From expected to unexpected comparisons: Changing the flows of ideas about cities in a postcolonial urban world



Urban geography is breaking free from the bonds of global developmentalist categories and regionalisms as it approaches comparativism. As a result it is becoming possible to place cities everywhere onto some sense of a level playing field, where comparability exists for certain circulations of policies and certain categories of events, processes or phenomena. This essay is an exploration into practically working out the empirical shape of new forms of comparative work. Sometimes changing the flows of ideas in urban studies means bypassing the expected global North comparisons; sometimes changing the flows means reversing them, for South-North comparisons which begin in the South. In this paper, I use two brief thought experiments for thinking through the flows of ideas differently. The first experiment entails developing an understanding of the spatial, social and economic divides of Hartford, Connecticut from African urbanism; the second involves building understandings of urban morphologies from China-Africa urban comparison.


The opening of comparative urbanism in the twenty-first century to alternative visions of how to approach comparison has evolved around recentring urban theory. Over the last decade in urban geography, a considerable critique has arisen, emerging at least initially out of postcolonial studies, challenging universal understandings of urbanism that emanate from European and North American cities. This critique has energized a reconsideration of the need to construct global hierarchies of cities, the criteria for positioning on such hierarchies, and the desirability of policymaking aimed to boost a city's rankings on them. At its widest ebb, this literature calls into question the meaning of cityness and the roles, functions and shapes of urban areas, when accepted understandings for these derive from Euro-American contexts and all other cities are measured against them.

As Jenny Robinson has shown, urban studies has carried a legacy of dividing the world into types of cities forward into the contemporary era of globalization and increased interconnectivity, and these divides have serious consequences (Robinson, 2006; 2011a; 2011b; 2011c). What these divides often continue to mean is that scholarship gets divided by world regions, and by ideological economistic categorizations into developed/developing world, first/third world or global North/South. Robinson (2011a: 2) further notes that ‘when comparisons are undertaken, they are highly circumscribed in the range of cities attended to’. Her criticisms in most of her works over the last decade are aimed at urban studies in the developed/first/North side of the divide, in the dominant comparative frameworks that analyse, say, Paris, New York or London, and then expect these cities to speak to the concerns of cities everywhere. It is also, surely, a steep challenge to expect any scholar, particularly working alone, to move beyond his/her region of expertise, so that even a non-Eurocentric comparative framework might end up as too circumscribed, and as Robinson (2011c) suggests, even the very idea of making urban comparisons might be seen as a European colonialist invention.

As a way of testing out challenges conjoining alternative comparisons in urban studies, this essay begins from the question of what happens when one shifts from intraregional comparative urban studies to the growing arena of research exploring common ground and reciprocal or even reverse idea flows between global North and global South urban contexts (McFarlane, 2010), and further, to South-South comparativism and growing ‘global South knowledge networks’ (Pieterse, 2012). Many scholars of global South urbanism now demand ‘that the cities they study deserve wider consideration in theoretical analysis’ (Robinson, 2011a: 4) in light of postcolonial critiques of urban studies (Robinson, 2011c). Some even want to see ‘the centre of theory-making move to the global South’ in urban studies (Roy, 2009: 820). While working toward such a goal, I think it is vital to turn our critical comparative ambitions toward overcoming the pitfalls of potential parochialism and to using broad regionalist comparativism to speak back to the still dominant Western-oriented universalisms on global urbanism (Robinson, 2003; 2011b). That is where we might find ‘shared concerns’ between those working on global North cities without the ‘partial, biased and imperious assumptions’ of ‘Western-centric urban theories’ and those ‘attempting to bring the specificity of emergent urbanisms in the South into the frame’ (Pieterse, 2012: 7–8). This paper is a foray into practically working out the empirical shape of new forms of comparative work that emanates from this line of thinking.

I am trained in African studies; I have largely studied cities in Africa. When writing my first three books, I stayed within this regional zonation, albeit growing somewhat more ambitious with each step (Myers, 2003; 2005; 2011). In my most recent book, I ask, ‘What if the postmetropolis is Lusaka?’ What happens if we place cities like Lusaka ‘in the center of urban studies instead’ of placing them in the margins (Myers, 2011: 24)? The book shares one key conclusion with Maliq Simone (2010: 15), in his insistence that cities of the global North and South ‘ “move toward” each other … in gestures and inclinations shaped by the search for economic and political strategies that enhance their “normalization” as viable cities according to standards still largely shaped by occidental notions of modernity’. In my book's conclusion, I pointed to future research that might study that movement toward one another starting from Africa, in other words ‘to put African cities at the center from the outset’, in a way that might ‘lead to global rethinking of … all the stuff of urban geography’ (Myers, 2011: 197). I explore what this recentring might entail below in two brief empirical thought experiments. The first takes us on a journey from African urban studies concepts emerging in Nairobi and Cape Town to the city in which I now work, Hartford, Connecticut; the second entails sketching out possibilities for South-South comparative urban geography between African and Chinese cities, with reference to Nairobi, Dakar, Lusaka and Kinshasa. Before these empirical explorations, in the following section, I further situate them in the discussions of this special issue.

