Perspectives on African urbanism: exploring cities as social spaces to understand what are valuable solutions in urban Africa.

Facts or Fables: The blurring lines of supernaturalism in the city

When looking at urbanisation within the global south focus quickly shifts to the future. We continue to ask what the city of Johannesburg will envision by 2050; how will Lagos adapt to rising sea levels; and what new urban plans are being made in Dar es Salaam to resolve problems x, y, and z. We frequently assume urbanisation is associated with a shift towards modernisation, and fundamental change. However, progression remains far from linear and the binary distinguishing the 'modern' and 'traditional' has long received criticism. We often forget how the city, like a brain, is formed over time, interconnected through complex paths and senses. The past doesn't simply disappear but forms the core of what cities represent, form, and become. 'Tradition' remains integrated into the life and soul of cities today. One such articulation is reflected through the power of witchcraft in the developing world. Read more.

Social spaces for social cities

One of the re-emerging questions in urban policy and development concerns whether a 'social' city can be designed, and more importantly what that will look and feel like. Academics have provided a strong basis for understanding the cities social life — questioning what the city is and what it functions to do, to conceptualise the cities' sociability. Within this blog post I would like to synthesise such theories, and secondly, introduce Tanzania House of Hope, a local NGO reviving community capacity within our contemporary age. I would like this blog post to encourage ideas and projects to be shared and supported, but also for us, urbanists, to start changing our view of cities, urban life, and sociabilities. Read more.

Rental markets — a new housing solution?

Discussion on urbanisation across the Global South is often synthesised with images of slums and the growing problem of informal housing. There is a housing crisis in urban Africa, and research is focusing on understanding where urban dwellers dwell. Estimates suggest around 70 percent of urban Africa live in slums; an increasing, invisible homeless population, and limited land governance – with only 85 land surveyors practicing in Kenya. Within such statistics are a rising number of urban renters. The rental market remains an important source of habitation, however, has been given minimal attention within development policy and practice as the discourse focuses on ownership. Read more.

Mapping the city for youth migrants

Migration has often been identified as a central component of urbanisation, and with the rise of a 'mobility' paradigm, whereby movement is recognised as a rising necessity, the focus is on why people move and the nature of such movement. Novel innovations now enable our speed of movement, while services and infrastructure continues to build networks between spaces, people, and opportunities. However, in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa the question has been raised on what happens when urban agglomerations hosting migrants fail to secure livelihoods (see Bryceson, 2011)? Research in migration showcases the articulation of circular patterns of movement, rising rates of return, and greater insecurities in whether goals are achieved. Such raises an additional question - to what extent are those using, adopting, and experiencing, migration becoming stuck within such a mobility paradigm? Further, what do migrants do to get them out of this trap and achieve aspirations? Read more.

Infrastructure and environmental justice in the city

Transport and infrastructure remain key components when designing urban space. Urban planners are required to evaluate transport routes, modes, and costs, to ensure the city functions efficiently. Across Tanzania key means of public transportation in, and around, the city includes boda-boda's, or piki-piki's, (motorcycles) and daladala's (small buses). Such means are cheap, frequent, and although carrying capacity is limited, space can be made to squeeze another passenger on. However, with rising concerns over road safety, the costs of congestion, and the need for improved supply, the future of such transportation remains debatable. As the agenda shifts to designing 'sustainable cities', whereby urban environments can meet contemporary needs without jeopardizing that of future generations, we need to question what it means in the developing world. The concept of environmental justice is key. Discussions on environmental justice integrate calls for sustainability and recognition of the social, spatial, and economic, inequalities individuals face in relation to the environment . Environmental justice recognises the urban environment as political. Access, externalities, and use-value, of the environment are political. Read more.

