Reflections on a conference on local and urban governance in Praia, Cabo Verde

The old port of Praia. This area is being redeveloped as a casino-tourism complex, largely with infusion of capital from Macau, China. One multi-story building (center-right) and a bridge to the historic Island of Santa Maria (left) have already been built. (ph. Eric Ross)

Once again, I began an academic year by attending a small, focused conference–the best kind–in a fabulous place: Praia, capital of the Republic of Cabo Verde. The conference, organized by the International Geographical Union and the University of Cape Verde, brought scholars and planners together from 4 to 7 September 2019 to discuss local and urban governance (see conference program here), with a particular emphasis on Africa.

This is the third time I have contributed to the work of a Lisbon-based research network headed by Prof. Carlos Nunes Silva, of Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Lisbon (see these blog posts about the 2013 and 2017 conferences held in Lisbon). The network includes academics and practitioners and I thank Carlos for having brought us to Praia this time.

The governance issues we dealt with in Praia ranged from land tenure and dispute resolution to food security, health, housing, public transportation, cooperation between administrative units of varying levels, planning and urban management technologies, local environmental and heritage preservation, tourism and recreation, and much besides.

A series of murals in one of Praia’s informal neighborhoods illustrates some of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (ph. Eric Ross, 2019)

While scholars and planners who work on these issues are mostly in agreement on how to solve or resolve them, we are also trapped by the limitations of the systems we work within. Most of the problems faced by cities, in Africa as elsewhere, are ultimately caused by very unequal distributions of wealth and power, which are themselves the result of the global economic system, let’s call it globalized neo-liberal capitalism, we all have to live in (free flow of goods, services and capital across borders, but labor remains mostly fixed). Yet this prime cause is not to be challenged. It is as if urban planners were medical doctors treating symptoms but forbidden from attempting to cure the actual disease.

In our world, private property is sacrosanct. More than simply a resource, land (urban land, peri-urban land, agricultural land…) is a factor of production, while private property is the very foundation of capital creation and accumulation. The right of owners of property to use it for private benefit is the most fiercely protected “right” on the planet today, a right exercised by small landholders/individuals as well as by giant trans-national corporations (think “mineral rights” and “water rights”). In fact, this right trumps nearly every other right, including all-important human rights, such as women’s rights, the right to development, and the right to the city…

The same informal neighborhood is graced by a little Christo Redentor statue, erected on a stunning outcrop of basalt (ph. Eric Ross, 2019)

The world over, urban planners trying to address issues of housing, water, food, health, education and transportation must do so while accommodating the many powerful private interests (real-estate developers, energy companies, car manufacturers, tech firms) which actually dictate urban development policies. The right of these private interests to profit from their property over-rides the public good. Thus planners must work within what conference-goer Bill Freund called the “non-revolutionary possible.” In a world that has never produced so much capital wealth (owed largely by 0.01 % of the population) there’s always money available to build casinos. Yet it is always a struggle for cities to fund the infrastructure necessary to the well-being of the majority of citizens.

There is general agreement that cities are key to solving environmental problems. Cities, home to 57 % of the world’s population, consume about 70 % of its energy and thus produce 70 % of global CO2 emissions. Yet they occupying only 2 % of its land area. At the global scale, cities are so many point-sources of waste. Theoretically, pollution produced at an identifiable point (smoke stack, exhaust pipe, sewer main, mine) is relatively easy to stop; you intervene at that point. If we want the earth as we know it to survive the impacts of our industrial revolution–and I think that’s something we should all want–then creating environmentally sustainable cities is the place to start.

Praia’s most famous son, Amilcar Cabral, invites us to action (ph. Eric Ross 2019)





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Just published: four entries in the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies

Wiley-Blackwell has just published its five-volume Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies, edited by Anthony Orum. I am happy to have contributed four entries to this work.

These contributions allowed me to revisit a few of the key thinkers and actors I had studied decades ago as a student of Urban Geography.

