Accepted paper:

DIY Urbanism and Everyday Practices of Sustainability in Detroit: Lessons from Urban Africa in America's "Comeback" City


Stephen Marr (Malmö University)

Paper short abstract:

Residents of Detroit have long coped with poverty and ineffective municipal governance. These characteristics echo circumstances common across urban Africa. The essay utilizes African urban theory to understand contemporary Detroit with specific focus on DIY efforts connected to sustainability.

Paper long abstract:

The paper situates Detroit in a conversation with African cities that share similar experiences of precarity, inequality, and urban comportment(s) often characterized by improvisation and unpredictability. The paper thus draws from works by Simone, Pieterse, Trefon, and other Africanist scholars to understand processes of contemporary urban practice(s) in Detroit. I discuss preliminary findings from fieldwork conducted in Detroit, Michigan during autumn 2018. The research investigates climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts at the urban "margins" in situations of uneven state presence. Given the state's long inability to provide services due to a lack of resources, Detroit has a lengthy history of citizen-led initiatives that have tried to fill the service provision void. These grassroots efforts continue into the present. Questions engaged in the paper, include: what are the limitations and advantages for using urban theory developed in / for Africa in comparative context? How do urban citizens living with, and in, persistent and pervasive socio-economic, political, and spatial uncertainty conceive and implement sustainable climate solutions? What can formal institutions learn from solutions that happen "outside" the purview of the state? Throughout the essay, I advocate for the applicability of Africanist urban theory outside the Global South. Via observations, interviews, and document analysis, I pursue the above questions via the examination of themes connected to urban agriculture, eco-housing movements, and infrastructure decay.

panel Anth14
Rethinking urban theory from African cities