Ask any urbanist or government official working north of the tropics to name the single most important academic institution for urban issues today, and probably very few of them would nominate the African Centre for Cities (ACC), a research centre established at the University of Cape Town in 2008.
Yet this is the title the ACC deserves. Realistically, most urban research centres around the world are more observers and commentators on processes of urbanisation than active shapers of these processes. By contrast the ACC has moved into the position of defining and in many cases copywriting the agenda for the sustainable regulation of urbanisation across the continent, filling a vacuum created by the relative inabilities (or refusals) of its governments to do so on their own.
That is to say that the ACC is involved in evolving the practice of urbanisation and not just its theory. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of this is its leadership in expanding the remit of the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS), which brings together the spatial planning faculties of 51 universities and colleges across 19 countries (mostly Anglophone and mostly sub-Saharan, but including Egypt, Morocco, Mozambique, Rwanda and Togo). Under the ACC’s leadership, the AAPS is rewriting (literally) planning syllabuses across Africa, many of which had not been rewritten since they were used effectively to create urban apartheid conditions under various colonial governments. This means that the work the ACC is doing now will be changing the way African cities are planned for at least the next generation of professionals. Closer to home, after years of demanding that African governments need to put national urban policy frameworks in place to address the chaos created by their current head-in-the-sand, do-nothing approach, the ACC is now beginning to produce such frameworks for the South African government.
Africa’s urban revolution
Earlier this year, Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse, two founders of the ACC, published Africa’s Urban Revolution (Zed Books), a collection of extended essays by 19 staff and colleagues of the centre on various dimensions of Africa’s urbanisation. Most chapters target one or another urgent challenge facing regulators in Africa’s cities, with potentially radical but always grounded recommendations for how these should and can be met starting now.
Some of these have been hinted at above. Articles by Pieterse, Parnell, Warren Smit, AbdouMaliq Simone and David Simon tackle the regulatory question head-on. Pieterse is as clear as one needs to be: “most political leaders in Africa continue to refuse to accept that their societies are urbanising at a rapid and irreversible pace. This widespread denial, which is both tragic and dangerous, creates a public policy vacuum that leads to … the majority of African urbanites carrying out extremely precarious and degrading existences—a sure recipe for continuous [sic] uneven development, economic exclusion of the majority, and violence.”
What follows from each author are concrete regulatory proposals. We will need a second generation of decentralisation policies, focused not simply on the smooth delegation of powers to lower-level governments, but concerned especially with how local elections take place, how their fairness is assured, which positions are electable, and how to incorporate citizen and civil society voices throughout the ongoing execution of those positions once elected. Policy, and political, decisions must be made about how and how much “traditional authorities”—the typically hereditary representatives of each region’s tribal groups—should participate in local governance. We will need permanent and rigorous data and statistical programmes (something desperately lacking even at the global level) assuring the routine collection of data at urban scales and the calculation of robust development and urban performance indicators. This will provide local governance stakeholders with objective and actionable information. It will also feed into another recommended line of action, the establishment and committed implementation of detailed infrastructure investment plans, both within and between cities and, by extension, between cities in different countries, such as the economically essential Abidjan – Lagos corridor.
New light on old themes
Other chapters are indeed however more theoretical nature, urging us to change how we think about other longstanding challenges. Jonathan Crush and Bryce Frayne write about the development industry’s love affair with the notion of urban agriculture as a key solution to African cities’ food security concerns. They argue that is a “fruitless” and perhaps overly romanticised activity to focus upon. They remind us that cities are by and large cash-based economies, which means that for most people regardless of income access to food will always be governed by ability to pay rather than ability to produce, as shown by a study conducted across eight countries in southern Africa: “Given the usual association of supermarkets with middle-class urban consumers, one of the more striking findings … was the high proportion of poor urban households (over 70 per cent) that source food from supermarkets.” Thus urban food security is a matter of ensuring the affordability and accessibility of produce distributed through the urban retail sector, just as it is in wealthier cities.
Carole Rakodi calls for more social scientists to pay closer attention to the developmental roles that religious organisations play, beyond their roles in the cultural landscape of Africa’s cities. As she states, “religion can be socially conservative, hindering progressive social change … politically disabling … a source of conflict and violence. However, religious groups and their leaders can also be socially progressive … providing support for the vulnerable … opposing injustice, making a substantial contribution to the provision of education and healthcare, playing a role in peace building, and providing verbal and organisational backing for government initiatives ranging from health promotion to community development.”
Jo Beall and Tom Goodfellow’s chapter spells out a framework for understanding the relationship between Africa’s cities and the many armed conflicts that continue to play out especially in its interior. Too many observers have seen cities as mere bystanders during conflicts, they argue: “many of the conflicts ravaging the continent since independence have been understood as rural-based rebellions, thus rendering cities marginal or irrelevant to prevailing analyses.” They theorise three types of conflict, each with distinct roles played by cities. However, the precise formulations of these three types seem to easily come under fire in academic debates (as for example was demonstrated at the London book launch at the Africa Research Institute), so permit me to recalibrate them here. Let us say that there are two types of armed conflicts. There are contests over control of the state, in which national or regional capital cities become the battleground and the trophy, such as Mogadishu and Kigali. The populations of such cities are often scattered or decimated by conflict. And there are contests over control of territory, in which major urban economies are left alone to remain productive, able to continue to provide the resources needed by competing forces to wage battle in surrounding rural areas, exemplified by Kinshasa, Juba and Gulu. These cities often enjoy population growth and even economic growth throughout times of conflict.
In addition to these are civic conflicts: “the violent expression of grievances vis-à-vis the state or other actors” and may appear as “organised violent crime, gang warfare, terrorism, religious and sectarian rebellions, and spontaneous riots or violent protest over state failures such as poor or absent service delivery.” How the governance of urban areas addresses these expressions of grievance are essential for ensuring that they do not foment into more vicious forms of armed conflict. As such, cities become “critical sites for determining the durability of peace in the post-war period.” This is especially complicated by the volatile migrations of people, often of different identities and backgrounds, in and out of cities throughout these episodes.
Yet the sleeper hit of Africa’s Urban Revolution is the final chapter by Sean Fox, which provides a deeply satisfying explanation of why Africa’s urbanisation has not been accompanied by economic growth as it has been on other continents, considered in part 2 of this review: de-urbanisation is futile.