The West African City


22031179-view-of-the-old-medina-in-fez-during-the-sunset-in-morocco-africa.jpgThe history of African cities is ancient. For instance, we know today that urbanisation in Africa existed long before Arab and Portuguese influences. However, while this urban history is ancient, it is clear that Europeans introduced a new type of city based on grid patterns and ‘monumental’ architecture. In the colonial era, the ‘real’ city was that of the whites (founded on the European economy), while ‘indigenous’ areas were not considered part of the city and tended to be identified with the village model (i.e. without rules). The importation of traditional village building techniques further reinforced this idea.

But beyond the relationship between the white and black city, this separation marked “the collective imagination, giving credence to the belief that ‘African culture’ (traditional, authentic, etc.) was that of the village” (COQUERY-VIDROVITCH 1997). Thus, the African city only exists through the lens of European culture – or so recent works still tell us.

The metropolitanisation process of Third World countries is a form of urban development that is measured namely by urban sprawl, the development of large-scale agglomerations, and the formation of a hierarchical armature of cities at the global level (BASSAND 1997). The African continent is not an exception to this rule, with the emergence of ever larger, increasingly populated cities in a part of the world that, today, still has the highest population growth rates in the world (SCHOUMAKER 1999, TABUTIN, SCHOUMAKER 2004). Hence, the African city should take its place in the network of globalised cities, in this de-territorialised universe of great metropolises. However, while immediacy and the virtual abolition of distances are the prerogative of London, New York and Hong Kong, what about cities like Douala or Lagos, where getting from one place to another can take hours and result in a series of transfers of unpredictable length? (MALA- QUAIS 2006)

abidjan,african city,coquery,dakar,jérôme chenal,mauritanie,nouakchott,schoumaker,tribillon,urban planningm west-african city,urban space,urbanisationOf course African cities are growing at an impressive rate, becoming metropolises of several million inhabitants and competing at the international level. Of course forms are expanding, sprawl is spreading, and the urban fringes have not resembled the city in a long time, but rather consist of village-like areas. Of course Tv5 World and France 24 broadcast urban, metropolitan, white lifestyles in the remotest corners of Africa – in cities and in villages. In this way, African cities are global cities and are part of the international network of major cities. But the likeness stops there. African cities are suffering economic crises, are largely in decline, have no industry, and remain on the sidelines of capital transfers that, lest we forget, largely define global cities (SASSEN 1991). Half of their population live in slums (PAQUOT 1996, DAVIS 2006) and have no access to water, electricity, mobility, or land. How, then, can it be said that Dubai, Tokyo, Karachi, Lausanne, Aix-en-Provence, or Buenos Aires are part of the same movement or follow the same model?

In the globalisation game (and it might ultimately be in this way that they are global), African cities are paying the heaviest price (MALAQUAIS 2006). Globalisation – synonymous with growing inequality – leaves hundreds of millions of people homeless in cities all over the global South.

However, the positive image that global cities and metropolises convey (at least in the literature) (SASSEN 1991, BASSAND 1997, BASSAND et al. 2000b) stumbles over the reality of Yaounde and parts of Nairobi and Lagos, where the populations do not even have the remnants of globalisation: they are simply excluded, condemned to immobility, informality, and insecure tenure.

For the vast majority of their inhabitants, both space and time are factors that are as real as can be. One could even say that, in some respects, their reality is accentuated by the multiplicity of images of distant places, [places] where most people living in Southern countries will never visit. (MALAQUAIS 2006)

Nevertheless, researchers continue to look at the African city through the lens of the European city model (MALAQUAIS 2006), which has important consequences not only for their research, but also for how it is used. Instead, it might be “better [to] think about the city in general, taking African cities as a starting point – the prototypes of a kind of global urban planning that is in gestation all over the world” (MALAQUAIS 2006) or, as Koolhaas argued in Mutations (KOOLHAAS 2000), to demonstrate that the form of urbanisation found in Lagos is becoming a generic model.



