A New Old Story

  • 2016-02-16
  • Cityscapes Digital

Urban design and architecturally-inspired visions of fantastical new cities of the future seem to be in fashion again. Not since the days of French architect Le Corbusier back in the 1930s, have built environment professionals found their work attracting such public interest. And, significantly, there are many elements in common between the grandiose, modernistic and technocratic urban solutions of Le Corbusier’s day and the Dubai look-alike visions posted on property developer websites for the rapidly growing cities of Africa and Asia. Glass-box skyscrapers separated by swathes of green and rapid transit routes have seemingly not lost their allure in the urban design world, while the “real” world of informal shack dwellers and street traders is erased both from the map and the consciousness of politicians and urban elite.

In an article published in 2010, Michele Acuto, using Dubai as a case study, describes these promotional plans as exercises in the use of “symbolic power”, as cities try to establish themselves as “world class” and as attractive places for the elite and investors. Acuto, a senior lecturer in the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at University College London, argues that the built environment has become an important vehicle for these promotional narratives with buildings needing to take on iconic identity: skyscraper towers are commonly used but so are ultra-modern and distinctive airports, trade centres, office blocks and retail centres.

Indian cities have been subject to this Dubai-ification for a good decade or so, as Gautam Bhan has identified in his writings, but African cities are more recent targets. In the post-2008 economic climate, African cities have been labelled as the world’s “last property development frontier” and international architects and developers have scrambled to sell fantastical graphic visions of new satellite cities— or in some cases entire city makeovers— to gullible politicians. Visions such as the one for Kigale, Rwanda, assume that the largely informal urban population will be wished away (a process that is actually underway in this city). The new satellites such as those for Nairobi and Hope City in Ghana promise a modernised and sanitised living environment for the middle classes, far removed from the squalor and congestion of existing cities. Hope City, designed by an Italian architect who was evidently inspired by African beehives, is a particularly futuristic conception of buildings that contain all facilities needed for their resident and working populations, and seemingly remove the need to go outside at all.

Other cities are creating large land areas through infill to create new urban extensions. Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa’s largest and poorest cities, yet a major land infill of the Congo River will support upmarket retail and residential developments, and in the process many small farmers along the banks of the river have had their livelihoods destroyed. In Nigeria, Eko- Atlantic is being created on an artificial island off the coast of Lagos: the island stretches for over 10 km allowing some 250 000 people to disengage themselves from the congestion and pollution of existing Lagos. At the same time, poor occupants of Lagos’ waterfront—the floating shack-dwellers of Makoko—have had their houses proclaimed illegal and destroyed by the government.