Beyond the expected comparison

Having participated in the production of postcolonial geographies for 20 years, it seems to me that, rather than revisiting a now vast body of work, or offering further critique of Euro-American-centrism, or arguing for a post-postcolonial turn, a more helpful approach may emerge from looking forward. Postcolonialism's main productive impact on urban geography's future can come in the generation of the new possibilities for comparativism which I have suggested in the introduction; these have yet to be fully operationalized. Among numerous possibilities, one new form of comparison can be conceived of as a global South-global North comparison where we begin from the global South. This alternative South-to-North comparativism is very much the sort of work which Ananya Roy (2005), for example, has shown to have great utility in the analysis of urban informality. Another might be a South-South comparativism which works without an analytical framework with origins in the global North. Despite an increase in output lately along these lines, these are what I am still calling the ‘unexpected comparisons’, whereas the ‘expected’ variety of comparison still entails the comparative study of urbanism within the global North, the comparative analysis of global South urbanism using global North-origin theories, parameters and metrics, or even South-South comparativism, if informed strictly by Northern urban studies. Expected comparisons are increasingly inadequate for articulating the dynamic meanings of global urbanism. It is conceivable that South-South comparativism needs concepts that originate outside of the West as starting places for comparison, and even a recovery of non-European languages for explaining the concepts, for instance, to postcolonialize the field.

A decade ago, in this journal, Robinson (2003: 274) suggested a helpful set of ‘pragmatic steps’ toward ‘postcolonializing the discipline’ of geography. Among these steps was a call for learning from and about, and engaging ‘with understandings generated in other places’ in a consciously located and theoretically reinvigorated regional geography (Robinson, 2003: 280). She also challenged geographers to think about ‘far more than reversing the lines of formal colonial influence in scholarship,’ aiming for ‘a complex reimagining of international scholarly practices’ (Robinson, 2003: 281). Robinson (2003: 274) argued that the ‘dynamics of power and the tracks of exclusion and inclusion in the production of geographical knowledge’ are too complex to be subsumed under the banner of an illusory uniform ‘postcolonial moment’, arguing instead for a ‘cosmopolitan’ sort of ‘transnational production of scholarship’. The only way to proceed is to do so in a cosmopolitan manner—but a cosmopolitanism which ‘emphasizes the multiple geographies through which different forms of cosmopolitanism are constituted [and] … diverse forms of political identity and agency’ (Featherstone, 2007: 434).

As Robinson (2006) herself has shown, there is a precedent within African urban studies for this sort of cosmopolitan comparison, wherein African contexts are utilized for developing more broadly applicable urban theory, for instance in the work of anthropologists and sociologists affiliated with the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (RLI) in the 1930s through the 1960s, in what is today's Zambian Copperbelt. One example of this is the work of J. Clyde Mitchell (1954; 1969; 1987), who pioneered social network analysis and situational analysis, based on work carried out in the Copperbelt—for what, tellingly given the research's colonial context, came to be referred to as the ‘Manchester School’ of urban sociology despite its Zambian origins. As Robinson (2006) shows, the threads connecting this work to contemporary urban studies became frayed, in part due to colonialist tethers attached, fairly or unfairly, to the RLI.

After a dying-off period lasting several decades, robust comparative urbanism is now re-emerging in African urban studies, often with an agenda for reorienting a new global urban studies. Some of these new works are making pointedly unexpected South-North comparisons, such as Nairobi and Berlin (Huchzermeyer, 2011). Others provide vivid city-to-city comparisons between Africa and other cities of the global South (Grant & Nijman, 2002). Still others have begun to build toward even grander ambitions along the lines of Roy's desire to relocate the centre of urban theory-making southward in the globe, whether via Simone's (2010) effort to reclaim ‘black urbanism’ or the African Centre for Cities' research project on ‘rogue urbanism’ (Pieterse & Simone, 2013).

