Africa’s Urban Revolution draws on a diverse array of case studies to provide a comprehensive insight into the key issues surrounding African urbanisation. Reviewed by LSE’s Chris Suckling.
Africa’s Urban Revolution is a fourteen-chapter volume edited by Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse. They argue that practitioners and scholars must sharpen their tools to deal with the startling facts of Africa’s rapid urbanisation. The volume incorporates insightful case studies on climate change, food security, planning law and violent conflict, to position cities – medium and large – as the loci of effective development policies.
Three decades ago Elliot Bates, alongside the World Bank, applied Michael Lipton’s urban bias thesis to Africa. Coalitions of business and political elites were said to prevent economic development by favouring urban-based interests to the detriment of rural populations. But then, as now, care must be taken when claiming that one locality should receive greater attention. It is worth asking: whom does the urban revolution benefit? Parnell reminds us that recent thinking is informed by private sector think tanks. In line with the narrative that “Africa is rising”, economic growth is assumed to flow from a burgeoning new middle class that increases consumer demand and promotes sectoral diversification. While it is of course important to address ways that “residents are structurally trapped” (p. 15), many of the chapters overplay the Africa rising narrative of cities as spaces for entrepreneurship and opportunity.
In Chapter 11 Pieterse suggests slum dwellers incur the “highest transaction costs” – for they “come from  messy, unsightly, stinking, foul neighbourhoods” – and urban planning must instead harness the creativity of these “agents of slum urbanism”. The state’s lack of attention to urban problems is not seen as resulting from “external forces” but rather a bad attitude to urbanisation marked by political self-interest. Or, more pejoratively, responsibility lies with a youth bulge that plays into elite interests and consumption-driven lifestyles. While Simone (chapter 12) indicates that governments are unlikely to leverage the finance on infrastructure investments necessary to meet existing needs, none of the contributors provide robust political solutions to deal with constrained and politically mismanaged public expenditure. The solutions proposed remain largely technocratic – institutional decentralisation and localism (chapter 11) – that arguably play into neoliberal policies of state roll back.
However, cities are demonstrated to be vital sources of economic development. Turok (chapter four) suggests city-based agglomeration economies can increase the productivity of industry. Economic development is not solely consumer-driven, but requires a large-scale productive base. However the benefits of agglomeration are matched by their negative externalities, including direct effects on an overburdened transport infrastructure (chapter 7) and indirect effects of climate change (chapter 3). Berrisford (chapter 9) provides an insightful examination of why reforms to planning law remain challenging in helping solve these problems. Planning law is largely inherited from colonial legislation that fails to incorporate citizen participation and continue to privilege the interests of developers and landowners. As socio-economic inequality grows, the issues of elite capture need to be “confronted squarely”. So long as urban policy is technocratic, the basic principles of law will be treated as superfluous. ‘A proper understanding’ – Berrisford suggests – ‘entails looking beneath the surface’ (p. 169).
A number of issues weaken the central claim that Africa is experiencing an urban revolution. First, as Deborah Potts highlights in a recent article, urbanisation is often conflated with urban growth. Urbanisation is relative population change attributed to rural-to-urban migration, which has slowed down across Africa. In contrast urban growth is an absolute measure of population change and has been more rapid, largely due to mortality rates falling more rapidly than fertility rates. Second, many of the chapters base their claims on datasets from UN agencies – and in some cases private consultancy reports – that diverge markedly from national census data. It goes unacknowledged that urbanisation reduced in eleven countries between 2001 and 2011. Particularity is disposed in favour of generality. Against this, Sean Fox (chapter 14) argues that urbanisation is a continuing historical process, not a natural by-product of employment opportunities and wage differentials. Demographic shifts result from technological and institutional changes that push down mortality rates and cause natural increase within urban areas. Urban growth – not urbanisation – is the order of the day.
Arguably this clarification does not matter. Rapid urban growth is real and requires effective policy responses to deal with pressing issues from public transportation to affordable housing. Yet clarification would help policymakers differentiate policies that ameliorate the pressures created by urban growth from those that recognise the opportunities arising from it. In Sierra Leone young men frequently use the saying “I am turning” to indicate the intense geographic movement required when finding an income. An artificial separation of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ policy domains precludes attention to the circular mobility entailed in accessing these opportunities – and resulting flow of remittances – in which both the rural and urban poor engage. Parnell and Simon (chapter 13) redress this by suggesting national governments must distinguish between agencies responsible for regulating inter-regional migration and those that manage urban planning issues.
Revolutions are ironic, for they turn full circle. The irony of Africa’s urbanism is reflected in the plurality of views presented in this volume: some new, some old. While policy makers clearly need to be more urban focused, the policy approaches suggested remain contradictory. But then urban policy has always been somewhat dysfunctional. Whether or not African states can harness the urban revolution remains to be seen, but this volume offers some considered and timely approaches with which to begin. For practitioners and planning students interested in the big urban questions of the next three decades, this volume will provide a suitable introduction.
Africa’s Urban Revolution Edited by Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse, Published by Zed Books, ISBN: 9781780325200