Daniel Burnham

Daniel Burnham (1846-1912)

Daniel H. Burnham was an American architect and urban planner. He pioneered modern construction techniques, particularly the steel-frame and curtain-wall commercial buildings (skyscrapers) which characterized the “Chicago School” of architecture in the 1880s, and he was one of the most influential figures in the City Beautiful movement. Burnham was responsible for designing Chicago’s Columbian Exposition (1893), and for proposing master urban plans for Washington D.C. (1902), Manila (1905) and Chicago (1909).

Daniel Burnham was arguably the “father” of American urban planning. The classic Beaux-Arts Columbian Exposition had a huge impact on architectural taste in the USA and brought both municipal governments and popular opinion to prioritize urban planning and civic improvement during the Progressive Era. The McMillan Plan for Washington DC and the Chicago Plan of 1909 set the standard for American urban planning until WWII. Though Daniel Burnham’s Beaux-Arts designs, and the City Beautiful movement more generally, have often been disparaged for their superficiality and aestheticism, they initiated a lasting popular enthusiasm for improving urban life. The debate over Daniel Burnham’s legacy continues today.

Robert Moses

Robert Moses (1888-1981)

Robert Moses was an urban planner and public administrator who worked in various capacities for both the State of New York and New York City from the 1920s until the late 1960s. He was the most powerful and influential American urban planner of the mid-Twentieth Century. His career corresponded to the apogee of New York City as the largest city in the world. He was responsible for the planning and construction of a great deal of the metropolitan area’s modern transportation infrastructure, public housing, park systems, urban renewal projects, and flagship projects such as the UN Headquarters, Lincoln Center and the world fairs of 1939 and 1964.

Moses has often been compared to Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the mid-19th-century modernizer of Paris. A product of the reform-minded Progressive Era, Moses amassed unparalleled power as New York City’s “Construction Coordinator”. As a student, I was a steadfast fan of Jane Jacobs, the journalist-activist who took Moses on and thwarted his plans to plow an elevated expressway through Lower Manhattan. Jacobs argued that his brand of urban renewal (bulldozing mixed-use working-class neighborhoods to replace them with middle-class housing estates), mega-project civic boosterism (world fairs, The UN Headquarters, the Lincoln Center), and car-oriented transportation infrastructure (expressways, parkways and bridges) devastated the civic life of US cities. Yet, the vilification of Robert Moses by his numerous critics is sometimes misplaced. Mid-century urban planning practices would have devastated swaths of New York City whether Moses had coordinated them or not. And while Robert Moses undoubtedly held racist views, those views were common to the entire white establishment at the time; his designs for New York City’s public parks and housing projects were no more racist in their effects than contemporary plans in other major US cities. The debate over the legacy of Robert Moses continues today.

Jean Gottmann

Jean Gottmann (1915-1994)

Jean Gottmann was a Russian-born French geographer whose most important work was conducted in the United States. Twice in early life he found himself a refugee, first fleeing the turmoil of the Russian Revolution as an infant (he ended up in Paris), and then having to flee the Nazi occupation of France in 1940 (which put an abrupt end to his doctoral research). When he reached the US in December 1941 he was welcomed by Isaiah Bowman. During the remainder of the war he contributed to the war efforts of both US (Construction Board for Economic Warfare) and Free France. After the war, he simultaneously held academic positions in France (CNRS, Institut des Études Politiques, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), the USA (Johns Hopkins University, Princeton) and the UK (Oxford University). Gottmann published on a wide range of issues in political and economic geography. He is mostly remembered as an urban geographer, and especially as the father of the concept of “megalopolis.”


Population density map of the Boswash megalopolis (Boston to the Washington DC metropolitan areas, source: Bill Rankin, wikipedia commons: Gottmann was the first to study this gigantic urban conurbation as a single entity, and to designate it as “Megalopolis.”

