What Can African Cities Learn from 19th Century Europe


Editorial Note: The arguments in this ViewPoint are published as a chapter in the book, Dystopia: How the Tyranny of Specialists Fragment African Cities, African Urban Institute Press, Harare by the same author.

In early February 2018, scholars of urban studies in the global south convened in Cape Town in South Africa. It was for an International Urban Conference hosted by the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town. During the three days of conferencing, the theme that dominated was on conceptualization and theorization of urbanism in Africa and largely the global south.

As Africa is currently facing several urbanization challenges unmatched to those of the cities of the global north, understanding the uniqueness of urbanization in Africa is a topical issue. In the determination to understand the way Africa is urbanizing however, there is risk of overlooking critical issues that determine evolution of cities. In the process, precious opportunities to learn from experiences of cities that evolved before African cities are squandered ruthlessly.

If there is one thing we have learnt about cities it is that as diverse as they are, they belong to the same family and inhabit the very same planet. So, in their diversity, significant similarities exist that enable cities to learn from each other. In the African urbanization context however, two classes of scholars emerged which tend to disregard the capacity of cities to learn from their predecessors. I classify the two groups as (i) scholars of urban apocalypse and (ii) proponents of southern urbanism. Scholars of urban apocalypse deduce from current urbanization trajectory in Africa and conclude that the future of African cities is doomed. On the contrary, proponents of southern urbanism argue that the way urbanization is occurring in Africa is distinctively different from that of the global north; therefore, there is need for new ways of conceptualizing it from a global south perspective.[1] Some of the exceptions that are raised include urbanization without economic growth, rampant informality, extreme poverty, poor governance and government inertia. Therefore, new names have emerged; Southern Urbanism, African urbanism. In this scholars’ determination however, key historical lessons on global evolution of cities are overlooked and sometimes wrongly misread and debunked. Such lessons from earlier urbanization period of European cities are still very important to understand urbanization in Africa nonetheless. To dismiss such experiences as merely western experiences that do not fit into the African context is to risk falling into historiographical traps that prove to be catastrophic for development of cities in Africa and the global south.

If scholars are seeking new conceptions of urbanization from perspective of the global south, it requires going beyond ideological influences. It requires candid comparisons of each component of the city to identify differences and similarities that warrant new conceptions. It is an attempt of this ViewPoint to explore what African cities can learn from 19th century European urbanization. My contention in this ViewPoint is that African cities are evolving at a different period from that of European cities. If we are to revisit the rapid urbanization of Europe in 19th century, various experiences can be drawn as key lessons for urbanization in Africa. By attempting to create new concepts and theories of urbanization that are devoid of critical and rational historical analysis of urbanization there is risk of creating geographically dependent theories and concepts that become difficult to operationalize as terms of synthesis.

I ought to mention, urbanization in Africa differs from earlier urbanization in regions of the global north in significant respects. The 21st century and the 19th century are two different eras; the type of capitalism that drove European urbanization is different from the capitalism that is driving urbanization in Africa, Africa will not be as wealthy as Europe that exploited the resources of the African continent ruthlessly. We live in era of globalization, of worsening effects of climate change. Technological innovation, global financial system all influence significantly how urbanization in Africa differ from that of 19th century Europe. In all these differences however, some regarded exceptions need to be debunked, for they distort the historical evolution of cities.


The urban apocalypse narrative on cities across Africa is well-known. Many international scholars argue that African cities are doomed, they have no future.  As American journalist, Robert D. Kaplan once characterised the largest city in Africa, Lagos: “the cliché par excellence of Third World urban dysfunction”.[2] Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas on first encounter with Lagos regarded it, “the terminal condition of urbanisation.”[3] In fairness, the characterisation of African cities by international scholars might not be blown of proportion, at least entirely. However, it is taken out of context of global urbanisation history. The squalid conditions currently in African cities are similar to those experienced in European cities in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. You could take The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, an 1883 publication that described the lives of the poor in Victorian English cities and it will read very much like a description of life in an African city, if not worse. The characterisations of squalor state of European cities in 19th century were used to raise a sense of urgency to governments. In Africa, however, the apocalypse narrative is now conclusive, writing off African cities as doomed. If we compare the components of urbanisation that two regions experience at different periods, some lessons can be drawn.