Below, I seek to show that ideas which are emerging from this new African urban studies might be useful in analysing Hartford or Shanghai within the sort of cosmopolitanism that Robinson had proposed. I focus on ideas (derived from the work of urbanists from or focused on Africa) of ‘Afropolitan’ development, of seeing ‘relocalization’ in polyvalent ‘relational cities’ (de Boeck with Plissart, 2004; Nuttall & Mbembe, 2008; Pieterse, 2008; Simone, 2010). Although the concepts which I discuss derive from academics one might describe as straddling the global North and South, their ideas emerge from deep engagements with the disenfranchised majority residents in cities of Africa. I see these scholars' works as part of a broader effort captured in the title of the recent two-volume edited book, Reclaiming the Human Sciences and Humanities through African Perspectives (Lauer & Anyidoho, 2012). They are likewise works which seek to ‘more effectively involve not only African scholars but also local experts and communities … in the research design and implementation’ aiming for ‘increased endogeneity in knowledge production and dissemination’ (Olukoshi & Nyamnjoh, 2011: 25).

The unexpected comparisons

My first goal is to consider how American or Chinese cities might learn from African cities and studies of them which seek to generate African ideas of the urban. In most of urban studies, there is an unspoken assumption that African cities can learn from American or European cities. Likewise, most of the canon of urban studies would suggest that there is little to compare between African and Chinese cities, beyond perhaps their respective relations with Western cities. A growing set of exceptions exists to this reasoning, but the stars of urban studies still seldom reference Africa, or they put its cities in footnotes and margins, or they use superficial snapshots from intellectual safaris there to drum up some Afro-pessimism for the masses. In so doing, they miss opportunities for seeing African cities as important sites of global processes or generators of ‘urban stories worth telling and worth learning from’ (Myers, 2011: 6). Rather than further chastising such scholars for missing the point about cities in Africa, instead, I wonder how the multifaceted urbanity in African contexts might be of value to global understanding of urbanism, as a starting place for those whose focus may not be on Africa, in these two thought experiments.

Experiment one: from Nairobi and Cape Town to Hartford

Specifically, in my first thought experiment, I want to explore how divided cities in Africa move toward becoming inclusive cities—looking at what works and what does not, as part of valuing alternative visions of urban theory and urban practices from Africa. If the stereotypes and generalizations are to be believed, cities in Africa are deeply poor and divided—so why are not these the cities we study from the get-go to understand urban divides and how to overcome them? In other words, let's start from divided African cities and work back to Hartford, not the other way round (Beall et al., 2002).

Let me start the journey in Nairobi, with UN Habitat, an important potential force in recentring the vision of urban studies. Particularly under Tanzanian Executive Director Anna Tibaijuka (2000–10), Habitat emerged as a voice for reshaping urban policy across the globe toward a more inclusive city. Might Habitat's (2008) State of the World's Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide, then, provide a baseline from Africa for what makes a city ‘divided’ and what can make it ‘inclusive'? Might this be an appropriate baseline for approaching Hartford? In her introduction to this book, Tibaijuka contended that ‘achieving sustainable development is likely to prove impossible if the urban divide is allowed not only to persist but to continue growing, opening up … in some cities a gulf, an open wound, which can produce social instability’ (UN Habitat, 2008: iv).

Habitat splits the divide into four—the economic, spatial, opportunity and social. In the interests of space, let me just examine the first. The economic divide is defined mainly in terms of income inequality, via the Gini coefficient, classifying urban income inequality at the national and individual city scale across the world, from Group 1's ‘low inequality’ (scores below 0.3) to Group 6's ‘extremely high inequality’ (scores above 0.6). The UN only lists three countries in Group 6; all three are in southern Africa—Namibia, South Africa and Zambia. Another five African countries belong to Group 5, with ‘very high inequality’ (Gini coefficients above 0.50). The report largely excludes North America and Western Europe—except for a boxed discussion of US cities and their ‘legacy of deep divides’, which notes the high Gini coefficients of US urban areas (UN Habitat, 2008: 80). The highest US Gini coefficient of urban income inequality belongs to Bridgeport, Connecticut, down the road from Hartford, at 0.542, comparable to Nairobi at 0.57; Connecticut is home to four of the five worst US Metropolitan Statistical Areas for income inequality (Hero, 2009). While the Gini coefficient for Hartford is slightly lower, at 0.456 (Hero, 2009), the Brookings Institution recently calculated Hartford as the world's richest metropolitan area by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita (Istrate et al., 2012: 6), when the city proper also has the second highest percentage of children living in poverty of any US city (Simmons, 2013). Clearly Hartford has become a city of the sorts of dramatic economic contrasts that many African cities like Nairobi have long had (Sacks, 2013).

With all four of their divide-types, Habitat portrays the situation as bleakest in Africa, but given the enormous wealth of Connecticut (the richest US state in most years) and the deprivation in its inner cities—amply displayed in metropolitan Hartford—these divides are arguably more shocking than the gulf from, say, Kibera to Karen in Nairobi. The most excluded and underprivileged groups in the seven African cities in Habitat's world survey remain the poorest of the poor—disabled, homeless slum dwellers and the elderly—after decades of policy emphasis on enhancing the rights and capabilities of these groups in those cities. One could easily tell a similar narrative in Hartford, America's ‘Insurance City’, where, ironically, more than half of the city's children lack health insurance coverage (Simmons, 2013).