The term “megalopolis” designates the largest type of urban conurbation. The concept was first defined by Jean Gottmann to designate the heavily urbanized  Northeastern Seaboard of the United States (Boston to Washington DC). According to Gottmann’s definition, a megalopolis is a poly-nuclear urban region consisting of a number of large metropolitan areas closely integrated through transportation and communications networks and having a minimal population of 25,000,000 people. When Gottmann published his Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States in 1961 this region was the only one in the world to fulfill these conditions. Since then, megalopolises (megalopoli?) have developed elsewhere. Among these are the Tokaido megalopolis in Japan (Tokyo to Kobe), the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo Extended Metropolitan Region, the Gulf of Guinea (Onitsha to Accra), Jing-Jin-Ji (Tangshan-Beijing-Shijiazhuang), the Lower Yangtze (Nanjing-Shanghai-Hangzhou-Nigbo), and the Pearl River Delta (Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong-Zongshan). While the concept of megalopolis has once again gained currency among both scientists and social commentators, the definition of the term is rather elastic and it competes in the literature with such other related terms as “megapolitan area,” “megalopolitan region,” “megacity,” and “global city region.”

  • Ross, Eric (2019). “Daniel Burnham (1846-1912),” “Jean Gottmann (1915-1994),” “Robert Moses (1888-1981),” & “Megalopolis.” In Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies, Meredith Pate & Anthony Orum, editor, Wiley-Blackwell.
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Accompanying students to Beijing

During the Spring 2019 semester I participated in the latest edition of AUI’s International Field Seminar, accompanying nine students to Beijing.

Lakeside pavilions at Beijing’s Summer Palace on a Spring morning.

The international Field Seminar is a semester-long undergraduate course that deals with an array of social and cultural issues particular to a given foreign city or region. It is part of AUI’s Liberal Arts core curriculum but also serves our International Studies program. Past editions of the International Field Seminar I have participated in include New York City in 2011 and Istanbul in 2012.

This spring’s Beijing Field Seminar was the work of Prof. Zaynab El Bernoussi (Dr. Z to our students). Dr. El Bernoussi had originally planned to organize a seminar around Hong Kong, where she had pursued graduate studies. However, no university in Hong Kong was prepared to host our group (cover housing costs) for a week, making the seminar far too expensive for our students. Into this crisis of sorts stepped Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University.

Dr. Zaynab El Bernoussi and the author standing in front of the bust of Chen Yi (Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, 1958-1972) at the entrance to China Foreign Affairs University’s Zhanlanlu campus, Beijing, March 2019.

The China Foreign Affairs University was created in 1955 by Premier Zhou Enlai, the People’s Republic of China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time. Not only did CFAU very graciously offer to house our group, it also assigned several seriously fun graduate students to accompany us in the field and hired a van to take us around Beijing–no small gift given traffic congestion in a city of 24,000,000 people.

Happily for us, we were accommodated on the university’s old campus, in Zhanlanlu district (just east of the 2nd ring road), very near the center of the city.

The AUI group standing in front of the statue of Premier Zhou Enlai (Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1958, and founder of CFAU) and Marshal Chen Yi in CFAU’s new campus, Shahezhen.

CFAU’s new campus, which opened in 2012, is in Shahezhen, on Beijing’s northern outskirts (6th ring road). We went there on two occasions, to address students in the English and in the French departments.

Otherwise, most of our time was devoted to tourism and cultural activities. This is what some of that looked like:

Some of the yellow-tiled halls, wooden galleries and marble terraces of the Forbidden City. Like so many tourist attractions elsewhere around the world, this one is crowded with… tourists. I was lucky to get a few shots away from the crowd.

Qian Men Gate on Tienanmen square. Our visit to Tienanmen was a bit of a bust up. Mao’s Mausoleum was closed to the public as our field trip coincided with the annual plenary session of the Communist Party of China as well as of the National People’s Congress, both taking places in the Great Hall of the People next door. Moreover, the line-up to enter the National Museum of China was so long and slow-moving that, after about two hours, we left to pursue other activities.

The Temple of Heaven.

Our morning at the Great Wall’s Badaling Pass was one of the high points of the trip for both the students, who made it to the top, and for this aging professor who did not.

