In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Urbanization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews, Review Essays, and Data Sources
  • Urban Histories
  • Urban Economies
  • Urban Environments, Justice, and Political Ecology
  • Urban Land, Housing, and Architecture
  • Urban Politics
  • Urban Governance
  • Urban Planning
  • Urban Service Delivery, Transport, and Infrastructure
  • Urban Sociology, Anthropology, Gender, and Everyday Life
  • Urban Popular Culture, Arts, and Music
  • Post-Apartheid Cities in South Africa
  • Globalization and Migration

Urban Studies African Urbanization
Garth Myers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0027


Africa is typically seen in urban studies as both the least urbanized continent and the most rapidly urbanizing one. This perception relies on eliding the substantial differences between urbanization trajectories in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Despite these differences in pace and extent for urbanization in these regions, most themes of the scholarly literature are shared in both northern and sub-Saharan zones. While most of this chapter focuses on works from the sub-Saharan region, the thematic scope is continent-wide. For the continent, the modern scholarly literature on urbanism and urbanization includes titles dating back more than eighty years to the work of the former Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in the Zambian Copperbelt, but urban studies in general experienced a retreat of sorts throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, however, there has been a dramatic resurgence of African urban studies literature. Across the social sciences and humanities and across the continent, a wide range of works have emerged that examine the ways cities in Africa are developing. Both the urbanization process and the character of urbanism in the region come under scrutiny in this work. Major debates concern the presence or lack of distinctions between African cities and those elsewhere. Contested questions involve whether African cities are anomalies or dystopias, whether they exhibit unique patterns worthy of scrutiny, and whether they are following expected routes of development. Perhaps the most cogent crystallization of this might be expressed as a debate between Afro-pessimist and Afropolitan perspectives, but the reality is that most of the literature expresses neither of these perspectives exclusively. The new literature of African urban studies is very vast and diverse, but it is possible to discern several broad themes, as reflected in the headings and subheadings in this article. For each of these, the bibliography reflects only a sample of the many works available that examine the themes presented.

General Overviews, Review Essays, and Data Sources

The first challenges that confront scholars of urbanism and urbanization in Africa are the size, diversity, and complexity of the continent. The works listed here address broad themes across a range of cities, covering development, postcolonialism, urban theory, planning, survival, and governance. UN-Habitat 2014 is at the vanguard of a larger effort of gathering and analyzing urban data across the continent. These efforts began with UN-Habitat reports in 2008 and 2010, and were extended in the 2018 version (Wall, et al. 2018, cited under Urban Economies), for reasons the subtitle makes plain: “The Geography of African Investment.” Myers 2011 and Locatelli and Nugent 2009 provide general and thematic overviews that can function as textbooks for courses on African urban studies. Bibliographies, review essays, and online data sources meant specifically for African urban studies are rare. This reflects in part the general neglect or disregard that the field endured for a number of decades, or difficulties in gathering data, as addressed in Borel-Saladin 2017. Debates regarding how and where African urbanization dynamics fit (or do not fit) within broader arguments in global urban studies are discussed in Ernstson, et al. 2014 and Potts 2012. The Internet has opened great possibilities for African urban studies research. Three exciting sources in this regard are South African Cities Network, African Centre for Cities (ACC), and the remarkable listserv created and maintained by the Portuguese urbanist Carlos Nunes Silva, African Urban Planning Research Network. Written by two founding leaders of the ACC, Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse, Parnell and Pieterse 2014 is the invaluable guide to Africa’s urban revolution. Pieterse and Simone 2013 is an experimental, immensely creative follow-on volume from ACC’s continent-wide interests.

  • African Centre for Cities.

    This website for the African Centre for Cities, hosted by the University of Cape Town, provides an array of data, think pieces, and entry points into the discussion of urbanism and urbanization across the continent.

  • African Urban Planning Research Network.

    Essentially a mailing list and clearinghouse for researchers, AUPRN was created by Carlos Nunes Silva at the University of Lisbon in 2013. It keeps members updated on publications, conferences, and research opportunities related to African urban studies.

  • Borel-Saladin, Jacqueline. “Data Dilemmas: Availability, Access, and Applicability for Analysis in Sub-Saharan African Cities.” Urban Forum 28.4 (2017): 333–343.

    DOI: 10.1007/s12132-017-9320-5

    An important analysis and overview of research data issues that challenge scholars and practitioners in Africa’s urban areas.

  • Ernstson, Henrik, Mary Lawhon, and James Duminy. “Conceptual Vectors of African Urbanism: ‘Engaged Theory-Making’ and ‘Platforms of Engagement.’” Regional Studies 48.9 (2014): 1563–1577.

    DOI: 10.1080/00343404.2014.892573

    A rich review of debates on patterns and processes of sub-Saharan African urbanization that makes a case for how these patterns and processes speak to wider concerns in global urban theory.

  • Locatelli, Francesca, and Paul Nugent, eds. African Cities: Competing Claims on Urban Spaces. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    An edited volume that highlights the blossoming of African urban studies in Europe in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It covers the continent, including some chapters on less frequently studied cities like Asmara, Bulawayo, and Mwanza.

  • Myers, Garth Andrew. African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice. London: Zed Books, 2011.

    Synthesizes research in the late 20th and early 21st centuries by scholars across the continent, organized around five major themes: postcolonialism, informality, governance, violence, and cosmopolitanism.

  • Parnell, Susan, and Edgar Pieterse, eds. Africa’s Urban Revolution. London: Zed Books, 2014.

    A textbook for African urbanization produced largely out of the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town.

  • Pieterse, Edgar, and AbdouMaliq Simone, eds. Rogue Urbanism: Emergent African Cities. Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana Media, 2013.

    A hugely inspirational and artistically produced edited volume at the cutting edge of urban studies for Africa.

  • Potts, Deborah. “Challenging the Myths of Urban Dynamics in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Evidence from Nigeria.” World Development 40.7 (2012): 1382–1393.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2011.12.004

    One of a handful of pieces from this author that provides empirical pushback against common assumptions that urbanization in Africa is exceptional or aberrant.

  • South African Cities Network.

    This website provides a valuable source of data and urban studies in practice among the member cities in South Africa. The teamwork in producing several “State of the Cities” reports provides the model for UN-Habitat’s State of African Cities projects.

  • UN-Habitat. State of African Cities 2014: Re-imagining Sustainable Urban Transitions. Nairobi: UN-Habitat, 2014.

    UN-Habitat program’s third and most comprehensive assessment of the state of things in urban Africa, the first having been published in 2008 and the most recent in 2018.

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