    Congrats sue and Edgar. Is it available in Canada?

  3. Matthew Hutchinson

    Thanks for the excellent review.

    In response to the above queries about copies of the book, please visit the Zed Books website:


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