To counter the persistence of barriers to inclusivity, UN Habitat advocated five steps to an inclusive city and laid out ‘five levers of inclusiveness’. There are some tangible elements to these steps and levers, and a lot to like in Habitat's cogent analysis of causes of urban divides, with relevance to Hartford. But when it turns to proscriptions for making cities inclusive, Habitat does not present a voice of the disaffected majority of Nairobi, resorting instead to bureaucracy-speak.

We make more headway toward an African-origin idea of what to do about America's urban divides by examining urban theorists who embrace the messy, unplanned and complicated ‘Afropolitan’ vibe from cities in Africa (Nuttall & Mbembe, 2008), a vibe that seems to pulse a few blocks away from my office, on Park Street in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighbourhood. For example, in Edgar Pieterse's (2008) City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development, he spends more than one-fourth of the book critiquing Habitat's core policy agendas and programmes that claim to be about making cities more inclusive. The core of his critique centres on three flawed assumptions that these programmes and campaigns have. These are, first, that ‘a shared vision of the future is definable through deliberation and negotiation between various … stakeholders’ in a city; second, that ‘a well-structured process … of dialogue will lead to … a “rational consensus” ’, and third, that ‘the diverse and wide-ranging challenges facing the city are knowable … and can be broken down into discrete parcels … to inform … interventions’ (Pieterse, 2008: 73–74). Cities are far more complex, dynamic and unpredictable than Habitat's style of thinking or planning allows for. Shared visions or rational consensus prove unlikely in what Pieterse (2008: 78) calls ‘a context of deep social cleavages and structural inequalities’ and ‘the preponderance of policy-oriented research on the development challenges and absences of African cities, as opposed to a more rounded theorization of urban life (urbanism) or cityness’ (2010: 205). Likewise, Pieterse (2010: 206) says it is ‘simply wrong’ to expect a rational policy fix to Africa's urban divides, given the vast ignorance which exists about how Africans live in cities and produce space and urban sociality. Yet even while dealing with these philosophical or theoretical issues, Pieterse (2008) still brings us closer to issues of real concern to a city like Hartford than the Habitat book, in his model of how urban development practitioners (state, private sector or civil society actors) work through five domains of political engagement toward a ‘relational city’. By ‘relational’ cities, Pieterse (2008: 106) means ones that have a fuller understanding of the ‘plurality of action spaces’, where the broad and quite varied collection of actors in urban development engage with one another across divides between ‘formal and informal, symbolic and concrete, collaborative and contestatory’. Pieterse (2008: 106) hopes to incite more comprehensive analytical accounts of political practices in the city through examination of representative politics, stakeholder forums, direct action, grassroots development and symbolic politics. Before any sort of remapping of urban policies for any specific city, he argues (following Robinson, Parnell and others) we need to ‘produce a more patient, in-depth and nuanced account of the mobile, diverse and complex socialities that form and reform at the intersection of multiple identities, spaces, networks and imaginary registers’ (Pieterse, 2010: 209).

This sort of relational approach to studying urban practice is essential if one is to grasp the ‘multiplexity’ embedded in African cities, Pieterse (2008: 87) argues. I contend that this approach has tremendous potential utility in analysing a city like Hartford. The list is long of twenty-first century African cities which provide us with possible examples for further analysis of the social life and relationality of divided cities, or paths for remaking the divides toward inclusivity. South Africa's cities have embarked on arguably the world's most ambitious programme of undoing division, in attempting to remake apartheid's urban geography. UN Habitat highlights how South African cities managed to reduce, slightly, their world-worst Gini coefficients, bring thousands of people out of slums, and produce mechanisms for political empowerment and racial inclusion. Pieterse points in a different, more honest direction. While acknowledging that there are policy gains within the post-apartheid city, he hones in on the pervasive violence of everyday life for the urban poor, and multiple disconnections and political-cultural misunderstandings which define cityness for them (Pieterse, 2010).

Yet perhaps the strongest starting place for comparison, and the issue of forging relationality in cities, comes from just outside of Cape Town. Mark Swilling and Eva Annecke (2012: xii–xiii) use their experiences in creating and residing in Lynedoch EcoVillage, 30 minutes from Cape Town, as the launching pad for creating what they call ‘just transitions’, creating ways for all people to become ‘visible in a place’ within ‘the most unequal society in the world’. Their sweep is broad, from their tiny suburb out to the whole globe, through five types of transitions toward ‘just sustainability’. The most relevant segments of the book deal explicitly with cities, as they develop an idea of ‘livable urbanism’ which is very comparable to the relational cities of Pieterse, dissecting and reassembling the ‘flows and networks of a city’ (Swilling & Annecke, 2012: xx–xxi, 113–14). In Cape Town, they contend, the UN Habitat-style ‘inclusive urbanism was not enough’ because its policies did not produce ‘bottom-up empowerment’ in the city (Swilling & Annecke, 2012: 246). Instead, they offer the ‘gritty’, face-to-face narrative of Lynedoch's livability, modestly achieved through more than a decade of patient collaboration between activists, residents of all income groups and races, and a wide array of people, not always in the most rational ways.

