African cities are diverse, with unique histories that due not mesh neatly with global imaginaries of unilineal progress. African urban spaces are sites of contested memories of the past, and struggles over what kinds of futures are possible and desirable.
From a policy perspective, African urban growth challenges global imaginaries of the urban. Urbanization in Africa is not strongly associated with stock markets and financial centers (as in lauded Global Cities), or by the “off shoring” of manufacturing or telemarketing support services. Contemporary African urbanization is characterized by an extraordinary diversity of economic activities, including those taking place in contested spaces that have come to be known as “the informal sector.” African cities are places of great creativity and striving—all the more remarkable as such innovation is often taking place in cities that lack core urban infrastructure and services. As a result, urban Africans cities must improvise to create livable situations for themselves—building their own housing, providing their own services, and creating their own jobs, enterprises, and creating livelihoods for themselves. They also innovatively transform technology, architecture, and public space, while generating extraordinary modes of art, photography, music, and language. African cities, in other words, are sites of remarkable cultural production.
The African Urbanism Humanities Lab is focused on the challenge and potential of urbanization in Africa. We are a diverse group of scholars, who have come together to research, teach, and engage with Africa, Africans, and other scholars and students at UVA and elsewhere about this pivotal time of urban transition.
Of course, urbanization has been happening for thousands of years. Over the course of the 20th century, however, global urbanization accelerated in unprecedented ways. In more recent decades, urbanization has intensified further in what is now understood as “the global urban transition.” As of 2014, the UN World Urbanization Prospects Report indicated that more than half of the world’s people (54%) are now living in cities, with a projected climb to 66% by 2050. The human future appears inevitably urban and cities the definitive nexus of the human place in the world.
Not surprisingly, these processes of urbanization have been unequally distributed. Indeed, one of the current distinctions between the “global north” and the “global south” is that the former is imagined as predominantly urban and modern, while the latter is imagined as predominantly rural and traditional. From this perspective, rapid urbanization in Africa is often construed as the continent catching up with the rest of the world. Of course, such a perspective overlooks that some African cities are significantly older than their western counterparts.