Review: Urban Environments in Africa: A critical analysis of environmental politics

Author(s) Garth Myers
Publisher Policy Press at the University of Bristol
Year 2016

Introduction

Garth Myers introduces Urban Environments in Africa by suggesting that it is rare to find literature that analyses political-environmental issues in Africa. He suggests that the work that is available targets a single issue, like solid waste, in only a single African city. To him, this points to the need to produce multidisciplinary studies that cover a range of environmental issues in a range of African cities. His view is that such an approach is needed to provide a full picture of the diversity and complexities of urban Africa. He reminds the reader of the need to address the political, economic and cultural dynamics of the built environment in African cities, as well as the biophysical and environmental problems inherent in these locations.

Throughout the book, Myers echoes the theme that African cities are a mess in terms of a lack of planning and a lack of progress required to address environmental problems. These problems include waste management, flooding and infrastructure issues, especially sanitation and the lack of toilets. He highlights the need to think positively about urban environments, rather than thinking about problems.

Structure of the book

The book attempts to expand the UPE (Urban Political Ecology) framework to urban Africa. This framework seeks to understand urban environmental change in political, historical, cultural, and economic terms, as well as through natural and biophysical processes. Based upon extensive previous fieldwork, study and in-depth analysis of secondary sources, Myers devotes each of the book’s five chapters to one city. The cities are Nairobi, Lusaka, Zanzibar, Dakar, and Cape Town. The book is designed to articulate a broad set of African views on urban environments. The chapters are presented following this format:  1) The Experts – the pronouncements and research findings from policymakers, planners, and scholars about African urban problems; 2) The Past – examination of pre-colonial and colonial urban environmental histories and legacies that are at work in African urban areas; 3) The Cityscapes – engaging with the physical- material setting and cultural beliefs, and the practices surrounding them, in the belief that extending the analysis between cultures and environments is necessary if we are to ever fully read them; 4) The Artists – the political-environmental urban reviews and critiques of writers, poets, photographers, painters and musicians; 5) The Grassroots – building upon community environmental activism in African cities.

Content of the book’s chapters and the Conclusion

Following the introduction, the next five chapters follow the format presented above, and emphasize one of the elements in the format. Chapter 1 is about Nairobi and concentrates on the experts, and their plans and policy development documents and what they mean for the city, and their implication for UPE theory.

Chapter 2 is about Lusaka, and explains how the garden city concept from the past has produced the city’s current environment, stressing the need to be aware of the geophysical and historical processes at work in urban Africa. Chapter 3 deals with Zanzibar and includes a range of descriptions, from place names, urban and semirural areas, a range of cityscapes and its larger island setting.

Chapter 4 is about Dakar and deals with artists, in this instance writers. Myers uses four different novels, set in different cities at different times, which contain political environmental stories in order to show how what is called eco-criticism enhances the UPE perspective. Chapter 5 concentrates on Cape Town. It focuses on the grassroots organizations that have affected the city’s environment to more fully articulate the voices of ordinary people in marginalized majority communities in African cities.

In the conclusion, Myers makes the point that practice and engagement in urban change ought to be elements in any theory. It is his belief that the way to build bridges between communities and urban environments and development begins when we include the examination of pre-colonial and colonial urban environmental experts, the past of the problem, the physical and meta-physical cityscape context, as well as the artistic imagination, along with diverse grassroots voices. The conclusion ends with examples of grassroots programs that have had an impact and made a difference regarding the environment.

Reviewer’s critique

This book is well written and well documented; there are 28 pages of references. The author’s background and fieldwork experience in Africa are evidenced in the quality of the book’s chapters. However, in the introduction, Myers indicates the need for a pure UPE African approach to urban studies, which requires studies to distance African Urban studies from Northern influences. Yet, there is nothing provided in the book that would serve as an anchor for a strictly African UPE approach to urban studies. The scope of the cities, and the content of the chapters, question whether it is possible to link, let alone generalize about, urban Africa using divergent cities as the units of analysis. Despite that, the book is advanced in terms of knowledge about Africa. It will serve as a valuable reference for those interested in political-environmental issues, and those interested in African cities. The book does, however, require some knowledge of Africa, and can serve as a guide for those who wish to learn more about the continent, its cities, and their environmental issues.

 

Lincoln J. Fry is an Academic Member of the Sociology Units, ATINER (Athens Institute for Education and Research) Athens, Greece. He received Ph.Ds from the University of Southern California (Sociology) and Mississippi State University (Counselor Education). He has held academic appointments at California Lutheran, Howard, and Nova Southeastern Universities, as well as visiting appointments at Stockholm and Mississippi State Universities. He has 75 academic publications. and his current research interests are sub-Saharan Africa, international criminology, sustainable development, corruption, violence prediction and the built environment.

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