1. Rapid Urbanisation is an Evolutionary Stage

Rapid urbanisation in Africa and global south is a well-known distinguishing phenomenon. If one compares urbanisation rates globally, the global south is the fastest urbanising region in the world. While this phenomenon is used to characterise urbanisation in the global south, the global north also experienced phases of rapid urbanisation. What led African cities’ urban population growth to stall in the early 20th century were restrictive policies of the colonial era against rural to urban migration. In the early 1950s when urban population in the global north surpassed 50 percent, in the global south it was still around 18 percent. Therefore, one distinguishing feature is that rapid urbanisation in the global north was driven by industrial revolution while in the global south it was driven mainly by end of colonial restrictions on rural to urban migration. If we are to compare rapid urbanisation in the late 19th century to rapid urbanisation occurring now, some patterns can be established. In late 19th century urban population growth rates of 400 to 500 percent were not uncommon. Liverpool, a British port city, for example, tripled its population within 43 years (1830-1973). Within a century (1801-1901) both London and Paris grew fivefold (London from 900 000 to over 4.5 million and Paris from 500 000 to over 2.5 million).[4]  While European cities experienced such rapid urbanisation under massive industrialisation which offered many economic opportunities, challenges that are similar to those during African rapid urbanisation can be identified.

2. Urbanisation without Economic Growth

While the relationship between rapid urbanisation and economic growth becomes more intertwined, the relationship arose mostly from rapid urbanisation under industrial revolution of late 19th century. Before the industrial revolution, urbanisation was also influenced significantly by demographic factors. As Africa is urbanising rapidly under poor economic growth, it has become a regarded exception. However, Europe also experienced significant phases of poor economic growth which are worth exploring how the experienced shaped urbanisation and what African cities can learn from it. Phenomena such as that during times of recession rural to urban migration should slow down or reverse are not always true. As trend of reverse migration did not occur in Europe, it should not be expected to occur in Africa as well. That such a failure of reverse migration is an exception. For example, characterising increasing rural to urban migration in Africa during recessions of 1980s and 1990s economists such as Nigel Harris expected the migration to reverse. When the migration continued to increase Harris wrote:  “It appears that for low-income countries, a significant fall in urban incomes may not necessarily produce in short-term decline in rural-urban migration”.[5] Looking at rapid urbanisation in 19th century Europe, the same pattern also occurred. For example, during Britain’s Great Depression of the 1870s and 1880s as cheap American and Russian grain imports reduced the prices of Britain’s cereal, rural to urban migration soared. Statistician, Thomas Hardy even characterised such migration trends as the tendency of rural population towards the large towns being really “the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced by machinery”. This is because rural poverty is no better than urban one.

Therefore, when huge influxes of rural population move to cities, creating informal settlements in the peripheries and experiencing high unemployment, it is not uniquely African. Such patterns occurred in 19th century Europe even if in different magnitudes. For example, Louis Chevalier describing urban population growth in late 19th century Paris noted:

At all times, there was an influx into the capital of people from outside it… Only a small part of this immigration became fully integrated in the city… A high proportion of the immigrants remained nomads, and were known as such, or settled in inferior occupations and inferior districts on the margin of the capital and its business and civilisation.[6]

In such a period, urban ills that are now evident in most African cities were very high as urban population grew faster than cities, the institutions and the industries could absorb. The increasing focus on looking at urban development patterns only in economic terms is undermining the importance of demographic phenomena that shape cities as they evolve. In the rapid urbanisation of Africa as a result, demographers have taken the backseat as economists advance the prosperity of cities (or lack of thereof).

3. Cities Evolve from Slums

Extreme poverty, rampant crime, violence and informality are distinguishing features for African cities and urbanisation in the global south. However, these are phenomena associated with an evolutionary stage of urbanisation. To attribute such as uniquely African will be problematic. As the poetry of urban decay on African cities is spread, it is important to remember such problems also occurred in European urbanisation sometimes in worse condition. How European countries dealt with such issues will be important to explore if history is still valued at all. For example, informality was very prevalent in 19th century European cities and even early 20th century American cities. Housing in form of lodging houses and overcrowded tenements were very much slums.[7] As Patrick Geddes sums it up: “Slum, semi-slum, super-slum, to this has come the evolution of cities.”[8] In economy, informality was also prevalent in European cities where in London for example the street peddlers, artisans, labourers that formed the underclass were more than 100 000 of the city’s population of 2.5 million.  As Henry Mayhew puts it into perspective, if London’s underclass were to break off and form own city, it would have been the fifth largest in England.[9] The informality also extended to transport which was characterised as dingy, dirty, rude drivers and high charges, the omnibuses that were driven recklessly, racing each other and driving into each other.

As these are problems facing most African cities, the way European cities handled the problems such as introducing cooperative system in public transport and regulations could contribute to the current solutions being proposed in most African cities. In American cities informality such as street vending was still prevalent as late as mid-20th century. Given that the American cities authorities also tried to solve the problem using same approaches of policing street vending, the same way African cities are doing, lessons can be drawn on how street vending eventually declined. In cities such as Paris, the rapid urbanisation was also associated with extreme poverty, beggary, destitution, very high unemployment which subjected the working class to permanent hunger.[10] Because poverty and informality are stages that cities go through in their evolution.

4. The Evolution of Urban Governance

The rapid urbanisation that occurred globally is associated with various urban ills because institutions were not strong enough to deal with the magnitude of the rapid urbanisation. This phenomenon of poorly performing institutions was evidenced in 19th century Europe and early 20th century American cities. Now, poor urban governance is regarded to be uniquely a global south phenomenon. The uniqueness does not mention the variations in periods when each region experience the poor urban governance. As a result African countries end up engaging in quick fix type of governance reform that lacks a holistic approach. Best practices on governance are introduced to African cities without consideration of the stage of urban evolution and as a result some of the practices fail to materialise after vast resources have been committed to reform efforts.

If we visit earlier urbanisation years of Europe and North America, the poor urban governance become evident to be an evolutionary process that every society go through.

In the 19th century, institutional incapacity and incompetence was very high in European cities even though Europe’s institutions had developed significantly for centuries prior to emergence of rapid urbanisation. For example, London in the 1830s had 300 planning commissions to deal with various urban service delivery issues. However, the commissions in their numbers failed dismally to deal with the issues as London’s streets became filthier, filled with indiscriminate garbage dumps, overflowing cesspool and open sewers.[11] Eventually the newly elected administration replaced the commissions yet the challenges continued to worsen leading to the Broad Street cholera outbreak in 1854. The institutional incapacity led M.D Chalmers to comment on 1883 Local government in England as “…consisting of a chaos of areas, a chaos of authorities, and a chaos of rates.”[12] The poor urban governance was also evident in American cities as late as the 20th century given that American institutions were not as advanced as Europe’s that had evolved over the centuries. Practices such siphoning of millions of dollars of federal funds by city officials into their accounts was common. Under Tammany Hall, a political machine for democrats that controlled New York City from 1854 to 1934, the city was characterised by rampant corruption and poor governance that is now mostly found in African cities. To even get a job in federal projects one had to be approved by the political party.[13]  It was a period where whenever a city opened for tenders politicians would go into business, a city where by the 1930s some of its engineers did not even have a high school diploma due to nepotism and political patronage. As Historian Andrew D. White sums up best the state of cities administration in the United States in early 20th century; “With few exceptions, the city governments of the United States are the worst in Christendom—the most expensive, the most inefficient, and the most corrupt”.[14] We learn later from the biography of the master builder of New York, Robert Moses, a biography titled The Power Broker, by Robert A. Caro, the best practices of the text book did not succeed in municipal reform in New York, it took managing the politics well and well curated political strategies that led to achievement of several victories in municipal reform and successful implementation of urban development projects. Regardless of the similarities in the poor governance, little lessons have been drawn on how early town planners and municipal officials during this period managed to navigate the murky political waters that now trouble African cities. They are lost opportunities to draw very valuable lessons, as urban development in Africa is now clouded in radical ideological movements.


As the narrative on urban apocalypse flood the international urban studies scholarship, the second group of scholarship seek to debunk the apocalypse narrative by reconceptualising urbanism from the global south perspective. This includes the postcolonial scholarship, the postmodern scholarship of anti-foundationalism as plurality is sort in urbanism theories. As this scholarship argue for conceptualisation of urbanism from the global south, the arguments are more ideological than geographical as the term global south goes.  It has been more of proposition to move from capitalist form of urbanism to that of socialism. As a result, the capitalist model tends to take the Western identity as Socialism takes a southern identity. In such a case it becomes complex since town planning as a profession originally sought to rationalise the interests of the two groups that of socialism and of capitalism, what became known as “public interest”. Because if the southern urbanism scholarship was truly geographic, the western identity in urbanism can be dismantled given that the way Europe and North America urbanised are distinctively different enough to warrant such theoretical differentiation.

Several challenges are associated with the well-intentioned quest to conceptualise urbanism from the global south perspective however. One of them derive from the lack of acknowledgement that the movement is more of ideological struggle between capitalism and socialism. By taking a geographic identity as a space for ideological battle, the well-intentioned movement has been risking falling into ideological traps.

The scholarship has been falling into romanticism of the squalor state that African cities find themselves in. As a movement seeking to challenge Western capitalist model of urban development regardless of being in geographic terms it has found itself on a replacive agenda rather than corrective of the western urbanism models. By being replacive, there has been huge risk that key historical experiences that can help African cities are disregarded as not related to the context. For example, in its counter-discourse agenda, the southern urbanism scholarship argues that global north theories of urbanism can be ‘provincialized’ as they fail to apply to the realities of the global south.[15] However, the same scholarship also argues that the southern urbanism theory can be applied globally, that urbanisation in the global south is powerful enough to conceptualise cities of the world, including those of the global north. It is a proposition that has become so radical to the extent of proposing new linearity and new knowledge hegemony, the very linearity and knowledge hegemony that the scholarship is challenging about the Western urban theories. Now new scholarship is emerging arguing that the future of Western cities is emerging in cities of the global south,[16] that it is Europe that is now learning from Africa.[17] Scholars argue that western cities are the ones catching up with African cities not the other way around.[18] The fact that the two regions are at significantly different stages of urban evolution is overlooked. That for example, the housing crisis Europe is facing as a mature region is different from the housing crises faced in Africa as an emerging region.

As the scholarship on southern urbanism advance and the urban apocalypse narrative advance, influences of such scholarships on urban development in Africa exist. Some of the influences need to be highlighted. As any other school of thought has influence on public policy, there is need to highlight the influence and encourage the proponents to take note and acknowledge such influences.

1. The Rise of Anti-Urban Policies

The apocalyptic projections on the future of African cities as terminal have troublesome effect on policy action across Africa. While it has raised a sense of urgency among policymakers in the past decade, the lack of historical context on the global evolution of cities created negative sentiments regarding urbanisation among African policymakers. The policymakers cringe to the apocalypse that is popularised on future of African cities. As a result, anti-urban policies are being formulated and implemented across the continent. The policymakers now regard urbanisation to worsen the economy and fuelling civil unrest which threaten their status quo. Therefore, measures to discourage rural-urban migration are being adopted. Even well-intentioned experts and policymakers across the continent now believe the solution to Africa’s urbanisation woes lies in developing rural areas and decentralising urban services. As the world enjoys the agglomeration effects of large markets and large labour markets, concentration of infrastructure, African governments are taking a policy direction that suggest otherwise.

2. The Decongestion Movement

Building on the southern urbanism scholarship that argues that African colonial cities were built for a small European population and have become inadequate for the rapidly growing population, there are now policy measures to decongest the cities. This decongestion movement is now in two: the micro-level decongestion and macro-level decongestion. At micro-level, city centres that are crowded with people are being argued to be too congested, policy proposals to move commerce to the suburbs so that businesses can have a tranquil environment and reduce congestion are implemented. Such argument seldom consider that traffic, particularly pedestrian, is the lifeblood of city centre commerce, by decongesting the city centres, they will go into a deathbed as suburbs flourish, a trend that is already crippling cities across the continent.

At macro-level, the decongestion is moving towards development of new towns, satellite towns themed as tech cities, eco cities. As current cities are argued to be beyond redemption as colonially established cities, new large-scale urban developments are being established. The governments believe the new will solve the problems that the old is facing. They are developments done with determination to catch-up with the rest of the developed world in advancement and evolution to the extent that they are built straight up to climax as if they will remain the same forever. While Southern Urbanism scholarship criticize such developments for being out of touch with reality, there is need to consider how the postcolonial arguments are influencing governments to take up such policy actions. Because when colonially established cities are criticised for not suiting the growing postcolonial population, there are no key indicators to assess the capacities technically. That is why cities such as Harare in Zimbabwe with 2 million people are justifying the creation of a new capital city just outside the current capital city on same argument as highly-populated megapolis such as Cairo.

3. The Race Towards ‘World-Class Cities’

Africa is portrayed as a basket case on urban development. Devoid of historical evolution process of cities of the global north however, this portrayal is creating a race towards turning current and new cities across Africa into ‘world-class cities’, cities that match the maturity of cities of the global north within a short period of time. This has been partly a result of policymakers not getting full grasp of the comprehensive evolution of cities the time it takes, the pains involved and resources committed. It is reason the space-out visions of becoming world-class are becoming fashionable in the global south regardless of the fact that indicators of being world-class as cities are hardly defined and even difficult to define. As African cities aspire to be world-class, being those cities that are regarded global hubs in certain respect such as finance, tourism, diplomacy, they are pushing measures that align with vision yet realities of the challenges facing citizens are not addressed adequately. It is a cause for concern that requires southern urbanism scholarship to encompass comprehensive history free of ideological prejudices if urban policies are to transform urban development in Africa.


Efforts to except urbanisation in the global south, specifically Africa prove to create challenges that worsen the very urbanisation process. However, there is no expectation that the rise of theorisation of urbanisation from the global south will slow down. This is because there is an increasing contestation between two systems of organising society; that of capitalism and socialism and southern urbanism proposition plays into this increasing contestation regardless of dressing in geographic garb.

Other than the ideological contestation, it is crucial to remember, as Africa urbanises, cities globally draw from cities that developed before them. This has been the case with Western cities of the Greek and Roman empires that later influenced the modern European and North American cities. The western cities had drawn lessons from cities of earlier empires that include Babylonia, Medo-Persia and Egypt to the extent that some of the components that are regarded western in urban theories are actually of global south origin as they were drawn from former empires such as Egypt.

As the scholarship on urbanisation in Africa seek to creating new theories of urbanism from the global south following the counter-discourse agenda, innovations in urban development that are already solving problems in the global south are worth emulating. For example the Bus Rapid Transit System and the Participatory Budgeting having arose from a global south region, Brazil yet adopted globally, it is a contribution to the urban development models without entangled with the geopolitics of urbanism theories.

[1] Parnell, Susan and Oldfield, Sophie: Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South. London: Routledge, 2014.

[2] Kaplan, Robert D. The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism and Disease are rapidly destroying the Social Fabric of our Planet. The Atlantic, February Issue, 1994; p.9.

[3] Koolhaas and the Harvard Design School Project on the City, 2000.

[4] Lees, Andrew and Lees, Lynn. The Urbanization of European Society in the Nineteenth Century. London: D.C. Heath and Company, 1976.

[5] Harris, Nigel. Urbanization, Economic Development and Policy in Developing Countries, Habitat International, 14(4); 1990; p. 21-22.

[6] Chevalier, Louis. Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris during the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. New York; Howard Fertig, Inc, 1973; pp. 217-218

[7] In Paris and London for example, regardless of the housing’s filthiness in the 19th century, it was so expensive. A family paid 10 francs a month to get into a lodging house where it crowded into a room, only 8 square feet large, comprising of a ram-shackle bed. See the Nouveaux tableaux de Paris Report, 1828. Also, Mayhew, 1985.

[8] Quoted in Mumford, Lewis: The City in History, New York; 1968; p. 464.

[9] See Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1985.

[10] For detailed accounts of hunger and destitution in Paris, See Chevalier, Louis. Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris during the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. New York; Howard Fertig, Inc, 1973; p. 265-268.

[11] See, Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

[12] Chalmers, M.D. Local Government. London: McMillan & Co, 1883; p. 17.

[13] See Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. London: The Bodley Head, 1974; p. 323-346.

[14] Quoted in Caro, 1974; p.60.

[15] Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[16] Robinson, Jennifer. Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development. London / New York: Routledge, 2006.

[17] Comaroff, John and Comaroff, Jean. Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving toward Africa. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011.

[18] Koolhaas, R., and E. Cleijne. Lagos: How it works. With Harvard Project on the City and 2X4, edited by A. Adelusi-Adeluyi. Baden: Lars Muller Publishers, 2001; p. 652–3.

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is a senior research associate at the African Urban Institute. His research and technical advisory work covers the transformation of cities across Africa focusing on land use planning, urban renewal and municipal reform. His most recent book, Dystopia, discusses the fragmentation caused by specialist approaches to the development of African cities.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here