Rogue Urbanism – alternative perspectives on emergent African urbanisms

Author(s) Jennifer A. Williams, Martin J. Murray
Editor(s) Edgar Pieterse, AbdouMaliq Simone
Publisher Jacana Media
Year 2013

Rogue Urbanism calls for a shift in thinking among contemporary planners, scholars, and policy-makers to deeply consider the large scale social implications of mega-city projects and plans that disrupt livelihoods and social existence of the urban poor. Review by Jennifer A. Williams and Martin J. Murray, Urban and Regional Planning Program, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, USA).

Rogue Urbanism: Emergent African Cities provides a refreshing account of the everyday dynamics of African cities. This edited collection is the outcome of research projects that originated at the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities (ACC). The co-editors Edgar Pieterse(Director of the ACC and Professor at University of Cape Town) andAbdouMaliq Simone (Professor of Sociology, University of London and Visiting Professor at the ACC) are well-known scholars with distinguished records of solid scholarship in the field of urban studies. Taken together, the essays in the book contribute to what has become a growing anthropological and sociological literature on the everyday lives of ordinary people who inhabit cities in Africa.

Rogue Urbanism is a testament to the growing importance and significance of the research, writing, and theorizing that has come from the ACC.  This scholarly work offers not just a critique of conventional urban studies but alternative ways of “seeing” and “knowing” the emergent urbanisms of Africa.  Pieterse and Simone have produced a remarkable collection of essays written by truly first-rate scholars, who offer a wide variety of perspectives on such themes as networks, materialities, daily lives, collective memories, social imaginaries, and economic activities in African cities. The book itself is divided into five sections as a way of drawing attention to distinct themes. “Urbanisms” focuses new understandings of the great diversity of cities in Africa. “Palimpsets” reminds us that the present urban condition cannot be understood without a deep appreciation of the historical past.  “Deals” offers a critique of the usefulness of such conventional categories as the ‘economy’ to really understand how ordinary people generate income, accumulate things, and occasionally thrive in uncertain circumstances.  “Governmentalities” seeks to uncover evolving power dynamics and state action that take us beyond the fixation on neoliberalism.  Finally, “Interstices” seeks to replace the uncritical use of such “coarse,” conventional categories as “state,” “citizen,” “government,” “civil society,” “territory,” and “place” with a much more nuanced, fluid understandings of how ordinary people negotiate the uncertainty of everyday life in African cities.

The point of departure for Rogue Urbanism is the claim that theory and practice are not separate spheres of activity, but integrally intertwined.  In the essay entitled “Introducing Rogue Urbanism,” Pieterse argues that policy recommendations, however well-intentioned, come with a priori normative assumptions about how African cities should work.  He asserts (and correctly in our view) that to be effective policy practices which aim to ameliorate poverty, empower the poor, save the environment, and bolster local economies require a rethinking of conventional understandings of the complexity of everyday urbanism in Africa.  Toward this end,Rogue Urbanism seeks to look beyond the conventional (and now outdated) ‘informal-formal’ and ‘visible-invisible’ dichotomies to develop a deeper, richer understanding of the lived experiences of ordinary people.

This collection of essays revolves around the key focal point of understanding the ‘messiness’ of city life. Rogue Urbanism brings together over thirty contributors in essays covering nearly 500 pages.  For this reason, it is impossible to do justice to the depth of theoretical thinking and the richness of writing.  Several essays stand out for their clarity of thought.  In “Introducing Rogue Urbanism,” Pieterse stresses how spatial and social histories are complex structures that are deeply embedded in memories, feelings, hopes, and aspirations of ordinary people (p. 15). It is critical to note that these sentiments form a common collective among people within their networks to supply their own infrastructures where institutional platforms for surviving and thriving are lacking. In “Deals with Imaginaries and Perspectives,” AbdouMaliq Simone offers a refreshingly detailed account of economic life in Kinshasa that turns the traditional conception of livelihoods (as employment or business sector activities) on its head. Instead, livelihoods require timing, cues (verbal and non-verbal), and instincts which facilitate the circulation of wealth. Economic life among local elites and street traders is full of experimentation and speculation to determine the ways in which such activities ultimately shape African cities. Simone argues that planners and institutions should move to understanding how the economic activities of the “worn down” city (p. 250) and the mainstream can coincide with and inform future planning interventions.