It seems quite plausible to learn from Lynedoch—and Cape Town more broadly—in Hartford, to develop means for dialogue which could reverse negative and violent trends in its polyglot ethnic communities, building rounded understanding of its varied urban lifeworlds. Hartford needs the kind of rounded theorization that Pieterse proposes, and in which Swilling, Annecke and their colleagues and neighbours enact every day, as much as, or more than, Nairobi or Cape Town. A prime example of its absence appears in the recently launched 400 million-dollar programme for a bus rapid transit system linking inner-city Hartford with the equally poor satellite town of New Britain, known as CTfastrak (Connecticut Department of Transportation, 2011; CTfastrak, 2013). Ostensibly linked through its funding base with President Obama's agenda for green urbanism (which Swilling and Annecke (2012) critique) and sustainable transportation, CTfastrak resulted from extensive policy studies of Hartford's development challenges and absences. But it has been developed without substantive consideration of the cityness and everyday urban life of Hartford's Puerto Rican plurality or its substantial West African, African-American, Afro-Caribbean and South American communities, or of the long history of transportation infrastructure's role in the devastation of Hartford's livability for them (The Atlantic Cities, 2012).

On the New Britain end of the busway, the designated route cuts through the backyards of the city's poor African-American neighbourhood, removing pedestrian access to that downtown. On the Hartford end it further solidifies the spatial exclusion of the city's black North End from the central business district, begun by construction of Interstate 84, by eliminating pedestrian crossing access under I-84 at a crucial point just west of the state capitol. Moreover, the largely black and Latino youth who created Hartford's vivid, graffiti-laden skate park on an extended overpass above I-84 just east of this in downtown (and renamed it ‘Heaven’), and made it into ‘a popular, positive attraction’ thanks to a task force of ‘graffiti writers, skateboarders and business leaders’ (Hartford Courant, 2013a), now fight advocates for ‘transit-oriented-development’. These advocates look at Heaven at the end of the busway as a target for redevelopment, bent on ‘cleaning up’ the city and making the park ‘friendly and safe'—essentially for the business people and expected increase in the population of yuppies occupying the new apartments around it (Hartford Courant, 2013b).

The CTfastrak narrative provides us with a prime example of how approaching Hartford from African urban studies might offer great insight: how could a thorough theorization of the meaning of cityness to Hartford's poor black and Latino majority (beyond translating CTfastrak promotional material into Spanish, as in Hartford News, 2013) reimagine urban transportation issues and geographies? What might Hartford's leaders and Heaven's youth learn for studying what worked over the long term in the multigenerational, multiracial Lynedoch eco-village project? How might a proposed forum on downtown pedestrian access (Hartford Courant, 2013c) provide an opportunity for developing a path, literally and figuratively, toward the sort of relationality and livability that Cape Town's urbanists have theorized and sought to enact? The point is not to assume that a transference from Lynedoch to Heaven, as it were, would lead to positive outcomes; rather, I am suggesting that we can see an instance for possible city-to-city learning which begins in the global South and comes North.

Experiment two: linking African cities with Chinese cities

My second experiment engages with possibilities for comparative urbanism across two global South realms, connecting China and Africa. African studies as a field is awash with interest in China, now the African continent's largest trading partner, a major investor and crucial donor. As scholars begin to attend to this rapid transformation of the development landscape in Africa, several themes predominate, including its geopolitical dimensions (Taylor, 2009; Cheru & Obi, 2010) and flows of Chinese investment, typically into resource extraction industries (Hoi-Yin, 2008; Pannell, 2008). A third theme focuses on sociocultural dynamics of the new Chinese presence in Africa in workplace relations (Lee, 2010; Kouoh, 2012). Often these themes are linked to concerns for the ‘new scramble for Africa’ (Carmody & Taylor, 2010; Carmody, 2011), and they often intersect in particular contexts, such as Zambia (Carmody & Hampwaye, 2010; Fraser & Larmer, 2010).

