Where can we find alternative African urban futures?

Available options for the future of African cities appear to be limited to a binary choice between apocalyptic disorder and an irrepressibly optimistic orderliness – between the slum and the tech park. The presentation and reproduction of such a binary choice without doubt restricts our capacity to discover avenues to imagine and create innovative, safe and enjoyable African urban spaces. But do we have to choose between extremes? What could other African urban futures be? Where can we find inspiration for this process of imagining and creating?

Many innovative, civil society-backed urban development projects and approaches currently exist in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, many planners and designers are developing new ways of interacting with local people, and of respectfully managing their concerns. These projects and practices can serve as a better source of inspiration for progressive African urban futures than the sanitised hard drive fantasies posited by the designers of companies such as Rendeavour, Surbana and Promontorio.

I would like to start with an initial proposition, drawing upon the work of Edgar Pieterse, Director of the African Centre for Cities, and in particular his 2008 book City Futuresthat it will not be possible to build equitable and sustainable urban futures in Africa without first developing an adequate understanding of how people go about their lives in cities and towns. This does not mean that we need to glorify the efforts of people to eke out some minimal livelihood in the face of severe constraint, or focus only on issues of marginalisation and exclusion. It simply means that there needs to be a closer match between the plans and instruments that are produced to manage African urbanization, and the people who are affected by those plans and instruments.

Taking the experiences and practices of the ‘everyday’ as a starting point for thinking about African urban futures, as Pieterse reminds us, allows us to ‘take a more provisional approach before one pronounces on either what is going on, or what must be done to improve the quality of life and freedom in the city’ (City Futures, p. 3). But why would we need a more provisional approach? Do we not need more certainty, in the face of policy inertia and widespread political un-willingness to deal with the realities of African urbanisation? Well, no. Because most of the policy and theoretical categories that lend us a degree of certainty about African cities, and what should be done to remake them in an equitable image, are inherited from a Western canon that is built upon social, economic and political assumptions that quite simply do not pertain to the African context. This is not African exceptionalism – this is a statement of fact. African urbanization, and everyday life in African cities, unfolds in a manner that does not sit well with conventional urban theories and planning approaches. To this extent, it is no great surprise that the waves of policy reform breaking on the continent’s shores since the late 1980s, aiming to promote decentralisation and participatory governance, have generally failed to produce a major turnaround in the living standards of African urban denizens.

When describing African cities, most commentators will note the prevalence of what is generously termed ‘informality,’ or may suggest that urban areas are embroiled in a process of ‘informalization’ as an effect of economic crisis and structural adjustment. This is true – despite the incantations and nuisance by-laws of many municipal governments – street traders, informal service providers, waste recyclers, as well as informally accessed and built settlements are to be found everywhere on the continent. But this is not necessarily specific to Africa, or African urbanization. As Ananya Roy reminds us, informality defined as a mode of production of space is pervasive globally, especially in the urban South, but even in the global North. In this view, no place or process is entirely ‘formal’; there are everywhere and always negotiations, ‘school tie’ networks, corrupt practices, etc., which shape urban development albeit under the guise of officialdom. So what is, shall we say, ‘more specific’ about African urbanization?

A first trope of African urbanism is the notion of mobility. In Africa, patterns of demographic circulation and movement manifest sub-nationally and at larger sub-regional scales, in the form of urban corridors criss-crossing all parts of the continent. As recognised by AbdouMaliq Simone in a 2011 article, these corridors of movement permit the relentless flow of goods and people within and beyond continental borders. Transnational and internal mobility has long been a part of labour markets and livelihood activity in Africa, as people have historically engaged in temporary and permanent movement between areas as a strategy of income diversification. Yet, arguably patterns of African migration cannot be explained by conventional ‘push-pull’ models of urbanization. Simone argues that such movements constitute more than just migratory flows based on rational individual judgements of utility. In Africa, ‘movement is not simply a reaction to conditions and forces, nor the instigator of still others, but its own “world”, and a world that need not make sense in order to exert value’ (Simone 2011, p. 381). On one hand, conditions of political and economic crisis have ‘driven people into completely uncertain trajectories of flight’. On the other, the idea of ‘mobility’ itself has become valorised in African societies – whether it be an assertion of man or womanhood, or as a means of ‘discovering oneself as an African’, as the urban youth on the continent increasingly see themselves as part of a wider global modernity (Simone 2011, p. 385).