The right to a formal city

When discussing cities in Africa, and 'African urbanism', the focus quickly turns to the state of informality. Such raises the question of how developmental is informality? Who benefits from informality and for how long? Furthermore how can a system whereby the formal-informal are intertwined work? The issue has been a burning topic in Mwanza over the past week. Mwanza is a small city located on the southern coast of Lake Victoria, inhabited by around 635,730 people (Mwanza City Council, 2014). With development continuing, land markets remain a crucial asset. Over the past few weeks the focus has been on land – measuring plots of land, providing individuals with land titles, and bringing all dwellers under the formal land system. Nationally, the Tanzanian government claimed all citizens who do not have a land title should be granted it within 21 days of having their land assessed, measured, and the boundaries drawn. The proposed deadline suggests the end of an invisible population, putting people on the formal map and recognising formal dwellers. However, the achievement requires understanding how the system of informal-formal works. At a local level informal actors are key in determining the right to formality and future of urban planning. Read more.

Changing perspectives: What can 'we' do?

One of the key debates that have emerged within development studies is to whom does the responsibility lie? The structuralists among us focus on the 'state'. It is defined as the state's duty, and responsibility, to meet people's needs. Alternatively, perspectives emerge identifying the state as an enabler — the key actors are civil society. The focus on grass-roots action has, however, raised considerable debate. Critics have argued firstly, civil-society is not necessarily positive. The broad category of 'civil-society' — whether communities, NGOs, or FBOs — rely on 'social-capital, defined as the linkages amongst members of society. However, such capital assets by which people are argued to be able to rely, and draw, upon have been shown to have negative components and remain structured within a system of power inequalities. For example not all women joining a micro-finance programme are strategically empowered as the burden of time-poverty remains and not all can have their voice heard. Secondly, the social-capital resources are not indefinite but rather constrained and limited over time through a 'poverty of resources' (Gonzalez de la Rocha, 2001). Thirdly, should we be relying on social-capital to meet needs? However, traditionally, within many cultures in Africa, the community has played a major role in creating self-sufficient communities. Therefore do we need to revitalise the focus on social-capital? Read more.

Youth focus: can grassroots movements bring in girls' voices?

Data has emerged showcasing the latest trends of our demographic shift — the global population now articulates a 'youth bulge'. The UN-Population Demographic Profile (2010) show children, and 'youths', comprise 1.6bn, and 1.0bn, of the population in less-developed regions. The population is younger; and Sub-Saharan Africa is no exception. Attention is now turning to youths: what young people do, what opportunities they initiate for their families and nations, and what it means to be 'young' in the developing world. However, an important caveat requires recognition: the focus has been particularly male-focused. Our understanding of girls, within both public and private spaces, remains limited. Such is the debate in this blog post — if we are now looking at 'kids' in the city and development, what are the experiences of girls? What can we learn about the city through an engendered perspective? Fundamentally, who is responsible to grant equal rights? Two models of intervention are discussed be, each using alternative methods to provide rights for girls. However, each acts to reinforce the need to improve our understandings on 'being' a girl. Read more.

Educating new planners in Africa, but what is the future?

Within development studies a shift has been identified. An increasing sense of consciousness has emerged on whose ideas are being used to theorise development practice, whether they are applicable, and offer effective solutions. The post-development school of thought is centred on deconstructing 'universal' ideas of development. Novel viewpoints have emerged which are transforming how the 'developing' world is understood and what role citizens of the Global South can play. With post-development thought, urban researchers, and planners, are advancing new thinking to plan inclusive cities in the Global South. In a succeeding event on urbanisation at the African Research Institute, the subject matter was how urban planning in Africa is adapting for the future. Read more.

Exposing gated cities

Upon exploring how just and inclusive cities can emerge a key component of analysis is social life — how people act in cities, the complex character of sociability, and the factors designing urban life. Multiple concepts have been raised to define what a city is — and has become, and further, what kind of life materialises within urban spaces. Over time cities have been conceptualised as 'misanthropic', expressing disorganisation, violence, and a dense concentration of people whom adopt different mentalities and motives. Such urban personas are expressed through space. Read more.