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

  • Introduction
  • Urban Planning
  • Women, Gender, and Urban Society
  • Housing
  • Architecture
  • Globalization and Migration

African Studies Urbanism and Urbanization
Garth Myers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0066


Africa is typically seen as both the least urbanized continent and the most rapidly urbanizing one. Its modern scholarly literature on urbanism and urbanization includes titles dating back more than seventy-five 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. 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 on the continent come under scrutiny in this work. Major debates concern the presence or lack of distinctions between African cities and those elsewhere. Thus major 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. The new literature of African urban studies is very vast and diverse, but it is possible to discern several key 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

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 2010 is in the vanguard of a larger effort of gathering and analyzing urban data across the continent. The two edited volumes, Simone and Abouhani 2005 and Demissie 2007, are samples of a wider phenomenon that tries to address the interdisciplinary concerns for urbanism and urbanization across this very broad continent. Beall, et al. 2010 is typical of the periodic stocktaking of the state of the field, and like Simone 2004, it also typifies the ways African urban studies scholars often combine theoretical approaches with applied, activist agendas for improving cities on the continent. O’Connor 1983 and Myers 2011 are general and thematic overviews that might also function as textbooks for courses on African urban studies.

  • Beall, Jo, Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis, and Ravi Kanbur. “Introduction.” In Special Issue: African Development in an Urban World: Beyond the Tipping Point. Edited by Jo Beall, Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis, and Ravi Kanbur. Urban Forum 21.3 (2010): 197–204.

    An article that introduces a special issue of the only major Africa-based urban studies journal, Urban Forum.

  • Demissie, Fassil, ed. Postcolonial African Cities: Imperial Legacies and Postcolonial Predicaments. New York: Routledge, 2007.

    An edited collection that brings together key works that engage with postcolonial cultural studies on the continent with chapters on film, art, music, literature, and photography.

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

  • O’Connor, Anthony. The African City. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1983.

    This book has long provided a benchmark for urban geography on the continent. It is particularly useful for its much-discussed typology of six urban forms typically found in urban Africa: indigenous, Islamic, European, colonial, dual, and hybrid.

  • Rakodi, Carole. The Urban Challenge in Africa: Growth and Management of Its Large Cities. New York: United Nations University, 1997.

    This book is a broad survey of urban management. As such it is beyond the category of urban planning alone. Still, it provides an excellent introduction to cities on the continent.

  • Simone, AbdouMaliq. For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

    This experimental book contains cogent analysis of urban issues and African responses to them, emphasizing four cities but also discussing a wide range of urban contexts.

  • Simone, AbdouMaliq, and Abdelghani Abouhani, eds. Urban Africa: Changing Contours of Survival in the City. Dakar, Senegal: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, 2005.

    This edited volume represents a valuable contribution to the urban literature on Africa from one of the continent’s leading think tanks, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), but with chapters covering the continent from south to north and east to west, Cape to Cairo and Dakar to Mogadishu.

  • UN-Habitat. The State of African Cities 2010: Governance, Inequality, and Urban Land Markets. Nairobi, Kenya: UN-Habitat, 2010.

    UN-Habitat program’s second comprehensive assessment of the state of things in urban Africa, the first having been published in 2008.

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