P091


African Cities and Urban Theory 
Convenors:
Till Förster (University of Basel )
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Format:
Panels
Location:
KH102
Start time:
30 June, 2017 at 9:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:
1

Short Abstract:

African cities are a challenge to urban theory. They are either thought of as the other of Western cities or as ordinary as any city worldwide. This panel juxtaposes different assessments of African cities and discusses how they informed and advanced urban theory.

Long Abstract

Africa's extremely rapid urbanisation has stirred heated scholarly debates in the humanities and the social sciences. Dissatisfied with case-study approaches that implicitly consider African cities as the other of Western cities, African cities are, on the one hand, increasingly studied as 'ordinary cities' whose growth and urbanity follow the same basic patterns as elsewhere. This strand of thinking focuses on the heterogeneity of everyday urban life and frames it as normal social practice. On the other hand, diverse trajectories of African cities show that urbanisation is not a uniform process that produces the same results all over the world but rather a distinct, 'urban' social space that the people recognise as different from that of other cities and identify with. The infrastructure, the economies and livelihoods, and also the dynamics of urban social and cultural life of African cities are perceived and conceived as basically different from those of other areas - and are sometimes declared to represent the future of urbanity worldwide.

As all interpretation is bound to disciplinary, professional, normative or aesthetic perspectives, this panel aims at juxtaposing different assessments of African cities and how they inform our understanding of the urban. It invites contributions from all disciplinary and professional backgrounds, in particular history, art history, geography, architecture, anthropology, sociology, and political science. The speakers are asked to reflect upon their own take on African cities and how it has influenced their theoretical comprehension of the urban as a general, social, cultural and aesthetic phenomenon.

Accepted papers:

Author:

Jennifer Robinson (University College London)

Paper short abstract:

Challenges to globalising urban theory come from two opposing directions: disregarding African urban studies and claiming the exceptionalism of African cities. Drawing on comparative methodology, and insisting that urban theory is always provisional, can offer some ways forward.

Paper long abstract:

For some years now the globalisation of urban processes and the strength of postcolonial critiques of urban studies have placed the need to revise urban theory, with a wider range of cities in mind, high on the agenda. The challenges to this project of globalising urban studies currently come from two directions. One, the disregard for African urban studies in wider theory building efforts; and two, the claims for an exceptionalism regarding African cities. These are tricky intellectual waters, navigating the requirement to take seriously the distinctive challenges of urbanisation in poorer country contexts, while sustaining the expectation that these experiences and trends inform urban theory. Taking account of current openings to re-theorise the urban, as the uncertain contours and dynamic features of twenty-first century urbanisation demand fresh engagements with what the urban is, this paper will outline the grounds for scholars of urban Africa to contribute to such discussion, while insisting that theorists of cities elsewhere can significantly enhance and extend their insights on urbanisation in general by building urban theory with African cities in mind. Casting comparative methodology as thinking/theorising with elsewhere, and insisting on the always provisional nature of any theorisation of the urban, some navigational charts might emerge.

Author:

Sophie Oldfield (University of Cape Town/University of Basel)

Paper short abstract:

High Stakes, High Hopes builds urban theory in the political and physical realities of everyday southern cities. It examines the creative and conflictive evolution of a decade-long research and teaching partnership and its practices that have collaboratively created urban theory.

Paper long abstract:

High Stakes, High Hopes builds urban theory in the political and physical realities of everyday southern city life. The paper examines the stakes and hopes at play in a decade-long research and teaching partnership, which has brought this university and the neighbourhood's civic organisation in Cape Town to research the city together, to collaboratively create urban theory. What is at stake in this partnership and its creative, and at times, conflictive, evolution? What is reoriented in urban theory when civic activists and community workers open up their struggles to university scrutiny? In narrating the project and partnership, the paper explores collaborative ways of creating urban theory, immersed in the registers, inspirations and meanings of everyday struggles and learning across the city. Through stories of our work together, it traces out the multiple personal and political relationships and legitimacies at play, and our navigation of these varied trajectories that shape this productive, yet always, compromised collaboration.