Later that afternoon we visited the tomb of Ming Emperor Yongle (reigned 1402-1424).

Yongle’s tomb contains a small exhibit of imperial paraphernalia, including a bust of one of my all-time heroes, the great Admiral Zheng He…

…and a model of one of Zheng He’s treasure ships.

Wangfujing pedestrian street had shopping options for all, everything from a major Prada outlet to grilled scorpions on a skewer.

Also while in Beijing, our group was received by His Excellency Mr. Aziz Mekouar, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco to the People’s Republic of Chine. Our students were on their best behavior and made an excellent impression.

Whatever nine AUI students may have taken away from this seminar, Dr. El Bernoussi and I hope to build on the experience. First, we have offered to reciprocate, inviting CFAU to bring a group of its students to Morocco for a visit, maybe even as early as this coming October, in shâ’ Allâh. More long-term, we would like to be able to offer some kind of joint graduate program, with Moroccan students completing a year of advanced International Relations studies in Beijing while CFAU students come to Ifrane for advanced studies of the Middle East-North Africa.

The author about to enjoy Peking duck in Beijing’s legendary Quanjude Restaurant (est. 1864) on Qianmen Street.



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Just published: an encyclopedia entry on the history of cities in Africa

The city of Loango, in modern-day Republic of Congo, as depicted in Olfert Dapper’s Description of Africa, published in 1668. This humanist had never traveled beyond his native Netherlands. His illustration was based on the accounts of Dutch sailors and captains who had visited Africa’s coasts. Seventeenth-century European travelers were often amazed by the size, wealth and  orderliness of the African cities they visited, comparing them favorably to Lisbon and Amsterdam, the most advanced European cities of their day.

This is just a quick note to announce that the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History has just published a 12,000-word article on the history of cities in Africa that I drafted earlier this year. This was, assuredly, the most difficult article I have ever written, mostly because I am trained as a geographer, not an historian. Surveying the spread and development of urbanization across the continent from earliest times (pre-dynastic Egypt) until the post-colonial present was hard enough to write up in 6,500 words. More daunting was the 3,500 word discussion of the historiography of this sub-field of African Studies, and the 1,400 word presentation of the various sources (archaeological, documentary, archival, actuarial and oral) historians use when undertaking research in Africa’s urban history. I still think this article should have been written by a well-published historian, but somehow the task fell to me!

So, for better or worse, here it is, free and on-line:

Eric Ross. “African Urban History and Historiography.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, Oxford University Press, 2018. doi:


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Just published: a co-authored article on entangled planning in Senegal

Another part of my joint research project with Dr. Liora Bigon has come to term. Following the panel discussion on grid planning that we organized at last September’s Urban Planning in Africa conference in Lisbon, and following our action-packed week of field work in Senegal in January 2018, comes a co-authored journal article on the entanglements of grid-planning practices in Senegal.

Ross, Eric & Liora Bigon (2018), “The Urban Grid and Entangled Planning Cultures in Senegal,” in Planning Perspectives, 26 p. DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2018.1453860. (click to download pdf version of article)

The three gridded neighborhoods allotted in Diourbel in the 1910s.

We have adapted the term “entanglement” from Shalini Randeria’s “Entangled Histories of Uneven Modernities.” The term describes how different spatial practices can be grafted to each other to the point where distinct genealogies of the various traditions are obscured.

Our next step is to find a publisher for our co-authored manuscript of grid planning in Senegal. Watch this space.

Works cited

Randeria, Shalini. “Entangled Histories of Uneven Modernities: Civil Society, Caste Solidarity and Legal Pluralism in Post-colonial India.” In Comparative and Transnational Histories, edited by Heinz-Gerhard Haupt and Jürgen Kocka, 77–105. Oxford, NY: Berghahn Books, 2009.

