Tuesday, May 5, 2015

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Review - African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice

Garth Myers' latest book on urban theory represents a welcome turn to Africa and draws attention to important developments across African cityscapes.
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Garth Myers is a professor of Geography and African Studies at the University of Kansas. His new book, African Cities, is a summary of two decades worth of work on African urbanism from which he draws wider conclusions about urban and developmental theory. As the book’s subtitle "Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice" suggests, Myers deconstructs the entrenched ideology that he feels is suffocating the study of development and urbanisation. Readers hoping for an insight into North African urban development will be disappointed as Myers’ focus is distinctly sub-Saharan. He is quick to denounce the idea of an archetypal "African City" and instead forms his argument through a case-by-case analysis and draws his urban theory from noted similarities among different African cities.

Myer’s book is largely concerned with urban geography, but also focuses on development and makes brief forays into literary criticism, anthropology and political economy. Despite this extensive list of intermingling disciplines - often encountered in human geography - its brevity and conciseness make African urban contexts accessible to a broad audience.

What if Lusaka is the Post-metropolis?

The title of the first chapter makes overt reference to geographer Edward Soja's Six Discourses on the Postmetropolis, an urban theory derived from Soja’s studies of Los Angeles. Myers employs Soja’s method to identify five themes from Lusaka which he feels are common to many African cities. The themes are: The Postcolonial City, The (I)n(f)ormal City, City Governance, The Wounded City and The Cosmopolitan City. Myers' themes, like Soja's, investigate the processes that are integral to the exchange between built form, spatial arrangement and social relations: i.e. power, politics, culture and identity.

The Postcolonial City

Myers begins by acknowledging colonialism’s structural heritage. Little has been written on post-colonialism's material form, even though many Africa cities, including those never formally colonised, bear the scars of inequality and underdevelopment. Even when governments have attempted to build new capitals from master plans, Myers demonstrates through an analysis of new postcolonial cities such as Lilongwe, Abuja and Dodoma, how these elite attempts have replicated colonial tools of repression - namely eviction, demolition, exclusion and segregation - to varying extents.

Myers suggests that there is still hope for a genuine postcolonial city, one which does not proscribe to past authoritarian visions. He sees this potential in the creeping growth of 'informal' settlements that are reclaiming the planned, ordered spaces of unevenly distributed power. His analysis of these settlements forms the basis for the next two chapters.

The (I)n(f)ormal City

Myers begins by unpacking the term 'informal', suggesting that its early definitions by economists and political theorists are rigidly constrictive. Attempts by the UN Habitat Programme to quantitatively define informal settlement using simplistic indices and limited data sets have produced few useful conclusions. This suggests that the concept of an informal settlement is more complex than was previously anticipated, and that researchers should be analysing a broader range of examples. What is more, this data has prompted attempts to categorise the informal as a structural form itself, a paradoxical method which legal scholar Ambreena Manji has noted is unfortunately becoming a almost religious movement in development circles.

Following this discussion, Myers examines informality in specific districts of Accra, Cape Town and Dar es Salaam. He looks at these districts’ origins, everyday life within them, and how the state has tried and failed to integrate them into structured plans for urban development. In each case, Myers' detailed analyses uphold Henri Lefebvre's deconstruction of the various forces at work producing 'informal' spaces, explicated in the latter’s book The Production of Space. Without romanticism, Myers overturns the idea that informal settlements are a site of decay and disorder, suggesting instead that they should be an inspiration for urban institutions of the future.

Governing Africa's Cities

Here Myers examines what happens when state functions "are dispersed to supranational entities, localities and non-state actors" under donor dictated neo-liberalisation. The result, he argues, is exacerbated inequality and poor access to services for informal residents. Anglo-American scholars often focus on 'worst case scenario' cities, failing to understand how informal services can emerge when properly encouraged. But Myers concludes from an in-depth analysis of Zanzibar that a model for more relationally just and equitable governance could emerge from the sisi-kwa-sisi ("us-for-us") practice in informal settlements, whereby everyday governance operates along social and kinship lines.

The Wounded City

In his chapter on war-torn or “wounded” cities Myers mainly concentrates on Mogadishu, Somalia. Myers argues that imaginary or fictional perceptions of space can have material impacts. He demonstrates how the perception of Mogadishu has affected its treatment by outsiders. He cites the US intervention in Somalia as an example, noting how troops were withdrawn following the media representations of the Battle of Mogadishu, which was portrayed in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down. More recently, post-9/11 narratives have displayed Somalia as an incubator of terrorists and pirates, while the description of Somalia as anarchic "failed state" has obscured the extent to which society has filled the gaps left by the state. 

Myers finds a counter-narrative to such hopeless representations in the novels of Nuruddin Farah. Farah's writing presents an alternative vision of Mogadishu's future. Descriptions of a regenerating city act as a backdrop for characters who return to Somalia to confront and overcome traumatic memories and past losses. He argues that: "Imaginary third spaces are no substitute for activists working towards conflict resolution. Equally, however, there can be no real rebirth for Mogadishu without imagination."

Centring attention on African cities

Any student of African urban or development studies will find something within Myers' text to broaden their understanding of African cityscapes, and for that it can be praised. The so-called stars of urban studies - David Harvey, Mike Davis, Doreen Massey, Henri Lefebvre, and Edward Soja - have largely ignored Africa, instead constructing theories and models from cities in the global North. In this book, Garth Myers takes on the task of shifting the focus onto African cities. His text encourages scholars and students alike to involve themselves in the debates concerning African urbanism and urges them to challenge entrenched ideologies about urban theory in Africa.


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please would you include the book's publisher, price and ISBN within your book reviews?

Dear Stephen,The book's publisher is linked to at the top of the piece.the details can be found here.Thanks,James