Cité Verticale 2011, Casablanca. Photo: Andrew Byerley.

Urban imaginaries

NAI Newsletter Editorial, November 2011 by Andrew Byerley

Last week the NAI Urban Dynamics research cluster was awarded funding from the Sida Department of Research Cooperation for a three-year research project entitled ‘Urban Imaginaries and Socio-Economic Exclusion’. This project focuses on the genesis, circulation and material implementation of hegemonic ideas on the city, and the implications this has for the everyday livelihoods of subaltern urban residents.

In my recent fieldwork in Kampala, Uganda, the impacts of the latest dominant paradigm of urbanisation – market driven redevelopmentalism – were all too readily apparent: the large housing estates of Nakawa and Naguru were recently raised to the ground by council bulldozers supposedly to make way for a ‘modern eco-city’. The former residents have not taken this lying down and are currently seeking compensation through the Uganda Commercial Court.

This example is illustrative of the current wider process of ‘redevelopmentalism’ whereby many of the housing areas built in the 1950s, and also many centrally located informal housing areas, are giving way to condominiums, land grabbing and land speculation, often in a manner that undermines the rights to the city of disadvantaged urban residents. I hope to return to Kampala to follow the court hearings on 16 December.

Issues raised by cases such as this are currently the focus of major international African conferences, particularly in terms of debating alternative African urban futures.

In early November, Casablanca was the venue for the 5th ‘African Perspectives’ Conference organised by the Ecole Supérieure d’Architecture de Casablanca. This is a biennial event organised by ArchiÁfrika, a network of researchers and practitioners working in African architecture and planning, with a major focus on the legacy of late-colonial modern architecture and urban planning.

Key questions at this year’s meeting were: can the fusion of formal and informal principles constitute a guiding principle for achieving a sustainable Afropolis?; and does the open character of the periphery offer the opportunity to think about a new combination of productive and consumptive landscapes?

Saskia Sassen, the keynote speaker who has been of formative importance on issues such as the global city and information society, set the tone for the debate in her discussion of the need to explore and facilitate ‘open-source urbanism’, whereby the space between providers and users of urban technology becomes more facilitating.

A vivid example of both the colonial legacy and the relevance of these contemporary issues was provided by a city excursion for participants to Cité Verticale, a housing project designed by George Candillis and Shadrach Woods in the early 1950s. This is often cited as a landmark mass housing project for the manner in which the architects endeavoured to distance planning and architecture from the strict CIAM modernist grid, and instead incorporate the living habits and spatiality of the intended inhabitants. We were shown how the inhabitants of the Cité Verticale have utilised the inbuilt flexibility of the original design to transform the housing area so that it is more attuned to their everyday lives.

Cases of market-led urbanisation, such as the Ugandan example, and the very real socioeconomic consequences of this form of urbanisation make the issues outlined above ever more pressing. It is our hope that the NAI Urban Dynamics research project will yield further insights through empirically focused research in Nigeria, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda.

Andrew Byerley
Urban development
Urban planning
To the top