Book review: The Urban Question in Africa: Uneven Geographies of Transition

Book review: The Urban Question in Africa: Uneven Geographies of Transition


Reviewed by Sören Scholvin

First Published:

25 Jan 2024, 8:51 am


Book review: The Urban Question in Africa: Uneven Geographies of Transition

Pádraig R Carmody, James T Murphy, Richard Grant, and Francis Y Owusu, The Urban Question in Africa: Uneven Geographies of Transition, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2023; 288 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-119-83361-1, £60.00 (hbk); 978-1-119-83362-8, £24.00 (pbk)


Africa is urbanising rapidly. About 50 cities across the continent have more than 1 million inhabitants already today. The populations of Dar es Salam in Tanzania and Angola’s capital Luanda have tripled since the beginning of this century. The growth rates of smaller cities, hardly known to outsiders by name, are even higher. This creates challenges in terms of access to public goods and well-being. African cities also suffer from population growth not being accompanied by a comparable increase in economic opportunities for new residents.

A new book by Pádraig Carmody, James Murphy, Richard Grant and Francis Owusu provides an insightful analysis of Africa’s urban geographies. The authors draft an innovative conceptual framework and discuss ways to overcome the various challenges that cities across the continent face.

In the introduction, the authors explain the particularities of urbanisation in Africa. Today, life expectancy is higher than it was when Europe and North America urbanised; so is people’s mobility, which increases the magnitude of urbanisation. African economies remain largely informal, whilst, at the same time, being ‘hyper-globalised’ through flows of finance and information. Real estate mega-projects for the elite have been built next to places of extreme poverty. Global phenomena such as climate change and COVID-19 have a tremendous impact on African cities.

Chapter 1 discusses the applicability of different conceptions of the urban and urban development to Africa. The authors draft a new approach, which conceptualises cities as socio-technical systems that are marked by overlapping regimes of production, consumption and infrastructure. In Africa, these regimes are fragmented, heterogeneous and mostly informal. Chapter 2 explains how the colonial and post-colonial past has shaped the production regimes of African cities. The main point is that value addition through manufacturing has never been a characteristic feature. Chapter 3 provides insights on the increasing influence of China.

Chapter 4 deals with new-built city developments or ‘fantasy urbanism’. It shows how these projects are disconnected from the reality of African urbanisation, turning into unsustainable islands for the elite. The informal economy is assessed in Chapter 5. A case study on e-waste management in Accra, Ghana, illustrates development opportunities and related problems. Chapter 6 deals with Africa’s emerging gig economy, focussing on Bolt and Uber drivers in Cape Town, South Africa. Chapter 7 addresses challenges related to service delivery. The authors argue that present infrastructure regimes do not lead to desirable outcomes because policymakers privilege mega-projects aimed at urban growth, instead of micro-interventions to increase quality of life with regard to education, housing and the like.

Chapter 8 explores climate-related and public health threats. Urban ‘riskscapes’ associated with infectious diseases, rising sea levels and similar issues are uncovered. Chapter 9 shifts the focus to green initiatives. It stresses the importance of getting the informal sector involved and discusses the potential of these initiatives to alter urban regimes. Integrating the other chapters, the conclusion provides a generalised assessment, structured along the three types of regimes.

The book is well written and rich in empirical information. It covers the issues that matter most to Africa’s urban geographies. Up-to-date references prove that the four authors are well versed in current academic debates on African cities, to which they have made seminal contributions besides this book. The socio-technical framework serves as the red line that connects all chapters. In the opinion of this reviewer, Chapters 4 and 7 are particularly strong. Taken together, they demonstrate how divided African cities are.

The authors explain that their socio-technical approach is sensitive to the specific context of every city and also to each city’s distinct multi-scalar connectivity. This prevents them from essentialising urbanisation and reducing it to a single pathway of urban development. At the same time, the analysis of socio-technical systems recognises general, overarching processes that affect all cities. The question remains, however, whether an entire continent can be addressed adequately in a single book. Does war-ridden Mogadishu in Somalia have anything substantial in common with Ebène, Mauritius, which is a somewhat futuristic hub of transnational service providers? This question is, to a certain extent, unfair. The authors do not refer to Ebène or Mogadishu, but it points at the need for careful generalisation.

The book has some, rather mild biases. The cities referred to – as in-depth case studies or for brief illustration – are usually from the Anglophone countries where the authors have carried out field research. Poor development outcomes tend to be related to external forces. Less is told about internal drawbacks. Opportunities for positive local change are typically associated with global dynamics, such as the fourth industrial revolution and its potential impact on urban economies. Influences from the outside are certainly critical, but readers may wonder why grassroots initiatives at the neighbourhood level – so cunningly explained by Jane Jacobs with regard to their importance for cities in North America – do not have a more positive effect in Africa. They mark informal settlements but have not, apparently, led to decent living conditions.

The authors moreover associate the poor quality of life in the disadvantaged parts of African cities with neoliberalism. Small government, which results in insufficient public funding for service delivery, and a laissez-faire attitude towards urbanisation are trying, indeed. Yet, inadequate service delivery is not due to liberalisation and privatisation. In African cities, state-owned enterprises have monopolies for the provision of electricity, water etc. They hardly fulfil their purpose, being first of all means of self-enrichment for the elite. Competition from private providers or more leeway for bottom-up solutions may be a better way ahead than increasing public subsidies.

It is also unfortunate that the gig economy is reduced to its dark sides. Besides many precarious jobs, the gig economy provides opportunities for skilled professionals in information technology and other services. They live in African cities as digital nomads or are originally from there. These people benefit from formal, well-paid work with access to salaries in foreign currency. Working for clients from abroad, they gain new skills and, in some cases, launch their own start-ups. They play a key role in the renewal of inner cities and run-down districts, which has its pitfalls but is not just gentrification for a small elite.

The last lines should be understood as constructive engagement with the book, as thoughts by a reviewer who agrees with most of what the authors suggest. The book ends with a call to ‘generate development outcomes and structural changes able to spur more just … and sustainable futures’ (p. 184). The authors have done a great job in uncovering obstacles and opportunities in this regard. They explain why African cities have, so far, failed to provide for sustainable futures and offer sound suggestions on what could be done to change this.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Africa’s new cities: The contested future of urbanisation by Femke van Noorloos and Marjan Kloosterboer

“The future of the world’s urbanization will be in Africa”: Conceptualising ‘new city’ making in Africa.

Plug-in urbanism: City building and the parodic guise of new infrastructure in Africa by Prince K Guma, Jethron Ayumbah Akallah, and Jack Ong’iro Odeo

Using the Nairobi Expressway as a case study, Prince K Guma et al stir the conversation round the notion of ‘plug-in urbanism’.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.