Africa’s Speculative Urban Future

Christopher Marcinkoski

French version of the article was published in issue 4/2016 of Swiss magazine TRACÉS.

Today, according to recent United Nations data, there are just under 1.2 billion people living on the African continent. By 2050, this number is projected to double to approximately 2.4 billion people. By 2100, there is presumed to be somewhere in the realm of 4.4 billion people living in Africa, accounting for roughly 40% of the total population of earth. [1]

While Africa is currently home to a hugely diverse range of urban formats vis-à-vis their degree of maturity, the politics that guide them, and the economies that support them, the overall urban condition is substandard—both in terms of the infrastructures upon which it relies, and the building stock of which it is composed. In this context, there should be little question regarding the need for substantial upgrades to Africa’s urban settlement and infrastructure.

Not coincidentally, in the ten or so years since the peak of the global real estate bubble in 2004 these population projections, in combination with the extreme deficiency of urban services and settlement seen across the continent, have led to a growing wave of proposals for new large-scale urban development throughout Africa. Acknowledging the urgent need for upgrades mentioned above, what is of particular interest regarding these proposals is the radical incongruity of their scale, scope, format and program relative to the actual demographic and market demands of the contexts they are being proposed within.

For example, many of these proposals are reliant on models of urbanization-driven economic growth that unapologetically borrow from exogenous pursuits recently employed in places like China and the Middle East. This appropriation seemingly ignores the fundamentally different set of material and demographic resources characterizing the contexts from which they are drawn, as well as the radically different governance and land tenure systems on which they are based. In turn, beyond their clear misalignment with the near-term realities of the African milieu, what many of these proposals for new settlement and infrastructure imply is the threat of further exacerbating deficient urban conditions by shifting severely limited capital resources away from more basic urban services. [2] In this way, these “African New Towns” represent an increasingly critical topic of concern for those disciplines actively engaged in their planning, design and construction.

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[1] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015), World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables, Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP.241.
[2] Vanessa Watson. “African Urban Fantasies: Dreams or Nightmares?,” Environment and Urbanization 26, no. 215 (2014): 229.
[3] Christopher Marcinkoski, The City That Never Was (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2015).
[4] For a more complete discussion of these and other historical examples of speculative urbanization, see “A Brief History of Speculative Urbanization” in Marcinkoski, The City That Never Was, 16–48.
[5] “Booms and Busts: The Beauty of Bubbles,” Economist, December 18, 2008.
[6] Zenata Eco City project website, (accessed October 25, 2015).
[7] While the Denver-based firm Oz Architects did much of the initial planning for Kigali 2020, the current scheme is clearly driven by Surbana given its characteristic disconnect with reality as seen in other projects such as their work in Mumbai.
[8] “Egypt unveils plans to build new capital east of Cairo,BBC (March 13, 2015).
[9] For a discussion of these post-war pursuits see Eric Mumford, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000).
[10] “China in Africa: One Among Many,” Economist, January 17, 2015.
[11] See for example, The EU-Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund. For a discussion of the motivations behind these investments see, The World Bank, “Harnessing Urbanization to End Poverty and Boost Prosperity in Africa,” October 23, 2013.
[12] See Jessica Chu, “Investigation Into German Involvement In Land Grabbing In Zambia,” Zambia Land Alliance and Caritas Zambia (March 23, 2012), and Hawkwood Capital statement on corporate social responsibility.
[13] Examples include the aforementioned Surbana and CITIC, as well as U.A.E.’s Emaar.
[14] See “Urbanization Beyond Speculation” in Marcinkoski, The City That Never Was, 220–235.
[15] For example, a common critique of the utility of the contemporary Landscape Urbanism discourse is its perceived embrace of open-endedness and indeterminacy at the expense of well-defined physical or policy interventions.
[16] Michelle Provoost, “Why Build a New Town?” in Volume no. 34—City in a Box.