Re-Urbanism in Africa: Frictionless Utopias for the Contemporary Urban Age

Martin J. Murray University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Abstract: Over the past decade or so, large-scale property developers, often in alliance with powerful state agencies, have initiated an increasing number of urban redevelopment schemes designed to reshape the existing spatial landscapes of a growing number of cities in Africa. If these ambitious approaches to city building successfully move beyond the design phase and reach the point of actual implementation, many large metropolises in Africa will be fundamentally reconfigured to serve more explicitly the aims and interests of large-scale transnational corporate investors, local business coalitions, and affluent consumers wanting to be plugged into the global economy. These efforts at re-urbanism have introduced new enclaves into already layered, fragmented, and unequal urban landscapes, often with extra-territorial jurisdiction and governance managed by international corporate entities. What makes these novel approaches to city building different from previous attempts at urban regeneration is that they involve building entirely new satellite cities out of whole cloth rather than incrementally rehabilitating physical landscapes already in place. Following an introduction to the concept of the "parallel city" or "satellite city," this essay reviews a variety of examples, including city-building projects in Lagos, Morocco, Mauritius, Ghana, and Uganda.


Over the past decade or so, large-scale property developers have initiated an increasing number of urban redevelopment schemes designed to reshape the existing spatial landscapes of a growing number of cities in Africa.[1] If these ambitious approaches to city building successfully move beyond the design phase and reach the stage of actual implementation, many large metropolises in Africa will be fundamentally reconfigured to serve more explicitly the aims and interests of large-scale transnational corporate investors, local business coalitions, and affluent consumers wanting to be plugged into the global economy. What makes these novel approaches to city building different from previous attempts at urban regeneration is that they involve building entirely new satellite cities out of whole cloth rather than incrementally rehabilitating physical landscapes already in place, thus dispensing with the arduous task of refurbishing the built environment of existing cities. These large-scale real estate developers—sometimes acting on their own initiative and other times operating in partnership with public authorities—have simply started over, constructing entirely new cities from scratch.[2]

Over the past decade or so, large-scale property developers have initiated an increasing number of urban redevelopment schemes designed to reshape the existing spatial landscapes of a growing number of cities in Africa.…By doing away with overcrowding, chaos, and congestion, these "parallel cities" represent everything existing metropolises in urban Africa are not. 

In the futuristic fantasy projection of city builders, these master-planned, holistically designed urban enclaves are "city doubles," faux doppelgängers that are the mirror (and yet polar) opposites of existing urban landscapes in Africa. By doing away with overcrowding, chaos, and congestion, these "parallel cities" represent everything existing metropolises in urban Africa are not. Imagined as a radical alternative to the "failed urbanism" of contemporary Africa, this tabula rasa approach to city building signals a significant departure from conventional thinking about rebuilding urban fabric through incremental, piecemeal interventions into existing physical landscapes in need of repair. These new city-building projects violate the fundamental modernist principles of erasure and re-inscription, or the creative destruction of the built environment. Instead, this novel approach to "re-urbanism" involves building entirely new cities from scratch (de novo, ex nihilo, out of whole cloth) without any intermediary steps. Constructing entirely new physical landscapes de novo enables city builders to bypass and circumvent the seemingly intractable problems associated with the current state of urbanism in Africa: neglected infrastructure, overcrowded streetscapes, traffic gridlock, the threat of crime, and woefully inadequate regulatory regimes (including the virtual lack of land-use planning and weak code enforcement).

Located outside the existing boundaries of major metropolises, these new "parallel cities" promise to deliver high-quality infrastructure, up-to-date services, and "first-world" lifestyle options, in an aesthetically pleasing, highly regulated, carefully monitored, and safe-and-secure environment. These self-contained, mixed-use urban enclaves provide the familiar blend of programmatic ingredients, including securitized office parks, upscale shopping malls, exclusive residential accommodations, and a wide range of entertainment-leisure activities, catering to the affluent business class. These "parallel cities" are connected both physically and symbolically to the leading metropolitan centers of global power, but they are delinked from their immediate surroundings and the city life right outside their boundaries. These emergent urban islands of high finance and excessive consumption signify what amounts to a spatial restructuring of literally dozens of cities across rapidly urbanizing Africa. By bringing together mixed-use facilities, walkability, and holistic planning borrowed from the principles of New Urbanism in combination with the (high)-modernist emphasis on easy circulation, rational order, and efficient use of space in a single location, they seem to offer the best of all possible worlds. Above all, these newly constructed "parallel cities" aspire to become key nodal points—or the new globalizing transnational spaces—in the wholesale spatial restructuring of global metropolitan networks (Roy and Ong 2011).

