Considering African urban utopias

Utopian thinking, defined by Friedman as “the capacity to imagine a future that departs significantly from what we know to be a general condition in the present” has informed a range of social and ideological movements from the Paris Commune to the Zapatistas of South-eastern Mexico (in Swilling et al, 2010; Harvey, 2012).

Pieterse writes “[t]he existential core of urbanism is the desire for radical change to bring all the good implied in the original utopian association of ‘the city’” (2008, 6).

Over the decades, the disciplines of planning and architecture have remained fixated with the possibility of anthropogenic urban utopias. Following the Garden Cities Movement, wherein pockets of self-sustaining communities attempted to knit themselves into a concentric puzzle of decentralised spatial governance, utopian design and, by extension governance, resonated deeply with modernism planners and architects who tirelessly search for answered to the perpetual urban crises. In retrospect, much of Le Corbusier and the other designers of his day, appeared to design the opposite of their espoused intentions of integration and justice (take for example the Opus Plan designed by Le Corbusier for Algiers which envisaged a gleaming ‘world capital of Africa’ wherein the rich and the poor would be segregated by a massive highway).

While hindsight may be 20/20, the adaptation of these visions echoes in today’s urban experiments. More recent African City Utopias include the Hope City on the outskirts of Accra, Eko Atlantic City in Lagos and Tatu City in Nairobi. On a smaller scale, gated communities, ‘lifestyle estates’, and urban villages create fortified utopian enclaves amidst the dystopian reality of Davis’s ‘Planet of the Slums’ (Macleod & Ward, 2002). These projects and others embody the optimism of the 2010 McKinsey and Co, report entitled “Lions on the move: The progress and potential of African economies”, sourcing global investment for ‘teck hubs’, ‘smart cities’, ‘Olympic villages’ and ‘satellite towns’.

While using ‘green’ and ‘brown’ language, these developments are frequently sites of social fragmentation and ‘splintered urbanism’. Lemanski writes “[p]rivate territories and gated communities in Southern cities are criticised for creating exclusionary spaces, increasing residential segregation, restricting freedom of movement, and exacerbating social divides” (Lemanski & Oldfield, 2009,1).

When we consider the future of urbanism of the African continent, we must carefully balance the often competing imperatives of attracting global capital by which to infuse the economy with  the need to ensure that urban equality and citizenship is built into our dreams of better and more just cities.


Lemanski, C., & Oldfield, S. (2009). The parallel claims of gated communities and land invasions in a Southern city: polarised state responses. Environment and Planning A, 41(3), 634–648.

Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel cities: From the right to the city to the urban revolution. Verso Books.

Macleod, G., & Ward, K. (2002). Spaces of Utopia and Dystopia, Geografiska Annaler 84 B(3–4) .

Pieterse, E. (2008). City futures: confronting the crisis of urban development. Zed Books London.

Liza Cirolia Liza is the co-ordinator of the Sustainable Human Settlements CityLab. The CityLab is a three year joint project with the Western Cape Department of Human Settlements and the African Centre for Cities.  The lab offers an interdisciplinary and multi-scalar platform by which to explore critical debates, drawing into conversation the messy and conflicted domains of theory, policy, and practice.


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