Current Issue

Volume 45, 03

Who are we listening and talking to?

What is the relationship between African cities and urban geography (both the sub-discipline and the journal)? For as long as African cities have been studied, there has been a fraught relationship with the orthodox canon of urban thought. Earlier works on African cities were often written through the lens of development, published in conversation with other literatures (Robinson, 2006). Where they entered urban studies, African cities were often framed as exceptions, not sites to theorise from, with their residents and built form described as not-quite-urban (Lawhon, 2020). Many have emphatically argued that we ought not simply import and apply ideas generated primarily from northern cities and scholars (e.g. Sheppard et al., 2013), but Robinson’s (2006) compelling, foundational work usefully and provocatively insists that we both place African cities within urban studies and think with them to contribute to urban theory. How exactly this is to be done, and with what outcomes, remains the subject of debate (Lawhon and Truelove, 2020).

In this context, for this Virtual Special Issue, we first collected all articles focused on African cities in Urban Geography (see Figure 1). Looking through the title, abstract and keywords from the journal’s first volume in 1980 until the 43rd (2022), we found 49 articles, as well as a number of Urban Pulse pieces and shorter commentaries (see Appendix). What is surely most apparent in Figure 1 is the growing inclusion, a point recognised by Guma and Monstadt (2021, p. 4) who note, “Southern cities in general, and African cities in particular are beginning to gain more traction”. We find this positive and exciting, responding to the broad thrust of Robinson’s (2006) call.

Figure 1: Number of articles per 5 year cluster*

*The total number of papers in the journal per year has grown, so the percentage of content about African cities has grown less quickly than this figure implies

** To divide 43 more easily, we have made this first unit 4 years

Beyond this, it is rather less clear what should be done with such a collection. Some might oppose separating them out in the first place, and the implication that they are a natural set. Alternatively, a regionalist geographical approach might attempt to find commonalities and themes, working towards a clearer understanding of the (imperfect, constructed) category ‘African cities’ and how it has changed over time [1]. Yet doing so is not quite in the spirit of putting African cities into conversation with the broader field of urban geography.

Instead, we use these papers as a lens through which to consider how authors writing about African cities engage with the geography of urban geography. Focusing primarily on conceptual argument (exemplified in the literature review and framing of different articles), we asked: what is the geography of the theory being used to frame data from African cities? Where is the imagined point of departure and comparison? What is the geography of the theories being reviewed, critiqued and advanced? Who do the authors suggest their audience is, and thus who should be learning what from African cities?

Unsurprisingly, we find various versions of this task and, to a lesser extent, some shift in how this is done. Below, we work through what might be loosely conceptualised as a spectrum from exceptionalism to a cosmopolitan global urban theory (see Lawhon and Truelove, 2020). Our intention here is not so much to categorise, quantify and evaluate this; useful as such a project would be, it goes beyond the thrust of a Virtual Special Issue. Instead, we work to show difference, and draw our collective attention explicitly to the implications and possibilities associated with various approaches, urging more collective reflection on such questions. Our articles, then, are not a set of what we authoritatively deem ‘the best’ works, but a set of papers purposely selected to highlight these differences.

We also have a slightly more pragmatic intention: to point the reader (and reviewers!) to the diversity of ways of successfully framing cases (at least, where success is defined by getting published!). Our hope is that making these choices explicit might enable potential authors (and reviewers) to reflect on these different strategies, and for more scholars to successfully publish about African cities in Urban Geography.

From exceptionalism to global urban theory?

African cities have long been positioned as not-quite properly urban and/or not well-explained by canonical urban theory. This position is clear in the provocative 1989 piece ‘West African urbanization: Where Tolley’s model fails’ (Kilbourne and Berry, 1989). Setting aside the model itself, and focusing instead on the style of argument: perhaps ironically, given the title, the authors of this piece suggest that, with some tweaks, Tolley’s model does still have useful predictive power in explaining/analysing urbanisation in a few West African countries. In response, Fox (1989) insists: the assumption that African urban patterns can be usefully read through ‘economic’ theories of markets and capitalism is flawed. “Kilbourne and Berry’s paper seems to have been only marginally affected by their reading of African literature and their experience of African reality” (p. 499). Engagement with context is seen to matter here, and ‘urban theory’ only can make sense if put into conversation with broader literature about the place where it is to be applied.