Examining these new "parallel cities" requires a counter-intuitive excursion into a retro-futuristic African urbanism that brings to mind surrealist painting or science fiction novels. Like earlier efforts at building "off-grid" communities, the new master-planned satellite cities in urban Africa amount to open-ended and quasi-utopian experiments. Both are very much the product of their time, each in their own way offering an antidote to the perceived distressed urbanism that surrounded them. Eerily reminiscent of such widely divergent urban experiments as walled medieval cities, the master-planned "garden cities" popularized by Ebenezer Howard at the start of the twentieth century, and the towering ‘skyscraper cities’ built virtually overnight in the Pearl River delta of southern China, and yet involving a seemingly novel mixture of enclave capitalism, unregulated neo-liberalism, and generic model-city designs, these city doubles bring to mind James Ferguson’s "shadow metaphor" for describing urban Africa in the neoliberal age (Ferguson 2006, 17). These efforts at re-urbanism gesture toward genuine city-ness, yet they seem more like self-contained platforms for projecting a roseate image of urbanity that can exist only in microcosm (Sidaway 2007).

Examining these new "parallel cities" requires a counter-intuitive excursion into a retro-futuristic African urbanism that brings to mind surrealist painting or science fiction novels.

Reading satellite cities as narratives, that is, as spatial stories—embedded as they are in utopian visions about the future—enables us to decipher the deeply rooted stock of cultural conventions about what it means to talk of novelty and progress. As Walter Benjamin (1999, 546) puts it, "every epoch appears to itself [as] inescapably modern." Seen from this angle of vision, these satellite cities contain hidden sociocultural messages that seek to distance themselves from the past and to foretell the radiant future. These cocooned enclaves envision an "integrated lifestyle" approach to city living, where material scarcity is nonexistent and where strict regulatory regimes ensure predictability, stability, and the rational use of space. What is perhaps not so surprising is that past "utopias of social space" (such as City Beautiful, the Garden City, the Radiant City, and the like) have shown themselves to be remarkably resilient in thinking about city-building, bent, folded, and re-packaged to serve contemporary purposes. The fact that holistic master-planning lies at the heart of these new satellite cities in urban Africa suggests that the modernist-inspired impulse toward "starting over"—the relentless production of the new—has remained a powerful force in imagining the Future City. Yet the past history of city-building is cluttered with the abandoned ruins of once-vibrant dreamscapes, discarded relics of bygone eras that no longer resonate (Buck-Morss 1995). With so many of these new satellite cities in the pipeline, it is difficult to predict their outcome. A vast urban experiment is currently underway, with not nearly enough forethought or analysis as to how these places will eventually affect the economies, physical environments, and everyday lives of people who will live both in and outside of them (Lumumba 2013).

These energetic efforts at re-urbanizing cities in Africa reflect dominant political and ideological practices of power regulated through their global connections. Their true intent to become spatially located "profit-making machines" is camouflaged in the legitimacy of the local through promises of "job creation," the emancipatory rhetoric of sequestered lifestyle choices, and the pledge of eco-friendly sustainability. These proposed satellite cities operate under the umbrella of new regulatory regimes that replace, manipulate, or completely silence conventional public administrative bodies (Daher 2008).

City-Building in Urban Africa

Reading satellite cities as narratives, that is, as spatial stories—embedded as they are in utopian visions about the future—enables us to decipher the deeply rooted stock of cultural conventions about what it means to talk of novelty and progress.

