University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Improvising in the African City


African Urbanism

Co-Leaders: James Igoe (Anthropology) and Ellen Bassett (Architecture - Urban Planning)

This Lab will explore the phenomenon of improvised urban development in the African continent with special focus on South, East and sub-Saharan African. Africa’s current urban explosion is not happening in ways that are easily legible to standard modernization scenarios. Rural migrants are flocking to cities in many contexts without the mechanization and commodification of any antecedent agricultural revolution. Industrialization, with its concomitant need for agglomeration and large labor pools is also not driving African urbanization. Rapidly growing African cities, for the most part, are not associated with stock markets and financial centers, high-profile information technology and software development, or even telemarketing and phone-in service centers.  Rather, contemporary African urbanization is characterized by an extraordinary diversity of economic activities, understood as “the informal sector.” In spite of the connotations of the label “informal,” however, many activities encompassed by this so-called sector are remarkably high-tech. But high tech in African urban contexts reflects a new dynamic, in which technology is not just networked, like in the Silicon Valley and comparable urban spaces, but also widely distributed, throughout rhizomatic expanses of improvised neighborhoods. Networked devices are in the hands of the creative many. How might scholars understand this 21st-century mode of urbanism in the Global South?