Kigamboni, Dar es Salaam

Kigamboni, Dar es Salaam from a Korean consulting firm, LH Consortium.

Plans by architects and speculators to revamp cities in sub-Saharan Africa use buzzwords like "eco-cities", "smart cities", and "new urbanism". These terms mask a terrifying prospect of mass evictions of millions from their homes to furnish the greed of a new kind of capitalist imperialism.

Proposals exist to renew, extend or replace cities in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania.

In the latest issue of Environment and Urbanisation, Professor Vanessa Watson examines the new urban master plans that can be found on the websites of international architectural, engineering and property development firms, and condemns the architects who came up with them.

She says they betray a desire to emulate the developments of Dubai, Singapore or Shanghai, with iconic building shapes thrown in, glass tower buildings and manicured landscapes with freeways that are a throwback to 20th-century modernism, since exposed as disastrous.

Hope City, Accra - developed by Italian architects OBR (<a href=http://www.obr.eu)" width="600" height="378" />

Hope City, Accra - developed by Italian architects OBR.

The texts alongside these glossy fabrications, she says, toss in trendy keywords like 'eco-cities' and 'smart cities'. If they are serious then there is a worrying contradiction here. If they are not, then the greenwash propaganda needs to be exposed.

The architects want to project the idea that Africa is on the up. Economists point to a ready and willing workforce, thousands of square miles of space to be developed and exploited, huge natural resources ready to fire the furnaces of industry in the rest of the world.

They capitalise on the psychology of a continent looking wistfully at China or Brazil and thinking "me too?"

But, Watson, believes, to go down this route would be a disaster because the picture ignores the fact that the bulk of the population is extremely poor and living in shanty towns. Wherever such fantasy plans are being put into practice already, vulnerable, low income groups are being shoved aside brutally.

Michael Goldman has called these processes "speculative urbanism". He cites the example of Bangalore, where the main business of government has become that of land speculation and the dispossession of populations who happen to get in the way.

Goldman suggests that transforming rural economies into urban real estate is “… the principal tension running through the urban periphery of much of Asia today.”

Kinshasa: Cité le Fleuve as envisaged by Hawkwood Properties

Kinshasa: Cité le Fleuve as envisaged by Hawkwood Properties. The major shareholder is Mukwa Investment.

Watson observes: "Newly created parastatals designed to fast-track particular large projects are externally funded and have little or no local oversight, and hence local government has been carved up into the older bureaucracies left in charge of small maintenance budgets and the new autonomous agencies fed by international loans but also large obligations of risky debt finance."

This is beginning to happen in sub-Saharan Africa. International property companies are vying with each other to carve up the territory. They see the chance for big profits in a new version of colonial imperialism: capitalist imperialism. It's unrelated to the needs of most of Africa's inhabitants.

Watson compiled her research through an Internet search using African city names and the term "master plan", and looking through the portfolios of these companies who focus on Africa.

Many of these can be seen on the website www.urbanafrica.net.

She finds a coterie of property developers, designers, engineering and infrastructure companies, finance and IT firms - and even companies promoting urban sustainability. But this is sustainability without the social equity. It's a complete misuse of the term.

Eko Atlantic, Lagos, as envisaged by Dar al Handasah Shair

Above and below: Eko Atlantic, Lagos, as envisaged by Dar al Handasah Shair.

Eko Atlantic, Lagos, as envisaged by Dar al Handasah Shair

Frequently, you will find - and not just in sub-Saharan Africa - that when the words "smart cities", "eco-cities", and "new urbanism" are used, there is an absence of rigorous assessment of the life-cycle impact of the proposed developments. You will find the names of big engineering consultancies. You will not find these proposals compared to others with lower impact, on a smaller scale, democratic, inclusive.

You will find no references to urban growing, agro-ecology, urban ecology. Nor will you find that these cities are planned around local communities where people don't have to travel far to get to work.

Kigali Conceptual Master Plan, as pictured by OZ Architects, Denver, USA

Above and below: Kigali Conceptual Master Plan, as pictured by OZ Architects, Denver, USA and Surbana.

Kigali Conceptual Master Plan, as pictured by OZ Architects, Denver, USA and Surbana.

Watson concludes by observing that "these visions and “master plans” may or may not materialize or may be implemented in part". But what happens will partly "depend on the extent to which the various urban groupings disadvantaged by these processes are able to collaborate and resist

"There is no doubt that the scale and extent of change envisioned in these plans might be sufficient to mobilize shack dwellers, unemployed youth, local informal and formal business and the NGO sector at a citywide scale, to effectively counter these interventions."

Damn right. 

Tatu City, Nairobi, as pictured by Rendeavor (Renaissance Group)

Tatu City, Nairobi, as pictured by Rendeavor (Renaissance Group).