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Notes from the field, January 2018 in Senegal

Michel Ben Arrous, Liora Bigon, Abdou Khadre Gaye & Modou Ndiaye in front of the Tiérigne Mosque, Médina neighborhood, Dakar

I have just returned from a week of field work in Senegal. While I have often done field work there, this time was different. First, I was joined by two other researchers for a team excursion. My two companions de voyage were Liora Bigon of the Holon Institute of Technology, a researcher I am collaborating with on a larger project about grid-planning in Senegal, and Michel Ben Arrous, an urbanist and geographer based in Bordeaux. Secondly,the fieldwork was funded by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. This is the first time I have had funding for field work. Actually, Liora did all the hard work of applying for and obtaining the research funds. Thank you Liora. Most importantly, this time my field excursion also benefited from the logistical support of IFAN-CAD (see previous post about my presentation at IFAN). This support included a large, comfortable vehicle driven Serigne Ndiaye, a most competent driver, and an extraordinarily enthusiastic and efficient research assistant, Modou Ndiaye, who is finishing his doctoral dissertation on planning in Diamnadio. I thank them all for making this such a successful trip.

Liora and I had devised a tight itinerary. I will admit that I was a bit skeptical that we could pull it all off and half-expected that a few of the planned things might not happen. I am glad to say that my misgivings were misplaced and that the work proceeded without a single hitch—in no small measure thanks to the support we got from IFAN-CAD.

I would like to share a few of the highlights from last month’s data gathering.

Abdou Khadre Gaye, President of EMAD, and research assistant Modou Ndiaye help me prepare for visits to Lebu péncs.

A tour of some of the Lebu pénc of Dakar

The Lebu are the original inhabitants of the Cap Vert Peninsula. Their local communities (originally village communities) have strong identities which have survived numerous episodes of déguerpissements (forced evictions) during the colonial era. Their ability to reproduce their village institutions (the pénc) in their new locales and then to maintain them in the face of acute real-estate pressure and urban growth is one of the ways these identities have survived until today. On Thursday 11 January Abdou Khadre Gaye, Director/President of Entente des Mouvements et Associations de Développement, a Lebu cultural development organization, led us on a tour of some of the most important Dakar péncs.

The pénc of Santiaba, with its mosque, Lebu meeting hall and monumental baobab, is one of the most beautiful public squares in Dakar.

A tour of some of the grid-planned escale neighborhoods

On Saturday 13 January we left Dakar for a tour of some of the towns and cities where Sufi orders are most actively involved in urbanization. We had two objectives: to observe recent developments of the orders, and to photograph colonial-era urban spaces, the escale neighborhoods and their commercial and administrative architecture.

Senegal’s colonial-era escale neighborhoods are now mostly rundown. The buildings that have survived from that era are in need of restoration and/or rehabilitation. In the course of our field visits we were informed that government policies to these ends are being put in place, but the effects on the ground have yet to be seen.

Escale of Fatick

Escale of Rufisque

Escale of Tivaouane

Public building in the escale of Thiès

Modernization of Sufi tarîqa neighborhoods

There has been no let-up in the urban projects of Senegal’s various Sufi orders. Many of these projects have received official support from the government’s “modernization of religious cities” program. Several Tijânî shrines have been modernized.

The new mosque (right) and public square in Kaolack’s Leona neighborhood are adjacent to its historic zâwiyya (left)

The Madina Baye Mosque in Kaolack was renovated in 2010

The El-Hadj Malick Sy Zâwiyyah in Tivaouane and its ancillary buildings (women’s mosque in foreground) have been resurfaced in tile

New buildings to accommodate pilgrims stand adjacent to the Khalifa Ababacar Zâwiyya in Tivaouane

The new facilities in Tivaouane can accommodate VIPs

The Qâdirî shrine in Ndiassane is also being modernized.

A masonry mbar being erected next to the Mosque and mausoleum in Ndiassane will shelter worshipers during religious gatherings

Meanwhile in Touba, mosques are being rebuilt and enlarged in a new architectural style.

Minarets of a new mosque in Darou Marnane, Touba, are being gilded.

