I ended the summer as I had begun it, by attending a conference on urban planning (see post my June 2013 post on urbanism, spirituality & well-being). This time the conference was about urban planning in colonial and post-colonial Africa and was jointly organized by the International Planning History Society and the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Lisbon. It was held in Lisbon, a city which has had multifarious relations with nearly every part of Africa.
Over one hundred people, among them architects and planners, as well as academics like me, presented papers. While the theme of the conference sounds rather historical, the focus was squarely on current urban conditions and planning practices.
Statistically, Africa is still the least urbanized of continents, with “only” about 40% of its population living in cities. Yet, in absolute terms, this still amounts to more urbanites than Europe or either of the Americas. And Africa has more cities of over one million inhabitants than these other continents do. In fact, Africa ranks second only to Asia in terms of number of cities and size of urban population. So why is Africa, and the global “South” more generally, still so marginal in otherwise “international” discussions about our urban Earth?
Popular misconceptions of sub-Saharan Africa as essentially rural, and of cities being a recent foreign import, received short shrift from the conference goers, none of whom needed any introduction to the complex dynamics of urbanity on the continent.
I was particularly keen to hear what the urban planners had to say. Many of them are quite critical of the aims and outcomes of their work. Questions such as: “does urban planning actually work?” and “are there any examples of successful planning?” were repeatedly raised. Those who teach the discipline were just as skeptical. “What are we training planners for?” they asked. The consensus was that urban planning is a political process, and that this process is driven by those who wield political and economic power in our cities.
As on other continents, cities across Africa are being pulled in different directions. In one direction there are “real” cities, where access to land, drinking water, electricity and jobs remain the most pressing planning issues.
In the opposite direction you have “fantasy” cities, where strips of glass curtain-walled office towers, glitzy show-case shopping malls, gated compounds with lawns, swimming pools and golf courses are held up as indicators of economic development on the continent.
You also have refugee camps home to hundreds of thousands as well as extrajudicial enclaves of extraction, with their ports, refineries and rail yards. You find post 9/11 securitized compounds, middle-class cement track housing and do-it-yourself shantytowns.
Is Africa so exceptional when it comes to cities? Apparently not. For one thing, the same neo-liberal strategies and discourse operate the world over. Infrastructure projects are not just projects, they are “visions.” They respond to “global” conditions and are always “sustainable” in some way. They can make any city “world class.” National governments, international agencies, trans-national corporations, global consultancy and architecture firms and, yes, at times even academics, all sell the same snake oil. Every city can be the next Singapore, the next Dubai.
Cities and city-regions everywhere are fiercely competing with each other on the supposedly level playing field (the one Thomas Friedman designated as “flat Earth”) in attempts to attract foreign capital. They are prepared to sacrifice everything from workers’ rights, the livelihoods of their citizens, the environment, even their own tax base in these struggle.
The very term “city” is being ab-used to designate any number of narrow sectoral interventions. Airports and universities are called “cities.” There are “financial cities,” “retirement cities” and even “golf cities.” These are gated spaces of privileged exclusion. Calling them cities contradicts everything a real city is: open, inclusive, cosmopolitan, political, messy.
Several of the conference presentations dealt with the issue of colonial architecture as heritage. The issue is still a contentious one as colonial urban policies in Africa were nothing short of “disastrous” (term used by Katherine Coquery-Vidrovitch) for subsequent development. Their legacy has been one of racial-become-social segregation and brutal levels of poverty.
Yet, fifty years on, the formerly “white” colonial cities are still the central business districts and capitals of most African countries. Should such places be preserved or left to the mercy of real-estate markets? What happens when your downtown core is labeled “heritage?”
The conference was too large to attend every presentation. Nonetheless, I can summarize the two I found most prescient here.
Lidsay Bremner (University of Westminster, London) discussed the contested plan to create a new oil terminal and refinery near Lamu, Kenya. Lamu has long been a port and is no stranger to international trade. The mega-project is entirely tied-up with the issue of exporting South Sudanese oil. It has the backing of the Kenyan government, international institutions and international investors. If it goes through, the old city of Lamu will be dwarfed by a gigantic gated industrial port terminal linked to a trans-continental road, rail & pipeline network. At least that’s the plan! This fence zone has already been designated as a “metropolis.” Bremner also highlighted how the technical vocabulary of planning (such terms as “zone,” “node,” “corridor,” “hub,” “platform,” etc.) is being used to mask what is effectively a violent and entirely undemocratic social, economic and environmental affront on the region’s landscape.
Bremner made it clear that Lamu society has not mobilized against the project but, rather, in order to be included in it, on its own terms: popular consultation, environmental impact study, land reform, local distribution of the benefits… This all sounds familiar. The democratic deficit is growing rapidly all over the world, in nearly every country. Decisions that most affect the lives of people are increasingly taken beyond democratic accountability.
Then we heard from Deny Jones, a practicing architect from the UK who has just started a new PhD program. He used to work for a huge architectural firm in London. He would use his skills in graphic arts to sell glitzy mega-projects (“shit” was how he termed them) around the world. Fed up with the vacuity of these unethical projects (for each of which he was obliged to sign a non-disclosure contract), he dumped the job and found another in Namibia, working to draft urban plans for a number of towns across the country.
Among the constraints he now encounters in his work he cited: annual and sporadic flood zones, Apartheid-era separation roads, fragile environments, existing urban heritage, and the pressing needs of malnourished people.
He is also confronted with the dilemma of a well-meaning post-colonial government (whose stated aim is to achieve living conditions akin to those of the “developed” world by the 2030), while cognoscente that Namibia’s current insertion in the world economy effectively guarantees that its fabulous mineral wealth will continue to be extracted and exported with the least possible benefit accruing to its scattered impoverished population.
Given that Namibia, like nearly every other contemporary African state, was created expressly to ensure the most efficient extraction of resources for the greatest profit of European business interests, Deny proposed that Namibia’s people would be better served by ridding themselves of this political structure altogether.
As fate will have it, I may be attending the Fourth World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders in Rabat next month–the first time this event is held in Africa. Local and regional officials and representatives from international organizations, the public and private sector, financial institutions and civil society will be attending. These people are among the main drivers of that “political process” which is essential to the practice of urban planning. I expect the professionals assembled at this Rabat summit won’t be nearly as self-critical as those I met in Lisbon.