Rogue Urbanism arose out of a deliberate effort to convey the fullness of urban life from the perspective of everyday city dwellers.  In “The City from its Margins,” Caroline Kihato offers an intriguing account of the lives of migrant women in Johannesburg who have developed tactics to survive in the face of legal exclusion from social services and the harsh realities of possible deportation.  Kihato effectively brings migrant women out of the shadows of what she deems has been traditionally a “gender blind framework” (p. 327). Such women lack the ability to root themselves and to form a sense of home since they lack access to services and face constant harassment from authorities. Kihato characterizes their lives as a “legal limbo” (p. 329) made evident by the women themselves in their narratives of escaping police raids and striving to make a living in Johannesburg. More broadly, the experiences of migrant women shed light on the ways in which meanings of the everyday are attached to space. The complex social relations between patron and client and trader and mediator dictate the ability to carve out social integration and livelihoods.

The networks of infrastructure operate through several lenses and forms of urbanism. In “Reconceptualising Urbanism, Ecology and Networked Infrastructures,” Mark Swilling seeks to construct “a conceptual framework that may be useful for deepening our understanding of what it is that is so unsustainable about cities and, therefore, what needs to change” (p. 65).  In his view, “green urbanism” has successfully focused attention on what is so ecologically unsustainable about cities.  But the inherent danger with “green urbanism” is that “it is fast becoming a techno-fix for greening the elite residential enclaves and commercial parts of splintered urbanism” (p. 76).  “Liveable urbanism,” in contrast, offers a sustainable alternative to the elitist bias of “green urbanism” by recognizing the need to reverse over-consumption and restore the ethos of inclusion, that is, one which “includes the urban poor in new networks of production and consumption.” (p. 77).

The rise of public-private partnerships (PPPs) is one trend occurring in urban renewal and development projects in African cities.  In “Public-Private Partnerships and Urban Renewal in Metropolitan Lagos,” Olawale Ismail suggests that PPPs in Lagos lack the necessary institutional oversight to ensure transparency and diffusion of information about how projects will affect citizens.  PPPs are easy for governments to advocate since they require less bureaucracy and seemingly result in quicker implementation of key projects, such as sanitation or housing. Much like Johannesburg, Lagos has been striving for a “world class” city status, and in order to continue to pursue this status, the government looks to the private sector for efficiency and cost effectiveness for large scale infrastructure projects. Ismail challenges contemporary planners to consider how PPPs bypass citizen engagement. He calls for a shift in planning in African cities (and cities of the Global South more generally) to pay greater attention to the deleterious effects of profit-driven projects on the urban poor (p. 377). Participatory planning and engagement strategies such as public meetings, charrettes, and social mapping are critical to meeting the needs and interests of all citizens and stakeholders.

In sum, Rogue Urbanism’s major theme is to better understand the various forms of networked infrastructures and daily life for the majority of African city dwellers. The essays stress the importance of this understanding in developing policies and infrastructure plans that bring the interests of multiple publics to the fore, such as street traders, migrant women, and slum dwellers. The book lays the foundation for future research with specific regard to the everyday lived experiences of the most marginalized in African cities. Most importantly, Rogue Urbanism calls for a shift in thinking among contemporary planners, scholars, and policy-makers to deeply consider the large scale social implications of mega-city projects and plans that disrupt livelihoods and social existence of the urban poor. In “Grasping the Unknowable,” Pieterse contends that “the African city remains an elusive mirage clouded by limited data and inadequate theoretical approaches that prevent research and urbanists from coming to terms with the immensely complex, but also generative, dynamism” that exists (p. 33).  Rogue Urbanism provides an important starting-point for meeting this challenge.  Urban scholars and policy-makers have much to learn from this book.

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