Urbanization as a Global Historical Process: Theory and Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa



Urbanization has traditionally been understood as a byproduct of economic development, but this explanatory framework fails to account for the phenomenon of “urbanization without growth” observed in sub-Saharan Africa throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In light of this apparent anomaly, I argue that urbanization is better understood as a global historical process driven by population dynamics associated with technological and institutional innovations that have substantially improved disease control and food security in urban settlements across the globe. These innovations first emerged in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and were subsequently diffused through colonialism, trade, and international development assistance. A range of qualitative and quantitative evidence is presented to demonstrate that this historically grounded theory of urbanization offers a more convincing explanation for the stylized facts of Africa's urban transition—and hence the process of world urbanization more broadly—than the traditional economic account.