Today, the cities of West Africa are facing a serious urban crisis, born of the imbalance created by large populations, urban sprawl, and limited financial means, all set against the backdrop of mounting environmental issues. Moreover, the little wealth that can be found there does not flow back to the people, so that in African cities today the vast majority of inhabitants live in precarious conditions in a specifically urban form: slums. The African city is structured by perpetual economic struggle, meaning that it does not expand as the result of economic growth but rather as a result of decline. “The history of global urbanisation that began in the mid-19th century goes hand in hand with shantytowns” (PAQUOT 2006). This is the second aspect of the African city, which it likewise shares with other cities around the world. But slums – the precarious or spontaneous neighbourhood, as it is sometimes called – are becoming the sole development model of West African cities, in spite of the many investments, loans, and grants from the World Bank. The city nowadays is developing primarily via its informal fringes; hence, the importance of taking into account the dynamic expansion of the informal city in urban studies today.

Urban planning in African cities

One field in particular, urban planning, is working to guide the development of cities, attempting to understand the mechanisms present in the urban space and the mechanisms of the production of space through research. It is also responsible for rendering the results of these studies operational; in other words, giving the city the tools necessary for its development and daily management. For cities, we generally distinguish urban policies, which provide a general framework (i.e. a way of thinking about the urban) for planning and management. If policies are the backbone, planning offers a long-term vision of the city, and management implements this planning. They are the three phases of a single process.

Current urban planning is based on plans and projects for infrastructure and facilities, usually in the form of a master plan (for the purposes of this book, we do not distinguish between master plans and blueprints, as both ultimately have the same purpose) and series of projects brought together in what are called a Priority Investment Program (PIP). However, while these approaches may work in smaller cities where spatial development is limited, this type of planning has poor or no results (when it is not outright counterproductive) in large cities. Urban management is the implementation of urban planning. However, a range of different types of plans at different levels with no steering body is not enough (MASSIAH TRIBILLON 1988). In other words, ‘good’ urban policy is useless if an apparatus for implementing it has not been envisaged. Thus, management is the daily application of planning and policy.

These three elements – policy, planning, and management – have an influence on public space. Private management of water, as in certain parts in South America, can stop many urban neighbourhoods from developing: whole areas can remain untouched because a concessionaire chooses to not make investments for poor people.

Urban planning in contemporary African cities is a bit like SimCity, a videogame wherein the player creates and manages a city. Its likeness lies in the fact that, in both cases, anything and everything is possible. Recipes for a ‘good city’ are simplistic: give people roads, do not build industrial areas alongside residential ones, and presto! While Northern countries work on processes, governance, participation, and other power games, the South is still planning its cities à la Haussmann – at least this is the case in French-speaking West Africa.

In this poorly adapted, French-style urban planning, it is often the beauty of the line that guides the process, with the underlying (and persistent) idea that a beautiful city plan makes for a beautiful city. It is here that planning joins forces with the urban imaginary.

Urban planning in African cities uses architectural methods. In other words, it is based on a plan to which a series of recommendations (sometimes called ‘specifications’ or ‘rules of construction’) that make up the corpus of urban development legal procedures is added. This type of planning allows planners to design the city’s image ‘as it should be’ (MASSIAH, TRIBILLON 1988), at both the formal and the institutional levels, resulting in a comprehensive, coherent system of implementation procedures (MASSIAH, TRIBILLON 1988) to which municipal works can be added. Planners do not want to reintroduce regulatory planning; rather, they wish to develop a simplified tool that will indicate the location of key infrastructure for future urbanisation purposes (FARVAQUE- VITROVIC, GODIN 1997). These authors outline the Urban Reference Plan as a possible solution (PUR).

Urban planning is not in fashion. The limited impact of the documents that governed it in the past (blueprints and urban development plans) and around which considerable energy and investment were mobilized raised doubts as to their validity, especially as urban sprawl continues virtually unchecked and because limited public budgets make funding intervention difficult (FARVAQUE- VITROVIC, GODIN 1997). However, urban planning is still necessary to guide the coordination of public and private intervention, both in the provision of services and facilities in older neighbourhoods and in the development of extension areas (FARVAQUE-VITROVIC, GODIN 1997).

Planning work is an assessment of urban dynamics from three different angles (TRIBILLON 2002): socio-demographic (population growth and social changes), economic (changes in activities and jobs in particular), and spatial (forms of land tenure). And yet, it is this scheme that is not working, leaving some authors (and the majority of urban planners) to be allured by simplified plans. However, if we, like Tribillon (2002), consider that the role of urban development is to organise the projection of a social dynamic in space, then planning simply cannot ignore the city’s complexity.

Extract from The West-African City 
By Jérôme Chenal 
Published by the Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes

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