Author:

Matteo Rizzo (SOAS, University of London)

Paper short abstract:

This paper reviews the work of key postcolonial authors on urban Africa, highlighting the problems with its move away from materialist explanations of urban realities. In such scholarship African urban inhabitants tend, like ghosts, to float mid-air, unhinged from the material and the economic.

Paper long abstract:

This paper critically reviews the work of key postcolonial authors on urban Africa, and argues that while avoiding Eurocentrism and teleologies is key to the study of urban life in Africa, as predicated by postcolonial authors, there are serious analytical shortcomings in the move away from materialist explanations of urban realities that this work typically brings about. Much of post-colonial scholarship on African cities falls short of adequate analytical attention to the role of structural forces in understand how African cities work, or do not work and it often fails to pin down the materiality of urban life. African urban inhabitants, the amorphous "urban poor", or "people at the grassroots", tend, like ghosts, to float mid-air, unhinged from the material and the economic. A close engagement with such literature reveals that the celebration of individuals' agency, of the functionality of African cities, and of new socialities in them, rests on vague - and misleading - analytical foundations. Its claims to an alternative political agenda are equally hopeless.

Author:

Fabrice Banon (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on the ordinary cities and comparative urban studies approaches, we discuss strategies to consider those for urban research in Africa. By comparatively analysing suburban processes in two cities, we shed a light on the concepts' applicability for empirical research.

Paper long abstract:

Various scholars have advocated for considering postcolonial approaches in urban studies recently. This had led to a prominent discussion on the way cities of the Global South are viewed and how scholars talk and write about them. The ordinary cities concept that came out of it, allows for thinking urban processes across and within cities, regardless of their region, preparing the ground for new approaches for comparative urban studies. Taking this conception of urban development as a starting point, we discuss its application for urban research by means of a comparative analysis applied to two West African planning systems and the suburban processes observed in the agglomerations of Cotonou (Benin) and Ouagadougou (Burkina-Faso). We consider it important to add to the theoretical discussion a methodological aspect that enables an empirical application of the ordinary cities paradigm. We therefore want to discuss some practical approaches for analysis of planning and transformation of land use or readjustment in suburban areas. This offers the possibility not only for a holistic view on these processes but also for the more productive transnational learning.

Author:

Florian Stoll (Center for Cultural Sociology, Yale/ Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies)

Paper short abstract:

This contribution discusses the transfer of the research program distinctiveness of cities to Africa and reflects on critical points. Furthermore, the paper demonstrates how the study of middle-class milieus in Nairobi and Mombasa benefits from this perspective and which adaptations are necessary.

Paper long abstract:

Everyone knows that Lagos is very different from Cape Town and that the inhabitants of both cities vary in their everyday life routines from the residents of Nairobi - but why is this the case? And how is it possible to study the "city-ness" of cities, their particular character and the locally specific actions of their occupants? The distinctiveness of cities/Eigenlogik der Städte (Berking 2012/Löw 2012) is among the most established approaches in Urban Theory in German speaking countries and looks for answers to these questions. Moreover, the distinctiveness is a tool that analyses how social phenomena are being embedded in a city´s environment and meaning horizons.

This contribution discusses the transfer of the distinctiveness of cities to urban Kenya and how the study of middle-class milieus in Nairobi and Mombasa benefits from this research perspective. Thereby, the paper shows how examining African cities as "ordinary cities" is possible, but only by considering "African" particularities that Northern Urban Theory does not take into account. Namely, Northern theory does not reflect on the political dimension and the absence of the welfare state that leave African cities without the homogenizing effects of the European nation state (Janowicz 2008). Other aspects that EuroAmerican theories neglect are urban-rural ties, multiple centers of life and the extended family as a household unit. The empirical part contrasts the middle-class milieus in Nairobi and Mombasa through the lens of the distinctiveness. Ethnographic data indicate how the composition of lifestyles, boundaries and practices of middle-income groups differ in both settings.