This article was originally published on Common Edge.
In spite of the lull in the global construction industry over the last couple of years, megacity projects in Africa have continued unabated, as new developments are springing up in major cities all over the continent. Though we’re inspired by the growth of modern African cities and the opportunities offered to city residents, we shouldn’t ignore their shortcomings, the glaring disconnect between the utopian visions of local city officials and the economic and cultural realities of the local populations who live here. Many questions whether these new cities could be built in other ways, or if Africans will ever have an alternative to the current model of placemaking, hodgepodge urbanism foisted on it, largely by colonialists.
In his book African Cities and Towns Before the European Conquest, Richard W. Hull disproved the erroneous—and supercilious—notion that Africans had no cities before the advent of European colonialism. The urbanism in pre-colonial African cities and towns was largely defined by its peculiar social milieu and unique spatial layouts, all of which were firmly rooted in traditional tribal values, customs, and beliefs. Hull acknowledged that “there was a sensitive interrelatedness to everything, and it was that quality that made African towns and cities and the structure within them, works of art.” In addition to being living works, African towns and cities were socially conscious and generously radiated the cultural heritage of the ethnicities who lived there, an attribute that is totally alien to placemaking on the continent today.
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Although it would be misleading to lump all tribal states together as a homogenous group—especially since so many ethnicities and subgroups constitute this vast continent—the people of Africa largely share a native ideology of communality, a core set of communal cultural values. These values could be best defined by the all-encompassing social ethos of Ubuntu, a native social system that emphasizes the collective responsibility of the members of each society to their communities and to one another. This ethos emphasizes the importance of communality over individuality. It was this ideology that largely determined how pre-colonial Africans lived, planned, and built their towns and cities. Consequently, the spatial layout of each neighborhood was unique and significantly fostered close social interaction, because the houses were typically laid out in connected fractal patterns, not along rigid parallel streets as they are today. Here, every dweller within a neighborhood was viewed as an extended family member, all reveling in the boundless camaraderie of community:
“… the traditional African idea of the extended family as something that includes far more than parents and children is perhaps the most common and most powerful protection of the value of Ubuntu” Augustine Shutte
Communality is an important component of African settlements, with people often living together in close proximity. Most important, members of each community elevated communal interests above personal ones. “The city is wealthy and industrious,” wrote Lourenco Pinto, the Portuguese ship captain who visited Benin City in 1691, before the British invasion. “It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”
Tragically, post-colonial city officials didn’t learn anything from indigenous African urbanism: Like the colonialists, they set out to erase and replace these existing values with their own set of alien ones. The commuality that was once a source of warmth and security among urban dwellers has been tragically expunged from contemporary placemaking. Today, developer-driven urbanization and gentrification continue to erode those cultural values, imposing sets of standardized cultures that utterly ignore our deep history and culture. And residents are often made to conform to that homogeneous culture. The prevalent urbanism for the continent’s new neighborhoods imposes a uniform building typology, with rigid spatial layouts, each building ringed by tall fences.
These sterile developments lack all of the basic ingredients for place: social inclusivity, cultural diversity, good neighborliness. All of which does nothing to foster the spirit of Ubuntu. Instead, it supports a fierce individualism that has contributed and exacerbated many of the social problems we encounter today. Problems such as rising urban crime and poor sanitation could be seen as direct consequences of this individualism. Expectedly, the inability to reconnect contemporary placemaking to authentic cultural values could be linked to how dissatisfied city dwellers have become with urban living. And for good reason: they live in cities that are socially polarized, spatially fragmented, and culturally agnostic.
The project of urbanizing the continent is a complex one. It’s impractical to think that we can design and build new towns and cities exactly like our ancestors. Still, I believe it is possible to modernize African cities, while still preserving the unique cultural heritage that underpins them. In spite of their vaunting ambitions, and the economic temptations to build big, city officials and planners must temper their hubris with an appreciation of our rich history and culture, accepting that the most important component of placemaking is people. They must take a hard look at contemporary development models and explore new ways of urbanizing the continent without completely erasing our collective past and silencing the spirit of Ubuntu.