Making the case for African cities

In my previous two blog posts (“Visions of African urban futures yet to come” and “Where can we find alternative African futures?”) I have argued that we need to reinvigorate a vision of what African urban areas are, and could be. I further argued that, in order to gain inspiration for alternative African urban futures, beyond a false choice between a ‘planet of slums’ and Renaissance renderings, we can look to existing urban practices as the source of innovation and development. As such, we can view the ‘informal’ as a point of inspiration, rather than a state of exception or a category of practices and spaces that should be forcibly formalised in accordance with normative planning.

Now I would like to shift to a different point, focusing on the issue of ‘anti-urbanism’, and how we can confront anti-urban attitudes effectively by developing and presenting a different narrative of African urbanisation to key audiences both in the state and civil society. In other words, I would like to provide some preliminary thoughts on how we can ‘make the case for African cities’.

Anti-urbanism comes in many different forms, and from various sources in society. It is commonly expressed in attitudes that see cities and urbanisation as sources of environmental decay and moral degeneration, or as the unwanted stepchild of uneven capitalist development. We see it in the reluctance of national governments to acknowledge and facilitate big-city growth, when rural development policies are advocated by planners as a way of preventing migration to urban areas, and when poor urban residents are dismissed as a delinquent class unworthy of developmental support. We see it in demands that cities and towns are ‘cleaned up’, usually amounting to a call for the violent eviction and repression of informal urban settlements and economic practices (lest we forget that Murambatsvina, the Shona word used to label a massive government-led eviction campaign in Zimbabwe, from May to July 2005, literally means ‘reject filth’).

In Africa, national governments are a major source of anti-urban sentiment and rhetoric. According to urban experts Ivan Turok and Sue Parnell, South Africa exists as “a prime example of this anti-urbanism or anti-metropolitanism” in national government, where efforts to develop national urbanisation and urban policies have been routinely thwarted by political interests in the state. Such anti-urban political stances have many different historical precedents and contemporary political drivers. In Zimbabwe, Zanu-PF’s historical mythology of vanavevhu (‘children of the soil’) has meant the ruling party always has always demonstrated and practiced “an anti-urbanism that militates against urban-industrial development. Cities are seen as alien creations, relics of colonialism where people become deracinated or ‘totemless’” (Dawson and Kelsall 2011). The post-independence ujamaa development regime in Tanzania entailed broadly similar attitudes towards cities.

Contemporary anti-urban rhetoric and practice is enrolled within the larger field of African national electoral politics, especially where powerful political parties drawing upon a largely rural support base find themselves increasingly threatened by disgruntled urban-based opposition (as was the case with Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe prior to Operation Murambatsvina in 2005).

Now, political anti-urbanism is by no means peculiar to Africa. Conservative politicians in the United States routinely contest policies seeking to encourage the densification of urban areas and development of urban public transport, favouring plans that promote suburban, car-dependent home ownership. An attachment to low-density semi-rural living in the U.S. can, in fact, be traced all the way back to literary and artistic visions of the American way of life, from Henry David Thoreau’s celebration of idyllic natural life in Walden to the sculpted layouts of the City Beautiful movement, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s visions for Broadacre City.

(As an aside, a noteworthy point is that anti-urbanism was a key message of a dazzling array of high-flying fascist political movements, from Nazi Germany to North Korea, to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Evidently those arguing against densification, for the forcible control of rural to urban migration, or that poor urban residents should simply be ‘sent back to the rural areas where they came from’, can count themselves amongst illustrious political company.)

So, political anti-urbanism in Africa persists partly due to a historical relationship with nationalist political ideology, and due to the landscape of contemporary electoral politics. As such, any effort to advance a pro-urban narrative in the hope of inspiring political recognition and facilitation of urbanisation will face formidable opposition from vested interests in governments and civil societies. This is no excuse for inaction. But what shape should this pro-urban narrative take? What ‘message’ should be put across, in making the case for Africa’s cities?