A new mosque rises in Darou Salam, Mbacké

Ultimately, Liora and I will use the data collected on this trip in a co-authored book about urban planning we are preparing. Watch this space.

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An emotional day for me at IFAN-CAD in Dakar

I’m in Dakar this week, on the first leg of a field excursion through Senegal. Today I gave a presentation at the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire-Cheikh Anta Diop, Senegal’s premier research institute affiliated to Université Cheikh Anta Diop. The presentation was about toponymy, particularly on the toponyms Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba employed in the course of his oeuvre, but that’s not really what I want to post about.

Presenting at IFAN-CAD was an emotional event for me. First, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane and IFAN are signing a memorandum of understanding whereby the two institutions set out to cooperate in academic/scientific endeavors. Importantly, our two institutions did not wait for the signing of this agreement before cooperating. Just last year one of my graduate students spent several months in Senegal collecting data for her thesis and was greatly helped by support from IFAN.

Mostly though, this was an important moment personally for me. Like my student last year, I first arrived in Senegal exactly 30 years ago to collect data for my Masters’ thesis. That is when I first came to IFAN, a research institute I was familiar with through its periodical, the Bulletin de l’IFAN, which I could consult in university libraries in Montréal. Like so many foreign researchers before and since, IFAN warmly welcomed me and supported my field work, again in the absence of any formal agreement with my home universities in Canada. There is no way my research on Senegal’s Sufi settlements would ever have reached completion without IFAN’s generosity. So, 30 years after the relationship began, I remain enamored with the place, and IFAN continues to support my work (more on this in my next post).

The author and friends in Dagana, ‘Ayd al-Adhâ/Tabaski 1988. Can you spot me in the group?

I take this opportunity to make the following shout-outs:

Prof. Cheikh Anta Diop

First, the institute’s official name needs some explanation. It was established in 1936 as the “Institut Français d’Afrique Noire.” This name was in line with similar French research institutes in Florence, Athens, Damascus, Cairo and other places where French classicist, orientalists and africanists were active in the early 20th century. In 1966, shortly after Senegal’s independence, the name was savamment changed to Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire, a change that allowed its decolonization while maintaining its acronym (or its “brand,” in 21st-century parlance). In 1986 its name changed again when, along with Université de Dakar as a whole, it took on the name of the great scholar Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986) who had just died. Cheikh Anta Diop is a hero to me. His work flew in the face of the colonial-era scientific assumptions and prejudices he was supposed to adhere to. Yet his theories on African culture and history have developed and produced significant breakthroughs while those of his opponents of the time have been mostly discredited and are no longer current. I was first exposed to Diop’s publications while studying in Dakar in 1988, and I can say that, though I never met him, I am one of his students. Being associated with his intellectual legacy through IFAN-Cheikh Anta Diop gives me great joy.

Prof. Khadim Mbacké

Next, I take this opportunity to thank Professor Khadim Mbacké, who held the chair of Islamic Studies at IFAN when I first visited the place. Professor Mbacké supported my initial research agenda, guided my line of questioning, and greatly facilitated my access to Touba ever since. None of my research there would have been possible without his support. Since then I have even been able to contribute to his scientific activities, notable by translating several of his works from French to English (see Sufism and Religious Brotherhoods in Senegal). I am happy to say I am one of Khadim Mbacké’s students as well, and I was pleased he was present at today’s event. Professor Mbacké retired about five years ago but remains a public intellectual.

Prof. Papa Demba Fall

Last but not least, currently and into the future… I am thankful for the support of Professor Papa Demba Fall. For the past 20 years Professor Fall has held the chair of Geography at IFAN-CAD, where he researches  the multifaceted dynamics of migration. It is Pape who helps orient the Moroccan students I send to Senegal, and it is he who has mobilized IFAN’s considerable resources for my current session of field work.


One last word; if you are interested in what I had to say about Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba’s choice of toponyms you can watch my presentation on YouTube:


Portrait of Cheikh Anta Diop on side of IFAN Building (Ph. Michel Ben Arrous)

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