One arena that as yet has received less attention concerns the impacts and interactions at the urban scale that are transforming urban fabrics and morphologies. Although the literature on Chinese resource-based investments or sociocultural relationships may situate studies in specific urban contexts, it is rare to see analysis of how these investments and relationships transform urban spatiality (but see de Boeck, 2011; 2012; Kouoh, 2012). These transformations have had substantial urban spatial implications for cities in Africa. I want to explore one of these, the idea of relocalization in peri-urban contexts. Both relocalization and the growth of peri-urban settlements have very direct connections with the rates of urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa over the last quarter-century amidst neoliberalism, globalization and democratization. Space permits little more than a cursory sketch of this context, but I want to speculate both about to what extent Chinese investment in and migration to African cities play a role in peri-urban relocalization and about what comparability this Africa-derived conceptualization may have for Chinese urban contexts.

It is a truism of the last half-century in urban studies to say that sub-Saharan Africa is the least urbanized and most rapidly urbanizing world region at the same time. Another trope offers that the high rates of urbanization have not followed conventional Western models, where urbanization is driven by industrialization and economic growth. For some scholars, rates of urbanization appear to have slowed in many countries over the last decade (Potts, 2009), while in a few cases scholars contend that conventions do appear to be upheld, and economic growth can be paired with urban growth (Obeng-Odoom, 2010). A significant degree of uncertainty and debate remains on actual rates of urban growth on the continent, and on how useful it even is to try to generalize across situations (and rates) which seem to vary dramatically. Despite some cracks in the conventional wisdom, it remains evident that many cities in Africa do not follow expected Western norms for urbanization. It is frequently true that the urbanization of land outpaces industrial growth, so that cities look like they are expanding more than they are, at least economically (Briggs & Yeboah, 2001). One major spatial consequence of the trend of demographic growth without corresponding economic growth is that the substantial physical expansion of the urban footprint, typically on the peri-urban edges of cities—in places like Kibera in Nairobi, Misisi south of Lusaka, or Pikine on Dakar outskirts—occurs in a manner dominated by informality, devoid of substantial formal planning.

Some scholars look at the spatial spread of African urbanisms and see parallels to the Asian idea of extended metropolitan regions and urban corridors (UN Habitat, 2008). Nairobi-based UN Habitat (2008: 10) views urban corridors such as what it maps as the Maputo Corridor and the Greater Ibadan-Lagos-Accra Corridor in West Africa as ‘changing the functionality of cities … in the process stimulating business, real estate development and land values … improving connectivity … leading to regional economic development’. In less sanguine terms, the zones outside of the ‘proper’ cities are the key spatial arenas for understanding whether these extensions or corridors are any sort of engines of development. In most cases, whether we term them suburbs, exurbs, peri-urban fringes or viunga (plural of kiunga, the Swahili term for suburb), these realms of metropolitan Africa are still severely understudied and poorly understood. It is very dangerous to generalize across the vast sub-Saharan region about a phenomenon as complex as urban expansion into these outer zones, but let me suggest three key themes for them that seem to be common, with illustrations from Nairobi, Dakar, Kinshasa and Lusaka.

The first of these is, indeed, their informality. African states at the local municipal level rarely have land under control in peri-urban zones, where informal land markets and settlements predominate (Kombe, 2005). For example, less than 10 per cent of residents whose homes were demolished in a recent highway building project in Pikine could produce papers to verify either ownership or right of occupancy(Abdoulaye Niang, researcher, Partners Senegal, pers. comm., Pikine, 4 January 2013). Even in African cities where a smaller proportion of the ‘true’ urban population (inside the city's boundaries) is estimated to be living in informal settlements, that proportion will be higher in the outskirts. Second, these are fluid zones—for instance with Pikine, which is now a city of more than one million people in Dakar region, or with Kibera, where more than 300 000 residents crowd a floodplain. Besides frequent flooding, the fluidity resides in the sense of highly mobile, unfixed populations. Notions of belonging or fixity vary, but there seems to be a high degree of movement between city and countryside, back and forth, more here than inside the city (Englund, 2002; Trefon, 2009; Rose Muema, Deputy Director, City Planning, City Council of Nairobi, pers. comm., Nairobi, 26 July 2012; Abdoulaye Fall, Vice-Mayor of Thiaroye Gare Commune d'Arrondissement, City of Pikine, pers. comm., Dakar, 7 January 20131; Alioune Diouck, Mayor of Djidah Thiaroye Kao Commune d'Arrondissement, City of Pikine, pers. comm., Dakar, 4 January 20132).

Third, the peri-urban zone's degree of connectivity with the city that it borders can be very limited, even while it is deeply linked with the whole world. Formal urban services and networked infrastructures that are highly uneven at best inside African cities are typically nonexistent outside it. As cities grow larger, ironically, the spatial extent of some urbanites' lives grows more circumscribed. In Kinshasa, Filip de Boeck has spent more than a decade following the ‘micro-cities’ that result from the ‘re-localization’ of the metropolis (de Boeck with Plissart 2004: 18, 40). For de Boeck (2012: 316) the ‘rural hinterland’ has

deeply penetrated the city, economically … socially … and, above all, culturally and mentally. … Kinshasa's urban identity has constantly been invaded and formed by blending with and depending on rural lifestyles, mentalities, moralities and modes of survival.

