African Urban Fantasy Plans that “Sweep Away” the Poor


From Rwanda’s Master Plan

By Vanessa Watson[1]

Until just a few years ago there was very little interest in the fate of African cities, either from local politicians or international investors. They existed as good examples of what Mike Davis described in his dystopian Planet of Slums – illustrating the extremes of all forms of human deprivation and environmental catastrophe. The response from many African political leaders was (and still is) that the urban poor should simply ‘return’ to the rural areas, that they were neither needed nor wanted in the cities. However, the seismic shifts in the global economy post-2008 and the resource-driven growth of many of Africa’s economies, has served to change this. As McKinsey described African economies as “Lions on the Move.” (2010) and Deloitte (2013) proclaimed the “rise and rise of the African middle class” so the global property development industry, amongst others, took another look at African cities.

Encouraged by politicians on the continent, who appear to believe that ultra-modern buildings and urban projects will demonstrate some kind of social and economic transformation as well, these developers have tried to outdo each other in concocting graphic representations of glass and steel urban fantasies, some of which make even Dubai look provincial. These futuristic urban imaginaries appear to prepare for a very different century to come, yet in many ways they hark back to the modernist visions of 1930s architect Le Corbusier, who proposed an alternative way of life to the Paris slums with sweeping green lawns and a car-owning population with full-time formal jobs and incomes.  A common feature on all these graphics is the complete lack of people, or at most some sketched nuclear families strolling in leisurely fashion across featureless “green” space.

The most striking feature of these urban fantasy graphics is how far removed they are from actual and real-life African cities. Figures (which certainly disguise regional variation) indicate some 62% of urban populations living in “slums” and 70% of urban populations working informally. It is correct that there is a growing middle-class in African cities, but it is still relatively small, and is defined by the African Development Bank as those spending between $2 and $20 a day! These incomes are far too small to afford the high-end luxury apartments depicted in many of the plans – as shown in the Chinese-built ‘ghost cities’ outside of Luanda, where apartments selling at $240,000 were unaffordable and left empty.

“Hope City,” Ghana

Where are the street traders, the informal transport operators and the shack-dwellers in these new fantasy plans? Would traders ever be allowed to set up business on these pristine boulevards? Could the poor (or even the middle class) ever afford the glass box apartments, or even have the kinds of jobs that would get them access to the towering office blocks? How do people move around on foot, as most city-dwellers do, through these wide open spaces and car-oriented movement routes?  The answer is clearly that all such urban citizens have been swept out of sight in these grand visions. As there is no possibility that the poor majority of African cities will have suddenly become wealthy and skilled, it can only be assumed that they have been chased out of town, removed to land on the city edge and out of sight, or perhaps – as the politicians so often wish – they have gone to smaller towns or rural areas.  Where these new visions are satellite cities way outside the main metropolitan area, it is off course the wealthy that will be fleeing beyond the city edge, away from what is perceived as the crime, grime and chaos of the major cities.

If these fantasies become reality (and certainly some are moving towards construction) what will be the outcome? Will Africa have better cities that function well for all their residents? My guess is exactly the opposite. Cities will become highly unequal, with spatial inequalities reinforcing income inequalities. There will be high levels of income segregation, with the wealthy attempting to retreat into gated villages or satellites; the poor will be left to fend for themselves in the shacklands or clustered around the satellites, as was the case in Brasilia and other new town experiments. Public spending on infrastructure will be skewed in favour of the new urban projects and there will be even less than there is now to provide basic services for poor communities. Where there is competition for better located land between rich and poor, it is obvious who will win out. These processes are not new – many cities in the world have experienced them in the past, and more recently Indian[2] and Asian cities as well. And past experiences with satellite city planning (of which there are many cases from the 1950s and 1960s) show that they are highly problematic: economic independence will be many decades away, and in the interim many of their residents will have to make the long journey back to the ‘mother city’ for jobs and higher end public services. This form of settlement planning has been shown to greatly increase travel time and traffic congestion.

Cities have to be seen as integrated and inclusive wholes, recognizing the interdependency of their parts. Current thinking will greatly increase inequalities, social breakdown, more deprivation, more wasted public resources and less environmental sustainability.

Vanessa Watson is professor of city planning in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and Deputy Dean of the faculty. She holds degrees from the Universities of Natal, Cape Town and the Architectural Association of London, and a PhD from the University of Witwatersrand, and is a Fellow of the University of Cape Town. Her research over the last thirty years has focused on urban planning in the global South and the effects of inappropriate planning practices and theories especially in Africa. Her work seeks to unsettle the geo-politics of knowledge production in planning by providing alternative theoretical perspectives from the global South.






[1] Watson, V (2014): African urban fantasies: dreams or nightmares? Environment and Urbanization, April. online DOI: 10.1177/0956247813513705


[2] Bhan G (2014): The real lives of urban fantasies, Environment and Urbanization DOI: 10.1177/0956247813514305