Review: The West-African City: Urban space and models of urban planning

Author(s) Jérôme Chenal
Publisher EPFL Press
Year 2014

Guiding the reader through the sandy and endless peripheries of Nouakchott, the multi-coloured streets of Dakar, and the Abidjan lagoon, Jérôme Chenal’s book discusses the possibility for defining a West African city model in urban planning. Issued from a doctoral thesis defended in 2009, the West-African City gives an interesting contribution to the current debate on urban planning in the continent by analysing the links between urbanization, planning, social practices and spatial transformations.

As an architect and an urban planner, Chenal questions urban planning knowledge, trends and tools as applied to the African context. Through a comparative approach, he tries to go beyond some well-known clichés about the African city: archaism, anarchism, lack of planning, uncontrolled urban sprawl, incompetent authorities, and so on. He argues that the African city must not be considered in terms of lack, but in another way of producing and living the city, and develops his argument with the aim of showing that African cities are places of an “altermodernity” and that they should be considered for themselves and not through the lens of the western urban models.

It is pleasant to leaf through the well-illustrated pages of this book, which is divided into five sections. The first one (Three cities in West Africa) offers an introduction to Nouakchott, Dakar and Abidjan. It describes the historical trajectories and the processes of urbanization of these three cities, whose urban histories have in common a French colonial background of policies and planning. The second section (Urban planning) deciphers more recent urban policies and master plans of the 1990s and 2000s[1]. The author shows how the evolution of urban visions is conveyed by these documents, and indirectly by the national authorities and international aid donors. A very useful table compiles the outputs of the comparison between the three plans (p. 123). If the plans are very different, some similarities allow for some generalization about common trends, in particular in relation to their lack of any capacity to address social issues and to understand social reality. Master plans do not formulate any ideas about urban society (p. 128); they do not address nor understand urban complexity; they elude some major issues with social impact (like energy, transportation, environment); they do not reflect on the costs of urbanization; and finally, the poor are non-existent. The author concludes that “the planning documents give us the impression of a plan for people who do not exist” (p. 129).

The two following sections (3 and 4) focus more on public space as a critical component of contemporary cities. Chenal chooses to tackle this issue firstly by analysing the written press. He has drawn up a list of key concepts and issues related to public space: violence, infrastructure support, transportation and mobility, environment, occupation and management of space, built space, streets as a resource, protests, civic and civil activities, daily life. Collecting all the references to urban spaces and all the spatial localizations given in the articles, he created a database and then mapped it to visualize the image of the public space as given by newspapers. Globally, the “issue of violence ranks first in all three cities,” followed closely by the themes of transportation and mobility, climate and environment, and public authorities’ control of the streets (p. 197). This press analysis gives interesting elements to understand everyday life problems (power cuts, water shortages, environmental problems), especially by highlighting the dichotomy between centre and periphery to understand spatial inequalities in service delivery and in the distribution of wealth. He concludes this section affirming that “these cities have found only one way of dealing with their problems; removals, evictions and renovations depend on visits from foreign heads of State and international donors.” (p. 207).

The fourth section is certainly the most interesting part of the book, both for its methodology and empirical evidence. Largely influenced by visual anthropology, Chenal proposes to use photography as a tool for analysing these cities, by taking pictures of public spaces, both from multiple viewing angles and at different moments of the day (p. 217), collecting identical shots thirty-minutes apart over a single day and thus building a series of images of the city through time (p. 217). “Counting the number of individuals in the images and then describ(ing) and analys(ing) the street elements,” this visual research “aims to understand the links between spatiality (public space) and social practices”. For the author, this methodology allows for shedding light on inequalities and differences in social practices in urban life, like gender differentiation in public spaces, contrasts between centre and peripheries, the presence of children and beggars, the impact of vehicles and animals, the uses of the street (people sitting down, the importance of the shade, activities).