The first and main point is that urban areas are important and worthy of recognition and proactive intervention because they are the future sites of development and change, along multiple dimensions. These dimensions include:

  • Economic agglomeration arguments have seen cities as engines of economic growth, as sites for innovation and the generation of employment. Previously Africa has been viewed as an exception to the agglomeration thesis (a view promoted by ‘urban bias’ arguments beginning in the late 1970s), but recently agglomeration theory has been coupled with development theory to argue in favour of African urbanisation and agglomeration economies.
  • Cities are the sites of democratic practice and democratization. Civil society and democratic support organisations, as well as social movements, are primarily located in urban areas, and global political movements are increasingly organised around issues relating to the production of urban space (for example, national and global Right to the City movements).
  • In ecological terms, the urban question is increasingly of central concern for conservation and biodiversity issues. Cities are spatial centres of consumption, nitrogen flows, and so on, meaning that their fate is intimately tied up with that of ecological systems.
  • Cities are increasingly recognised as ‘hubs’ of global environmental and climate change, due to their role in generating greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the relative vulnerability of urban populations to the effects of global changes.
  • Urban health is also an increasing concern, as cities concentrate high-quality medical services, as well as health risks and hazards.
  • For similar reasons, cities are also critical sites of social redistribution and the social agenda, being the location of prime social infrastructures and support networks, just as they are places of extreme socio-spatial inequality.

Taken together, these arguments provide a convincing case for the city as ‘the crucible’ of change and sustainab
le development across ecological, social and economic dimensions.

2. This should not entail either an overly optimistic or pessimistic vision of the urban. There is simply no point in countering the argument that ‘cities and urban growth are bad’ with one of, ‘cities and urban growth are good’. In this sense, the idea of a ‘pro-urban’ argument is somewhat misleading. Urban places and their management are important because they offer both opportunities and problems. Ignoring either or both can only lead to negative outcomes and deepening urban crises. This means that the assumed link between urbanisation and employment growth should be treated with some degree of caution. In Africa, urbanisation will largely unfold in the context of limited formal opportunities for employment, driving the informalisation of economic activities. A key challenge therefore relates to identifying the infrastructural and institutional possibilities that can make African urbanisation truly beneficial for development and upliftment of the poor.

3. We should avoid reproducing a conceptual and political dichotomy between urban and rural development. It is important to understand the relations and interconnections between urban and rural areas and economic sectors, not to produce or reinforce a rural-urban binary, but to see how their relations are constantly changing in terms of resource flows, peri-urban development, and so on.

4. Large cities are not the only urban places worthy of policy attention. A growing share of urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa is taking place in small and medium sized, or secondary cities. These smaller urban centres, which often lack capacitated local governments, deserve focused attention to develop their capacity for planning and infrastructure development.

5. We need to move beyond the argument that cities and urbanisation should be taken seriously simply because of demographic growth and transition. The implications of urban demographic growth is an important line of argument, but it is not the only or the primary argument. Policy arguments should exceed the idea that urbanisation is an effect or outcome of uneven economic development, and instead view urban areas and their functions as constitutive of socio-cultural, ecological and economic processes and transitions. In other words, we need to start emphasising that urbanisation itself can have transformative power within development processes, provided there is advance planning and appropriate infrastrucural investment.

6. If we see urbanisation as a transformative process, then we can also begin to see urban informality and informalisation as a productive source of opportunity and development, rather than a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ through regulation and formalisation. This means moving beyond a narrow focus on the development of ‘slums’ to recognising the productivity of social entrepreneurship, food economies, climate adaptability, etc. associated with informal modes of life, economic activity and governance.

Together, these points begin to populate a forceful argument for why sub-Saharan African urbanisation should be a key focus of policy debates, planning and infrastructure development at the local, national and regional scales. Whilst national governments are a key constituency for delivering this argument, it is also clear that regional governance bodies such as the African Union and African Development Bank have to start thinking proactively and specifically about urban development issues at the supranational scale. Other key constituencies in the African context are the private sector and civil society, including middle-classes and elites. Without commitment and support for urban interventions from these groups, the prospect of sustainable urban futures will be severely undermined.

Ultimately, confronting a pervasive African anti-urbanism that retards our urban imagination is no easy task. It requires addressing complex historical and ideological legacies, and the gathering of incontrovertible evidence of the opportunities embedded within urbanisation processes. A crucial first step however, is putting ‘the urban’ on the agenda of national development policy discussions throughout the continent.

Read James’ previous posts:

Visions of African urban futures yet to come

“Where can we find alternative African urban futures?”

James Duminy is a researcher in the African Centre for Cities, and acts as General Secretary of the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS). He holds an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology (Rhodes University), a Masters in Town and Regional Planning (University of KwaZulu-Natal), as well as an MA in Urban History (University of Leicester, UK).


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