Just published in an edited volume: a chapter on Senegalese urban design

In September 2013 I attended a conference in Lisbon on colonial and post-colonial urban planning across Africa. I am pleased to announce that the resulting edited volume has been published.

Grid Plan in Senegalese Urban Design_cover

Urban Planning in Sub-Saharan Africa: Colonial and Post-Colonial Planning Cultures was edited by Carlos Nunes Silva and published by Routledge, 2015.

My chapter in this volume is entitled “The Grid plan in the History of Senegalese Urban Design.” In it, I argue that an elite urban design culture involving use of the grid plan thrived in Senegambia prior to colonization. It was first used for the laying out of royal capitals in the 16th century and was then adopted by Muslim clerics in the 17th century. Its first colonial manifestation occurred when the French fort of Saint Louis expanded into a town in the 18th century. In the late 19th century the French systematically disseminated the grid plan inland through the establishment of rail-towns (escales). At this same time (ca. 1880-1950) it was also being implemented by all three major Senegalese Sufi orders in their darou-s (school-villages).

The grid plan is a ubiquitous urban design principle. It can be found in a wide variety of geographical and historical contexts. It characterized the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro, was used in ancient Egypt (worker’s towns like Lahun and Deir el-Medina), was a standard of ancient Greek colonization (Hippodamus’ Miletus), and characterized the camp-towns (castra) of the Romans . Nearly all the imperial cities of China (Chang’an, Beijing) and Japan (Nara, Kyoto) were laid out as grids. It was a feature of many agricultural frontier settlements in Medieval Western Europe (the bastides of southern France) and of some its royal establishments (like Winchelsea and Aigues-Mortes). European powers employed it in various American colonies (the Spanish Law of the Indies, English Philadelphia and Savannah) and it became standard across the United States and Canada throughout the 19th century. The grid plan is highly versatile, adaptable to a great variety of city types, and applied at a gamut of scales ranging from imperial capitals to agricultural villages. In modern times the grid plan has been conducive to the rational provisioning of public amenities (drinking water, sewage, electricity, civic addressing & postal service) and to the mass production of housing allotments. It is also well suited to motor vehicle traffic.

Given the extraordinary distribution of the phenomenon across time and space, the use of the grid as an urban design model does not correlate with any specific regime type, economic system or religious tradition. The only common denominator all grid planned settlements seem to share is the existence of a power, usually a state, able and willing to plan settlements in this way (Kostof 1991: 95-157). In other words, grid planned towns never seem to be the outcome of spontaneous local development. Rather, they are produced by powerful agents as a matter of policy. In cases where that agent ceases to exercise this power of control over built space, as when Roman authority dissipated, gridded towns may well morph into more “organic” types of urban fabric.

In this chapter, I argue that, in the case of Senegal, the grid plan first developed as the dominant settlement type for elites. The late 19th/early 20th-century dissemination of the grid plan across Senegal’s Peanut Basin was due as much to the “democratization” of that elite ancien régime model by the country’s new Islamic elite, the Sufi orders, as it was to French colonial policies. As is my wont, my argument is profusely supported by maps.

Ross_01_ancien régime mapThe above map locates the royal capitals, clerical towns and European establishments of the 17th-18th centuries.

Ross_02_capitalsBoth Diakhao, capital of the Kingdom of Sine, and Lambaye, capital of the Kingdom of Baol, were established in the 16th century. Both have grid plans.

Ross_03_clerical towns Starting in the 17th century, the emerging Muslim clerical elite adopted the grid plan for its settlements.

Ross_04_Saint LouisBy the end of the 18th century the French mercantile authority in Saint-Louis had adopted a grid plan for the town.

Ross_05_colonial mapFrench colonial policy in Senegal centered on opening up the “Peanut Basin” for cultivation of that cash-crop. This involved building a rail network and equipping it with regularly spaced grid-planned rail-towns, called escales. The Sufi orders too established grid-planned shrine-towns and darou-s throughout the Basin. Only a few of the darou-s (school-villages) are shown on the map.