At the start of the 21st century, the accelerated pace of urbanization on a global scale has been accompanied by a wide variety of new experiments in city-building. In what has become a familiar pattern throughout urban Africa, new large-scale master-planned cities built from scratch have begun to reshape existing metropolitan landscapes in ways unimaginable only a few decades ago. This shift toward re-urbanism and away from regeneration provides ample proof that urban Africa has not escaped this mania for experimentation. Real estate developers, business coalitions, and boosters have promoted these city-building efforts as "world-class" urban spaces that contribute to the enhanced image of the city. Whether it is new master-planned enclaves carved out of derelict downtown spaces, new satellite cities built on the ex-urban fringe, or hyper-specialized enclaves that straddle major transportation corridors, these new city-building efforts seem to signal the beginning of the end of modernist thinking about rebuilding existing urban fabrics. Taken as a whole, they all point to innovative strategies designed to bypass broken down infrastructure, overcrowded thoroughfares, and unworkable regulatory regimes.

While many of these urban redevelopment schemes amount to no more than the unrealized wishful thinking of overly optimistic property speculators, a number of large-scale real estate developers have already launched prototype mixed-use mega-projects on the outskirts of existing cities in Africa. Exemplars of the ambitious re-urbanizing trend in urban Africa include the massive shoreline reclamation project called Eko-Atlantic in Lagos; New Cairo City outside Cairo; high-tech business incubators like the $14.5 billion Konza City technopolis south of Nairobi; King City, an exclusive mixed-use development near the rebuilt port of Takoradi (Ghana); La Cité du Fleuve, a master-planned "oasis of tranquility" constructed on two islands reclaimed from sandbanks and swamp in the Congo River, adjacent to Kinshasa; Al Noor, a gateway city straddling Yemen and Djibouti and connected by the second longest bridge in the world; Malabo II in Equatorial Guinea; and Waterfall City, a self-contained satellite city situated between Johannesburg and Pretoria (de Boeck 2011a, Johnson 2013). These new satellite cities unceremoniously inserted on the edges of existing metropolises mirror similar initiatives in the Asia Pacific Rim, the Persian Gulf, India, and the Middle East. Large-scale real estate developers and their state partners brand and market these "Neo-cities" as eco-friendly "greenfield" projects that are functional, desirable, and sustainable alternatives to the growing slums, deteriorating and insufficient infrastructure, and inadequate housing typical of Africa’s sprawling cities (Kihato and Karuri-Sebina 2012; Sabatini 2011).

Above all else, these large-scale city-building projects are designed to be "self-sufficient" and functionally integrated, bringing together cutting-edge infrastructure, high-quality services, and opportunities for employment in safe-and-secure environments. The real estate developers who have spearheaded these new city-building projects typically market them as smart, sustainable, and futuristic, combining a broad mixture of business opportunities, luxurious residential accommodation, and leisure activities, as well as social amenities for their residents such as schools, medical centers, shopping malls, theaters, and restaurants. These experiments in re-urbanism range from those well on their way to completion, to those in the advanced stage of planning, to those that have stalled due to lack of financing or poor forward-planning, and to those that are nothing more than the figments of the fertile imaginations and fantasy projections of dreamers and schemers (Choplin and Franck 2010). Do these projects offer a prescient glimpse into the urban future of Africa, or are they just utopian fantasies that will never meet the enthusiastic expectations of over-confident real estate developers?

"Instant Urbanism" and the Reordering of Urban Temporality

Conventional city-building involves long timelines: cities grow, expand, and develop; or conversely, stagnate, contract, and decline, in incremental steps and over lengthy intervals. In short, cities result from the cumulative, collective processes of everyday life and the complex interaction of all sorts of social forces. In this sense, cities are unpredictable, unruly, and virtually impossible to micromanage. In the contemporary age of globalization, the phenomena of "instant" or "pop-up cities"—with their particular kind of tabula rasa approach to city-building—forces us to rethink what we mean by urbanism and urban life (Read 2005; MacDonald 2009).

The accelerated pace of urbanization on a world scale has produced new metropolitan agglomerations at breakneck speed wherever real estate developers have been able to seize a foothold in local property markets. This brand of fast-paced "instant urbanism" is made visible in new "model cities" and metropolitan agglomerations from the "city-states" of the Persian Gulf, to the emerging mega-cities of the Asia Pacific rim, to the Special Economic Zones of India, to Songdo City outside Seoul in South Korea, and to Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, an eco-oasis in the desert, designed by "starchitect" Norman Foster and built at a cost of $20 billion for 40,000 inhabitants (Wu 2007; Bach, 2011; Goldman, 2011; Dupont, 2011; Shatkin and Vidyartha, 2014). These cities present themselves as operating at the forefront or cutting edge of the global frontier, as sustainable "infrastructure cities" that unapologetically embrace utopian discourses of unrestrained entrepreneurialism and free market economics, in combination with fantasies of the clean slate that opens up new opportunities for innovative design and architectural experimentation (Olds 2001, 1–10; Barthel 2010, 133).[3]

While carefully and meticulously planned as showcase sites to attract global attention, these new cities are, intentionally or not, also the material expressions of collective processes, complex collaborations, stealthy appropriations, and re-combinations of existing urban agglomerations. Despite their claims to novelty, they borrow, mimic, or steal ideas about building typologies, design aesthetics, and regulatory regimes at work elsewhere in the world economy (Schneekloth 2010). The construction of these new satellite cities is dependent upon "travelling ideas," not freely circulating but moving along distinct pathways or channels traversed by global finance and adjusted to local circumstances (Tsing 2004, xiii-xxxv).

As a general rule, these new "parallel cities" signify a kind of artificial "ersatz urbanism"—that is, the design of urban spaces that resemble cities, but upon close inspection lack important elements that constitute how a "real city" actually functions.

As a general rule, these new "parallel cities" signify a kind of artificial "ersatz urbanism"—that is, the design of urban spaces that resemble cities, but upon close inspection lack important elements that constitute how a "real city" actually functions. Often, the design of these urban enclaves focuses on a narrow range of themed sites organized around functional specializations, while ignoring the kinds of genuine public spaces that foster chance encounter and civic engagement (de Wall 2007, 126). Constructed at unprecedented speed and on a colossal scale, these "instant ‘cities-in-a-box’," as they have been called (see Boudreau 2010), have no recognizable central focal point, no genuine history, and no single or unifying identity except for "newness" (Koolhaas 1995). Because they are built virtually overnight, they lack the kind of authentic sense of place that produces attachment and connection. It is sometimes difficult to think of these places as cities at all. Critics have frequently derided Dubai, which lays claim to some of the world’s most expensive private islands, some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, and perhaps the largest theme park, as a surreal playground where the very rich live in walled-off enclaves physically separated from the poor migrant workers who serve them (Bagaeen 2007; Davis 2006; Elsheshtawy 2010). In a similar vein, skeptics have criticized the awkward growth of Shenzhen (close to Hong Kong) as emblematic of what can happen when unregulated real estate development and property speculation are given free rein (Ouroussoff 2008, 71).

In contemporary European cities, part of the nostalgic attachment to historically preserved central squares and to assemblages of old buildings comes from a desire for permanence as a source of security. Because of the sheer scale and the rapid speed at which they have been constructed, the fast-growing cities of China, India, and the Persian Gulf have very few of the features that architects and urban designers associate with a conventional modern metropolis.[4] These master-planned new cities do not radiate from a historic center as Paris, London, and New York do. Instead, their vast size and scale means that they function primarily as a series of decentralized zones and clustered nodal points, something closer in spirit to Los Angeles, Phoenix, and other fast-growing cities of the American West. The breathtaking speed of their construction means that they usually lack the layered mosaic of conventional city building, that is, the sometimes eclectic mixture of architectural styles and intricately-related patchwork of socially stratified parts that give older cities their complexity and distinctiveness—characteristics from which architects and designers have instinctively drawn inspiration. If New York represents the apotheosis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century modernist city building, then Dubai and Doha (Qatar) symbolize the emerging prototype for the 21st century: prosthetic and detached oases presented as isolated satellite cities disconnected from what surrounds them (Kanna 2009; Bloch 2010; see also Shadid 2011)

In the wake of the retreat of public authorities from urban management and the consequent deterioration of the built environment, large-scale real estate developers have filled the void, assuming new planning powers once reserved for city officials that enable them to take the lead in reshaping the urban landscape. This approach to city-building—which, following Gavin Shatkin (2011), might be called "bypass-implant urbanism"—involves abandoning (or "bypassing") congested and decaying spaces of the "public city" to their own devices and focusing instead on implanting large-scale, integrated mega-projects in strategic locations with easy access to up-to-date infrastructure. This new model of urban development is not merely a consequence of the blind adoption of "Western" planning models, but reflects the incentives, constraints, and opportunities put into motion during the current phase of globalization (Shatkin 2008, 384). This approach to city-building is largely dependent upon regressive state subsidies for profit-driven private sector development, the abandonment of the very idea of "public purpose" and the "common good" by municipal planning agencies, and the adoption of neo-liberal modes of urban governance that idealize entrepreneurial solutions to city management (Graham 2000). Large-scale property developers do not just oversee the construction of integrated mega-projects, but they take command over the conceptualization and implementation of entire infrastructural systems that are overlaid onto the existing metropolitan form. The kind of public-private partnerships that typically emerge reflect "the domination of private developers in all planning processes, from the visioning of urban futures to the management of the urban environments that they create" (Shatkin 2008, 388). This model of urban development contrasts sharply with modernist and high-modernist approaches to holistic planning (Harvey 1989; Jessop 1997).

Building from Scratch

Constructing these "instant cities" out of whole cloth marks a decisive shift in city-building away from the conventional planning approaches that typically focus on the revitalization or repair of existing urban landscapes. Starting afresh represents a new kind of holistic, rational planning for the contemporary urban age. As a curious blend of faith and science, these efforts at re-urbanism seem to resemble almost self-regulating, frictionless utopias that rest on the belief that "smart city" designs and information technologies can produce technical solutions to the everyday problems of ordinary urban life (Hollands 2008; Datta 2012). The utopic stories that have accompanied the rollout of these mega-projects are inextricably entangled with boosterist propaganda in which optimistic visions of the future are virtually untethered from the nagging realities of everyday life in urban Africa. The new coalitions of real estate developers, finance capitalists, and design specialists have put their blind faith in the power of technology, the visionary prowess of entrepreneurialism, and the rule of experts, what William Howard Kuntsler (2013, 12) has called “techno-grandiosity" or "techno-triumphalism." They project a future urbanism without worry (Klingmann 2007, 1, 4, 6, 17–18, 35–36).

These satellite city projects are intended to reshape the urban future of Africa depend upon deliberate strategic interventions that bypass existing metropolitan landscapes. Real estate developers, municipal authorities, and civic boosters of all sorts have legitimized the construction of these master-planned satellite cities as the much-needed "solution" to the urban dysfunctionalities that severely hamper remedial efforts to rebuild or repair existing urban landscapes. Hailed by their promoters as cures or remedies for dysfunctional urbanism, these "parallel cities" promise to deliver up-to-date infrastructure, good governance, and reliable services. The real estate developers engaged in these city-building projects are really in the business of finding spatial fixes to the social-technical challenges of urban Africa where most residents of existing large-scale metropolises live in unhealthy and unhygienic conditions, with little access to clean water, affordable housing, and regular wage-paying work. The common denominator that these urban mega-projects share is a belief in the possibility of improving everyday life through expanded reliance on cutting-edge technology and information systems.

Private Cities: Eko-Atlantic (Lagos) and Minna Airport City (Nigeria)

Without a strong civic authority at the local level to envision and oversee what is built and why, large-scale real estate developers with access to global financing and expert advice assume the commanding role in defining what kind of urbanity is created and sustained. Unburdened from the nagging need to comply with onerous standards or cumbersome regulations, property developers have free rein to build what they want, under conditions of their own choosing. Such commercially driven spatial enclaves as corporate business parks, free trade zones, and export-processing precincts are the primary aggregate units of a new species of the contemporary city building, offering a clean slate, easy accessibility, and "one-stop" entry into local economies. The logistical requirements and organizational logics of global competitiveness provide generic specifications for assembling these new spatial envelopes. Contemporary versions of corporate business parks and other privately-planned enclaves designed exclusively for global commerce are not merely alter-egos that attach themselves to the edges of existing cities, but often "something more like independent city-states—the descendants of Venice or Genoa when they were the trading centers of the planet" (Easterling 2007a, 6).

Private cities have experimented with new forms of urban governance that effectively bypass conventional approaches to the public administration of urban space. The regulatory regimes that these private satellite cities typically adopt are rooted in the entrepreneurial logic of expanding the capitalist marketplace to spheres of social activity that were once the exclusive preserve of the public administration. Private planning authorities comprised of bureaucrats and technocrats have assumed widespread powers to buy, hold, and sell land and property; to manage bulk infrastructure (such as the street grid, storm water and sewage treatment, and sources of energy); to establish regulatory regimes with enforceable rules and mandatory compliance; and to oversee the provision of utilities like clean water, electricity, solar power, and natural gas (Sidaway 2003, 2007).

These satellite cities—as territorially demarcated enclaves—operate in what historian Elaine Scully has called "anomalous zones," where conventional public administrative rules and norms are suspended and no longer apply.

Implanted within existing sovereign bodies, these new satellite enclaves form political voids that function as territorial/legal loopholes in circuits of extra-territorial power (Franke and Weizman 2004, 4). By operating in this frictionless realm of legal ambiguity if not outright exemption, many of these newly minted "city doubles" that have proliferated at the edges of existing cities in Africa find a relaxed atmosphere by hiding behind spatial envelopes such as Special Economic Zones (SEZs), Special Enterprise Zones, Free Trade Zones (FTZs) or Export Processing Zones (EPZs). As a distinct type of legal format, these zones of exception demarcate “non-contiguous, differently administrated spaces of graduated or variegated sovereignty” (Ong 2006, 7).

While the nation-states within which these enclaves are embedded retain ultimate sovereignty, the private owners of these satellite cities maintain virtually complete jurisdiction and control for an indefinite period. In short, these satellite cities—as territorially demarcated enclaves—operate in what historian Elaine Scully has called "anomalous zones," where conventional public administrative rules and norms are suspended and no longer apply. This legal anomaly is not an aberration but is instead a defining characteristic of the extraterritorial governance that these urban enclaves need for their existence (Scully 2001, 206n6; Neuman 1996; Palan 2003).

As the embodiment of calculated subterfuge, the enclave format provides the "perfect legal habitat for corporate enterprise" (Easterling 2007b, 75). Aspiring to a state of exemption outside of the conventional functioning of the law and its restrictions, these commercially driven entrepôts seek to engineer their own status as self-sustaining islands of legal immunity and political quarantine specifically directed at corporate protection (Easterling 2007a, 10; 2005, 2). These various legal hybrids of the zone effectively oscillate between visibility and invisibility, and identity and anonymity. As "off-worlds" disconnected from the seemingly chaotic street life of contemporary cities in Africa, these securitized enclaves provide a convenient platform enabling local property-holding elites to be both in and out of Africa at the same time (Easterling 2005, 48, 100, 116; 2008, 32).

The purpose of these zones is to mark the distinction between "inside" and "outside," that is, to signal two distinct areas of qualitative difference. They establish identity and distinction through varying degrees of social closure. Like offshore banks and tax havens in otherwise out-of-the-way islands, these zones liberate corporate business transactions from the restrictions imposed by the laws of sovereign nation-states. Whether as instruments lubricating free trade, promoting export processing, or dispensing with labor regulations, zoning practices provide protective armor shielding corporate enterprise from unwanted scrutiny or interference (Roy 2011, 234).

As "off-worlds" disconnected from the seemingly chaotic street life of contemporary cities in Africa, these securitized enclaves provide a convenient platform enabling local property-holding elites to be both in and out of Africa at the same time.