The ‘often unsteady, provisional and constantly shifting possibilities and action schemes’ (de Boeck, 2012: 316) that arise in these local settings should not be romanticized, nor can they be shoehorned into an ‘urban corridor of economic development.’ People in such settings demonstrate remarkable resourcefulness. For example, Simone (2010: 124–25) uses Kinshasa's communities for his example of ‘people as infrastructure’, where the question of how to obtain ‘shelter, food, money and status’ is answered through ‘the particularities of an individual's family and ethnic background, their personal character and style, and their location’. Yet it is ‘far from an ideal way to live’ (de Boeck, 2012: 318). In Pikine, residents of low-lying communes such as Thiaroye Gare and Djidah Thiaroye Kao are often so cut off from the rest of the city by flooding that residents may not be able to leave their waterlogged homes for weeks, schools may be closed for a month or more, and waterborne diseases exact a brutal toll.

The phenomenon of peri-urban relocalization connects with the China-Africa narrative in two ways. First, the increasing Chinese residency in cities in Africa is tangible in the built environment, housing markets and urban culture, and the changes resonate outward to the Kiberas and Pikines of the continent. In Dakar, the main zone of Chinese settlement is a generally middle-class area around the Boulevard de Centenaire built in the 1950s and ‘meant to resemble Avenue des Champs Elysées’ (Kouoh, 2012). In Nairobi, it is a similarly middle-class zone west of downtown—a formerly white-only segment of the colonial map—which some Nairobi residents designate as ‘Whooey!’ due to the presence of the Chinese-owned luxury apartment complex, Wu-Yi. Chinese settlers reside all over the middle- and upper-class zones of Lusaka, but perhaps the most dramatically symbolic presence comes in the Chinese dominance of Lusaka's Millennium Village, a gated community originally built to house the presidents of the African Union for their 2000 Summit. Yet the peri-urban and marginalized areas of these cities are impacted directly and indirectly by the Chinese presence.

The direct impacts come most immediately in the form of infrastructure construction and estates development by Chinese engineering firms, often financed by the Chinese government. While both in Dakar and Nairobi, large highway projects are meeting long-recognized transportation infrastructure needs, the routes directly disadvantage Pikine and Kibera residents. Kibera—already bisected by the swirling Kenya Railways—has been further sliced in half by the Chinese-built Southern Bypass Highway. This highway's purpose is

to connect from Karen [among Nairobi's richest suburbs] all the way to the airport and then to Thika Road, but they just go and do it, there is no engagement with the community. This bypass cuts through the forest, through plots, and we have no discussion of participation (Patrick Tom Odongo, Director, City Planning, City Council of Nairobi, pers. comm., Nairobi, 26 July 2012).

Some Kibera residents' form of participation, while the highway was not yet completed but had ambitious commuters attempting to navigate the unfinished surface, entailed the de facto collection of tolls, through robbery (Patricia Kameri-Mbote, Professor of Law, Strathmore University, pers. comm., Nairobi, 30 July 2012). In Lusaka, Chinese-built middle- and upper-class housing estates are steadily displacing longstanding peri-urban informal settlements—occasionally with violence, as in June 2013's forced removal of Kampasa settlement near the Lusaka airport. Kampasa long housed informal workers for the Zambia National Service camp and the local, white-owned peri-urban agribusiness giant, Galounia Farm, but when these two owners sold adjoining parcels to a Chinese firm, the military rolled in with no warning and displaced the residents, shooting and killing several in the process.

Indirectly, the speculative residential construction at the economic high end led by this Chinese investment drives up the price of urban real estate further beyond the reach of ordinary residents, driving more people to places like Pikine or Kibera, where informal construction then further displaces people. Pikine's severe floods led to a strong presence in the built environment of abandoned houses; combined with the rising costs of remaining housing, community leaders see the rise of both severe overcrowding (30–40 people in one house) and out-migration of Pikinois to rural areas (Abdoulaye Fall, Vice-Mayor of Thiaroye Gare Commune d'Arrondissement, City of Pikine, pers. comm., Dakar, 7 January 2013). The Chinese-built superhighway to Thika, just northeast of Nairobi, fuelled a land rush in the fertile coffee lands of Kiambu County; for Nairobi's City Planning Director, this leaves the politicians only ‘wanting to talk about the problems of plots in Kiambu, when no one is talking about Kibera or the planning needs in slums’ (Patrick Tom Odongo, Director, City Planning, City Council of Nairobi, pers. comm., Nairobi, 26 July 2012). Every Chinese-built gated community in Lusaka, such as peri-urban Silverest Gardens (2013) created by Henan-Guoji Development Company 10 km beyond the Lusaka airport, promises a ‘rationally planned and comfortable living environment’ for those who can afford houses that cost in the neighbourhood of USD 200 000. Silverest Gardens (2013) claims to be the ‘community changing the city’, but it provides no housing for any of the service workers for its 380 homes, indirectly leading to the creation of a new peri-urban informal settlement for them, cut off from the city, ripe for relocalizing, since its residents will have to provide for themselves in every sense.