Taking a different approach, but continuing to (implicitly) frame (South) African cities as somehow different, are the five articles in the 1988 special issue on South Africa [2]. All do have literature reviews - but nearly all (sometimes, all, e.g. Pirie 1988) of the literature cited is South African. Where scholarship writing about other places is mentioned, it is cited in a very broad way. Hart, for example, includes a single paragraph with four citations from what might be considered ‘mainstream international’ urban theory to frame debates over the relative significance of economic and political analyses. She then suggests that her study “underscores the role of the South African state as the prime motor of geographical change” (1988, p 619).

The question of the extent to which ‘mainstream’ urban theories can and should be usefully applied to African cities, and what kinds of theory can be generated from African cities, continues to be relevant - at times implicit, at times explicit - over subsequent decades of writing in the journal. Some later pieces frame their contribution in regional terms, not directly engaging with literature from outside Africa. Page and Sunjo (2018), for example, focus on West African urban literature in their review of middle class housing. Similarly, Asante and Helbrecht (2019) place their argument in the context of work on African urban regeneration, focusing in particular on work in Ghana. These works do not explicitly say that African cities are different or that theories from elsewhere are inapplicable, but leave open the question of how their arguments relate to other geographies. This writing style parallels much writing about the U.S. and Europe: literature and concepts are drawn from nearby, similar cities, and the implications for ‘elsewhere’ are rarely considered.

While individual works developing insights from the U.S. and Europe often do not consider the implications for other places, scholars writing about African cities have often applied and stretched ideas from very different places southwards (It is much less common for African regionalist writing to stretch northwards, although see Myers 2014). Authors may well emphasise the need to consider African cities, but in contrast to Page and Sunjo (2018) and Asante and Helbrecht (2019), work to make more established urban theory apply. Kutz and Lenhardt (2016), for example, note that existing theory is ‘provincial’ and that there is a need to ‘decenter’ existing accounts, challenging the ability of scholars to narrate a ‘global crisis’ from scholarship on northern cities. Here, they suggest the need to “make it [urban theory] more applicable” (2016, p. 926). They then provide an overview of literature rooted very much in northern urban political economy. By ‘rescaling’ the theory with experiences of the 2007-2008 financial crisis in Tangier, Morocco, Kutz and Lenhardt (2016) suggest we might come to a more complete understanding of global phenomenon, one that provincialises and supplements-- but does not otherwise challenge-- existing explanation.

In contrast, other papers directly take on the geography of theory and suggest that writing from African cities may require different theorisations (cf Sheppard et al., 2013). Drawing across a wider geography is Gillespie’s (2017) work on quiet encroachment. Here, we find a paper that explicitly starts with what is characterised as a conceptualization from the south: quiet encroachment. His work is both an affirmation and advancement of the idea, pushing forward theory through considering the politics of encroachment in a multi-party democracy. Like many other studies of informality more generally, the paper draws on scholarship beyond Africa, yet root arguments in reference primarily to their significance for southern cities (see Roy, 2009).

Finally, a more capacious argument - one that questions the relevance of theory beyond the south - can be found in two of our selected papers. Alda-Vidal, Kooy and Rusca (2018, p.3) place their work within “the emergence and consolidation of decentered perspectives that seek to destabilise the application of northern norms across urban theory in order to better explain the dynamics of cities across a variety of contexts.” Through what they term as a ‘process-based analysis’ they highlight how the practices of formal water operators in Lilongwe exacerbate existing water inequalities. They suggest that paying attention to everyday practices on infrastructures in cities in the margins helps decenter global frameworks. The exact ‘variety of contexts’ to which their argument applies, however, is not entirely clear: in their conclusion, the authors seek to consider their work in relation to African cities and “the majority world”. Yet they seem to leave open the possibility that their analysis of “the normality of disruptions in urban infrastructure” might tell us something about how infrastructure works in the global north too (2018, p. 117). Taking this a step further, Parnell and Robinson (2012) argue against simply deploying the term ‘neoliberalism’ to African cities, instead insisting on considering diverse urban processes that should be taken seriously in their own right. The insights they draw from South Africa are, importantly, not argued to have relevance just for African or southern cities, but instead are framed as insights into international urban processes. While this paper does not quite show the relevance of this argument for the global north (reasonably; one paper can only do so much), later work exemplifies that the limits of neoliberalism explanation apply elsewhere (see Robinson et al. 2022 for ongoing development on this argument). Both papers insist that what is happening in African cities ought not to be treated as unique instances, but as grounds for theoretical reflections. Neither authors are quite ready to propose grand alternative theorisations, instead cautiously attending to difference, building up data and analysis towards alternative accounts.