The fifth and last section (Three almost identical cities) engages more broadly with the debate on the African city model, reflecting on similarities and differences between Nouakchott, Dakar and Abidjan. The author mentions the European (and especially French) influence planning, through consultancy firms or decentralised cooperation (p. 301). He underlines also the influence of financial lenders, and (in)directly the World Bank, “responsible for creating the African city today”. For him, this prevents new models from emerging: “Cities cannot therefore, experience autonomy or find a model for an African city” (p. 301). This section is also the occasion to remind readers of the role of the State, the principal interlocutor, especially regarding the capital city. Showcases for political ambition, capital cities are still instruments of the State’s power (p. 303). An interesting insight is given about the inability to plan for the future. Contrary to appearances, these cities are planned, but the fundamental error is that “they do not take into account the settlement strategies of the poor” (p. 304). Chenal rightly points out that master plans design a city for a middle class, an “average citizen,” while overlooking the poor. Thus, the book conveys many valuable insights to understand why urban planning in Africa is doomed to failure (reduction of urban complexity, absence of the poor who are the majority, the top-down and technocratic approach), but the reader remains sceptical about the idea that similarities in failing urban planning make these cities “almost identical”.

In summary, thanks to the many detailed illustrations, Chenal succeeds in capturing the ambiance of Nouakchott, Abidjan and Dakar and offers vibrant views of these cities. He clearly sheds light on the necessity to understand the essence of each city to avoid a copy and paste of what has been done elsewhere when it comes to planning. Nevertheless, regarding the short bibliography, readers will regret the absence of updating references on these three cities in order to go further in the analysis (Piermay, Sarr, 2007 ; Choplin, 2009 ; Steck, 2008). Chenal’s discussion of an African city model would benefit from building some parallelism with other works on African cities. It could, for instance, be relevant to include the productions of the African Center for Cities, and of numerous scholars who have already reflected on the (impossible and simplistic idea) of an African city model (Myers, 2011, Simone, 2004; Parnell, Pieterse, Watson 2009). With that, the author could have better explained why he looks for a “West African city” if he is criticizing the idea of generalizing and imposing the idea of a “model” on African city-ness. The book falls short in terms of social and political in-depth analyses, which it nevertheless calls for by criticizing the social and political myopia of master plans. It would have been more relevant if the book paid stronger attention to social aspects and political dimensions, and showed how these affect city making. Urban planning appears quite depoliticized whereas it is clearly linked to political parties, to political conflicts such as those between local and national authorities, and ethnic and community power relationships.

Despite these shortcomings, this text contributes to a growing body of literature on the links between theorizing and planning southern cities. In advocating for a reflection on planners’ and developers’ practices, this work offers an insightful framework to discover three West African cities (even if not the West African city).


Armelle Choplin is associate professor of geography at the Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris — Paris School of Planning (Université Paris Est-Marne-la-Vallée) — in charge of the “International Urban Planning – Global South cities” Master’s degree. Her research focuses on urban planning, social housing, land tenure issues and popular mobilizations in North and West Africa (Mauritanie, Sénégal, Mali, Soudan, Ghana). She is currently involved in a project about the Right to the city in the Global South. She recently published ‘Nouakchott au carrefour de la Mauritanie et du Monde (2009)’ ;’Post-politics and subaltern (de)mobilization in an African city. Nouakchott (Mauritania), (2014)’; De-westernising-Urban theory  (2012).’



Choplin A., 2009, Nouakchott au carrefour de la Mauritanie et du Monde, Paris : Karthala-PRODIG, 372 p.

Myers, G. A. 2011. African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice, London/New York: Zed Books Ltd.

Piermay J.L., Sarr C., (ed.) La ville sénégalaise [Texte imprimé] : une invention aux frontières du monde, Paris : Éd. Karthala , DL 2007

Parnell, S., Pieterse, E. & Watson, V. (2009) “Planning for Cities in the Global South: A Research Agenda for

Sustainable Human Settlements”, Progress in Planning, 72(2): 233-241 »,

Robinson, J. 2006. Ordinary Cities. Between Modernity and Development, London/New York: Routledge.

Simone, AdbouMaliq. 2004 For the City Yet to Come: Urban Life in Four African Cities. Durham, N.C.; London: Duke University Press

Steck Jean-Fabien, « Yopougon, Yop city, Poy… périphérie et modèle urbain ivoirien , Autrepart 3/2008 (n° 47) , p. 227-244

[1] He analyses the “Master plan of Nouakchott” adopted in 2003 ; the “Master plan for Urban Development of Dakar” for 2025, and the “Updating of the Master Plan of Abidjan” produced between 1996-2000.

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply