We might be fascinated by cities, but we tend to see them in dichotomous ways. On one hand, they are held to be the key to economic growth and increased prosperity. There is a well-established school of city utopianism as exemplified by what Harvard economist Ed Glaeser calls “the triumph of the cities”. This notion of world cities as nodes in a network of transnational flows of capital, people and ideas is central to the neoliberal agenda.
But there is also a dystopian view of cities (typically associated with sub-Saharan Africa) as being chaotic, and a focus of poverty and violence. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital Kinshasa, with a population of 9 million, is described by Belgian anthropologist Filip De Boeck as “a city that is in and of itself elsewhere, invisible”. In development policy, cities were (and to a degree still are) seen as malevolent, sucking in productive people from rural areas and undermining agricultural production, the basis of economic development.
The reliance on western models of urban planning and containment has resulted in a catastrophic failure to manage the growth of cities in many low- and middle-income countries. Most development policy has lacked a specific urban perspective, with the result that cities have grown haphazardly in the face of irresistible migration and population growth. Urban policy, where it existed at all, has sought membership of the elite of global cities pursuing high-value real estate development and prestige projects while ignoring the needs of the poor, who are an essential component of city economies.