What are we to make of this list and our selection?To note again, the clearest pattern is an uptick in the number of papers about African cities in Urban Geography. Beyond this, there is also a stronger push to theorise from African cities. How, exactly, this engagement happens varies, and it is surely reasonable enough to find variance: some literatures and concepts are more relevant to African cities, and some are more or less relevant in particular parts of particular African cities. New concepts were less apparent, but framed as something to work towards through slow and careful analysis. Reflecting on this wider collection, however, it still seems hard to know whether to situate work within the old canon and stretch existing terms and ideas, insist on a more inclusive canon, or write from an emergent southern one. In this context, we have sought to attend to different ways that authors have approached such uncertainties not so much to resolve them, but to help us collectively reflect on this moment of plurality and uncertainty within the scholarship.

[1] Or note that 22 of these focused on South African cities, including a special issue in 1988 and 8 of the first 9 papers about African cities in the journal. North Africa is nearly absent, with the exception of Tangier, examined in Kutz and Lenhardt (2016), and a perhaps surprising absence of studies of Cairo.

[2] A brief look at the titles suggests that there is something wrong with these cities: the focus of analysis includes underdevelopment, constraint, conflict, segregation, manipulation, razing, resistance, and violence. Surely we agree that these are relevant considerations for apartheid urbanism, but it is also telling about the way that African cities were first written about in the journal.


These are citations we use to place our argument within the wider literature

Fox, R. (1989). West African urbanization: a reassessment. Urban Geography, 10(5), 495-500. DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.10.5.495

Guma, P. K., & Monstadt, J. (2021). Smart city making? The spread of ICT-driven plans and infrastructures in Nairobi. Urban Geography, 42(3), 360-381.

Hart, D. M. (1988). Political manipulation of urban space: the razing of District Six, Cape Town. Urban Geography, 9(6), 603-628. DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.9.6.603

Lawhon, M., & Truelove, Y. (2020). Disambiguating the southern urban critique: Propositions, pathways and possibilities for a more global urban studies. Urban Studies, 57(1), 3–20.

Lawhon, M. with contributions from L. le Roux., A, Makina and Y, Truelove. (2020). Making urban theory: Learning and unlearning through southern cities. Routledge.

Myers, G. (2014). From expected to unexpected comparisons: Changing the flows of ideas about cities in a postcolonial urban world. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 35(1), pp.104-118.

Robinson, J. (2006). Ordinary cities: Between modernity and development. Routledge.

Robinson, J., Wu, F., Harrison, P., Wang, Z., Todes, A., Dittgen, R., & Attuyer, K. (2022). Beyond variegation: The territorialisation of states, communities and developers in large-scale developments in Johannesburg, Shanghai and London. Urban Studies, 59(8), 1715-1740.

Roy, A. (2009). Strangely familiar: Planning and the worlds of insurgence and informality. Planning Theory, 8(1), pp.7-11.

Sheppard, E., Leitner, H., & Maringanti, A. (2013). Provincializing global urbanism: A manifesto. Urban Geography, 34(7), 893-900.

Virtual Special Issue

These are the papers from Urban Geography that we evaluate above in terms of the geography of their argument and analysis, in chronological order

Pirie, G. H. (1988) Housing Essential Service Workers in Johannesburg: Locational Constraint and Conflict, Urban Geography, 9:6, 568-583, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.9.6.568

Kilbourne, B. J & Berry, B. J. L. (1989) West African Urbanization: Where Tolley’s Model Fails, Urban Geography, 10:1, 1-18, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.10.1.1

Parnell, S & Robinson, J. (2012) (Re)theorizing Cities from the Global South: Looking Beyond Neoliberalism, Urban Geography, 33:4, 593-617, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.33.4.593

Kutz, W & Lenhardt, J. (2016): “Where to put the spare cash?” Subprime urbanization and the geographies of the financial crisis in the Global South, Urban Geography, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2015.1118989

Gillespie, T. (2017) From quiet to bold encroachment: contesting dispossession in Accra’s informal sector, Urban Geography, 38:7, 974-992, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2016.1191792

Page, B & Sunjo, E. (2018) Africa’s middle class: building houses and constructing identities in the small town of Buea, Cameroon, Urban Geography, 39:1, 75-103, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2017.1286839

Alda-Vidal, C., Kooy, M. & Rusca, M. (2018) Mapping operation and maintenance: an everyday urbanism analysis of inequalities within piped water supply in Lilongwe, Malawi, Urban Geography, 39:1, 104-121, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2017.1292664

Asante, L. A. & Helbrecht, I. (2019) Changing urban governance in Ghana: the role of resistance practices and activism in Kumasi, Urban Geography, 40:10, 1568-1595, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2019.1631109