Ross_06_Tivaouane escaleRail escales consisted of a standard grid and were intended as marketing centers for the peanut cash-crop.

Ross_07_Murid towns

Ross_08_Tijani townsAs the French built their rail network, the Sufi orders (the Murids, the Tijâniyya, and the Qâdiriyya (“Khadr”) were establishing darou-s, also linked to the peanut cash-crop. The formerly elite practice of establishing grid-planned settlements was generalized and democratized by these orders, who applied it to virtually all their settlements, rural and urban, major shrine and isolate darou alike.

The development of the grid in Senegal, as both urban model and social practice, clearly transcends the moments of rupture which colonial conquest and then independence are often assumed to represent. It also demonstrates the agency of African actors in the modern urbanization process, particularly during the colonial era, a time when the colonial project was nearly hegemonic and being fully deployed.

A pdf copy of my chapter can be downloaded here.

Suggested readings

on the grid plan in history:

  • Kostof, S., 1991. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History. London: Thames & Hudson.

on colonial urban policies in Senegal:

  • Sinou, A., 1993. Comptoirs et villes coloniales du Sénégal: Saint-Louis, Gorée, Dakar, Paris: Karthala.
  • Pheffer, P. E., 1975. Railroads and Aspects of Social Change in Senegal 1878-1933. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

and, of course, my own works on Senegalese urban design:

  • Ross, E., 2006. Sufi City: Urban Design and Archetypes in Touba. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.
  • Ross, Eric (2015), “The Grid Plan in the History of Senegalese Urban Design”, in Urban Planning in Sub-Saharan Africa: Colonial and Post-Colonial Planning Cultures, edited by Carlos Nunes Silva, Routledge
  • Ross, Eric (2013), “Les places publiques (pénc) et la configuration des communautés”, in Les arts de la citoyenneté au Sénégal : Espaces contestés et civilités urbaines, edited by Mamadou Diouf & Rosalind Fredericks, Karthala, Paris.
  • Ross, E., 2012. Building Community: Configuring Authority and Identity on the Public Squares of Contemporary Senegalese Sufi Centers. Prayer in the City: The Making of Muslim Sacred Places and Urban Life, P. Desplat & D. Schultz eds., New Brunswick N.J.: Transaction Publishers & Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
  • Ross, Eric (2012), “Touba, le soufisme, et la modernité urbanistique”, in La Réponse du Soufisme à la Crise : Actes du Premier Colloque International du Grand Magal de Touba sur le Soufisme, Serigne Same Abdourahmane Bousso, ed., Dakar/Touba: Comité d’Organisation du Grand Magal de Touba, Commission Culture & Communication.
  • Ross, Eric (2006), “Le Pénc : élément du patrimoine et modèle d’aménagement urbain”, in Sénégalia : Etudes sur le patrimoine ouest-africain, Hommage à Guy Thilmans, edited by Cyr Descamps & Abdoulaye Camara, Editions Sépia, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés.
  • Ross, Eric (2005), “From marabout republics to autonomous rural communities: autonomous Muslim towns in Senegambia”, in African Urban Spaces in Historical Perspective, edited by Steven J. Salm & Toyin Falola, University of Rochester Press.
  • Ross, Eric (2005), Villes soufies du Sénégal : réseaux urbains religieux dans la longue durée, Série Conférences #20, Institut des Etudes Africaines, Université Mohammed V, Rabat.
  • Ross, Eric (2002), “Marabout republics then and now: configuring Muslim towns in Senegal”, in Islam et Sociétés au Sud du Sahara, #16.
  • Ross, Eric (1995), “Touba: a spiritual metropolis in the modern world”, in Canadian Journal of African Studies, vol. 29, # 2.



About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
This entry was posted in conferences, map work, publication and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.