China's own urban transformation obviously is impacting its urban spatiality, often in ways that seem to parallel themes of African urban studies, such as relocalization (Iossifova, 2012; Pow, 2012; Simone, 2012). African communities emerging in urban China appear to have limited, but notable, transformative impacts in certain trading cities, so that we might claim tangible transformative impacts potentially at both ends of the relationship (Fauna, 2011). If there is peri-urban relocalization outside Chinese cities, is it the same as in African contexts? My point is neither to make such a claim nor to evidence it—that is an entirely different project. I simply want to highlight that the potential exists for productive interchange across the global South, utilizing urban contexts and concepts that arise out of the global South, without resorting to Western urban theory for guiding principles.


How can Hartford learn from Nairobi? What are the experiments, ‘trial balloons’ (Simone, 2010: 314–16) and popular cultural possibilities for making peripheralized citizens of Hartford part of relational, livable cities? What are the conceptual connectivities for urban analysis between Dakar and Shanghai? The last thing I would ever want to suggest is that African concepts or processes ought to be cut out of the Cape Flats or Kibera and plunked down on top of Frog Hollow in Hartford or Shanghai's borderlands (Iossifova, 2012). I am mindful of Pieterse's critique of Habitat for assumptions that we can define a shared vision of a city, that dialogue will lead to rational consensus, or that we can really know a city's challenges and break them down into neat little parcels and tick off solutions. Cities are always in the process of becoming. Perhaps the greatest lesson cities in Africa may have for a city like Hartford or for cities in China is to never lose sight of the fluid, flexible, undetermined, non-linear, ever-changing, unpredictable and surprising things that await us around any corner in a city.

More straightforwardly, these thought experiments, of reversing the flow of intellectual authority in comparative urbanism or of bypassing the expected route, suggest three themes for further research. First, while it may make a political point in postcolonial studies, it is not thoroughly necessary to start the discussion from cities in Africa, or even the global South. Rather than a simple turning-round of the telescope to look from African contexts onto Connecticut, or skipping the Connecticuts of the world altogether and doing comparative urbanism without the West, the key lies more in placing cities on a level analytical plain in comparative studies. While there may be a need for new terminology for discussing new ideas of urbanism in the twenty-first century world which might lead to a retirement of the term postcolonialism, it nonetheless remains the case that the drive for that level analytical plain in comparative urbanism originates from the postcolonial critique. Second, one vital avenue of commensurable comparability is that of the mobility and circulation of urban policy (Myers & Robinson, 2011). Interesting questions surface in all the cities under discussion in my experiments here about what is going on, to turn so many seemingly very different cities toward the prevention of violence through landscape architecture, or toward massive new public transit systems. However, my third suggestion is that this sort of more comprehensive and multiregional comparison is only possible to carry forward with any meaningful sophistication via broad, multicultural research teams and networks of researchers. Africa's cities' significance to the US, and both popular and scholarly interest in the relationships between China and sub-Saharan Africa, are on the rise. As scholarly research grows, there are many possibilities for developing South-to-North and South-to-South comparative urbanism that can transcend Western-centric urban studies. But to do so, it is of the utmost importance to develop collaborative energies that can build beyond the inevitable circumscription of the lone researcher. These collaborative energies face many challenges. Funding agencies for this sort of research remain largely centred in the global North and driven by Northern priorities; imbalances in resources between research partners from the North and South can still reflect or manifest the colonial world. Even within the comparatively more resourced global North academy, factors such as the US system on tenure and promotion or the UK Research Excellence Framework discourage the development—particularly by younger scholars—of experimental cosmopolitan collaborations, thereby continuing to reinforce the status quo. Making the unexpected comparisons happen will require continual reflexivity, consciousness and humility, as well as some systemic changes in research development sympathetic to the cause, en route to transnational postcolonial cosmopolitanism.


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    This was a group focus interview with Tom Hanlon, Alasse Elhadji Diop, four US undergraduate students and staff members of Partners Senegal, Pikine.

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    This was a group focus interview with Tom Hanlon, Alasse Elhadji, four US undergraduate students and staff members of Partners Senegal, Pikine.