With mobility and movement as major themes of recent thinking on African urbanization, a major feature of recent work on African cities is the emphasis on fluidity, flux and ephemerality as markers of everyday social life in the city. As people become increasingly uncertain as to the outcomes of any deliberations or decisions, and are driven to a social and economic opportunism that requires temporary engagement in various social networks, always allowing the possibility of escape, African cities are recast as uncertain and volatile spaces. They are also increasingly complex ‘translocal’ spaces, shaped by the conversation between global imaginaries and local material realities. They are the cumulative outcome of the various ways by which diverse and ever-shifting groups of people seek to ‘make do’, according to modes of subjectivity that do not fit neatly with ‘rational choice’ assumptions of agency.

Let’s return to the idea of being ‘provisional’ when pronouncing on what African cities are, and what they could be. How is it possible to be secure in ‘what should be done’ in spaces of uncertainty, movement and adaptation? With great difficulty and, most probably, little efficacy. One potential option is to impose certainty and security – to formalise the informal, bringing the unpredictable into a normative realm. This would appear a difficult task in contexts where the majority of people access their livelihood through some sort of informal activity and a degree of mobility. Another option is to gaze within ‘the informal’ itself as a basis for developing more effective urban practices and imaginaries. Do informal, ephemeral practices and spaces not contain the seeds of an African urban future?

Now, in my previous blog post I suggested that a reason for the general acceptance of (indeed, enthusiasm for) sexy, foreign-rendered new cities in Africa is the absence of any vision of urban futures on the continent aside from the dichotomy of an apocalyptic ‘planet of slums’ and the ultra-modern orderliness promised by these new developments. There is simply no alternative that people can see, touch and believe in. We have no way of envisaging what a ‘slum’ could become in fifty years, no way of seeing the opportunity offered by these places.

Towards the end of 2012, I was fortunate enough to walk around a community-led informal settlement upgrading project in Kambi Moto (Huruma), in Nairobi, Kenya. There, the Muungano Support Trust had assisted members of a federation of the urban poor known as Muungano wa Wanavijiji to upgrade their place of living through coordinating capital savings schemes, the learning of basic construction techniques, and other simple cooperative ‘rituals’. The outcome of this project is a place clearly infused with the effort and pride of the local residents. It is a demonstration of the fact that if ordinary urban inhabitants (often viewed as unwanted nuisances) are given the opportunity and support to invest in their locality in an incremental manner, the result is not uninhibited growth and deepening squalor, but public ownership over the development process and significant progress towards improved living conditions. Kambi Moto is a visual depiction of an urbanism that can be built and improved over time. It is a vision emanating from the lives and existing practices of those living in the city.

Recognising the medium- to long-term trajectories of urban development allows us to avoid the false choice between slum and skyscraper as metonyms of an African urban future. We can see that conventional policy and planning mechanisms originating in the global North (or colonial legislation), which seek the wholesale formalisation (and induce the criminalisation) of ordinary urban spaces, are not necessarily appropriate to changing the fortunes of our cities. There are many other ‘middle paths’ to tread, and many of these can take their cue from the innovation and productivity that already exists on the continent.

In this post I have argued that visions of African urban futures can and should be built upon an accurate understanding of African urbanisms, rather than the collusions of interests between local political elites and large international development and design firms. This is no easy task. It requires the development of governance structures that, to some extent, allow room for the disorderly and the informal without demanding that these practices and spaces be subsumed within the normative, prescriptive and ordered. It requires planning instruments and visions that embrace incremental urban change, innovation, mobility and adaptation. It also requires nothing less than a reconceptualization of ‘the urban’ and what constitutes ‘ethical intervention’ in cities.

Read James Duminy’s previous post “Visions of African urban futures yet to come.”

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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