Seeking to inhabit deregulated, extra-jurisdictional spaces separated from what surrounds them, these new urban outposts enjoy the "insulation and lubrication" of such exemptions as tax holidays, relaxed regulations over foreign ownership of property, streamlined customs services, and deregulation of labor or environmental restrictions. These places "aspire to lawlessness, but in the legal tradition of exception" (Easterling 2008, 32, 43). While they provide functionally useful spatial recipes for international trade and business, these new urban enclosures mix promiscuously with other enclave formats, merging with corporate office complexes, gated residential communities, recreational resorts, entertainment centers, theme parks, tourist destinations, business incubators, high-tech knowledge villages, think tanks, science centers, and IT campuses (Easterling 2007a, 4, 6, 10). Physical separation creates the illusion of disentanglement and disengagement (Barry 2006).

Eko-Atlantic is a brand-new city under construction on a seven-by-two kilometer stretch of reclaimed coastline adjacent to Bar Beach, Victoria Island. This planned mixed-used property development is the centerpiece of a city redevelopment strategy whose ambition is indeed far-reaching: to remake the image of Lagos as an exemplar of distressed urbanism into Africa’s model megacity. Described by the 1986 Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka as “rising like Aphrodite from the foam of the Atlantic,” the Eko-Atlantic mega-project is perhaps the most ambitious land reclamation project ever undertaken in Africa (Soyinka 2011). Built in part to relieve the land pressure brought about by intense traffic congestion and overcrowded streetscapes, this entirely new satellite city is located on an estimated 1,000 hectares of entirely reclaimed land off Victoria Island, an artificial island built of sand and rock dredged from the ocean floor. Promotional rhetoric has declared that this "Manhattan of urban Africa" is destined to become the financial hub of the African continent (Perry 2011; Clayton 2011; Hinshaw 2013).

In the imagination of its private real estate developers, Eko Atlantic City is the mirror opposite of Lagos. A scale model on display at the offices of its property developers, South Energyx Nigeria, features tree-lined boulevards; crystal-clear canals; giant shopping malls; a waterfront with three marinas; a light-rail tramway; and a sail-shaped, 55-story skyscraper that will be the new headquarters for a leading Nigerian bank. In promoting the project, David Frame, South Energyx Nigeria’s managing director, has called Eko Atlantic “the new face of Africa.” Onno Ruhl, country head for the World Bank, has gone even further, labeling it "the future Hong Kong of Africa" (Cossou 2010; see also Gikunda 2012).

The private real estate developers behind the Eko-Atlantic project have claimed that their goal is to build a self-contained city capable of providing the quality of infrastructure and support services required to transform Lagos into an economic powerhouse and the financial hub of Africa. Plans for this nine-square-kilometer (four square miles) mega-project envision six separate districts, including waterfront areas, a central business district, and housing components—all connected by efficient transport systems. The planning experts who conceived of this new city have promised that each district will include mixed-use spaces that combine residential developments with business offices and commercial buildings, leisure and entertainment facilities, and retail shopping (Cossou 2010).

Eko-Atlantic is designed to provide residential accommodation for up to half a million people, including 250,000 daily commuters, and office towers and other workplaces for another 150,000. The developers have included high-tech infrastructure in line with environmental standards defined by international best practice. Upon completion, Eko-Atlantic will offer its residents state-of-the-art waste management and surface-water drainage, clean water supply and distribution, security and transportation systems, and information technology networks capable of serving a world class central business district. This "city-within-a-city" will also provide its residents with an independent source of energy provided by an electrical power generation plant with underground distribution and the capacity to provide for the entire complex (Clayton 2011).

Undeterred by concerns about future vulnerability brought about by rising sea levels in the coming century, real estate developers have pressed ahead. With land reclamation virtually complete, the main real estate developers—the Chagoury family—have embarked on the second phase: the layout of the spatial grid and installation of bulk infrastructure. While Eko-Atlantic is formally a public-private partnership between the Lagos State Government and South EnergX, its spatial design, overall functions, and systems of urban management are almost entirely in the hands of private real estate companies (Hinshaw 2013).

Map of Al Noor (Yemen and Dijbouti)

Al Noor (Yemen and Dijbouti)

While the mega-project was still in the visionary stage, real estate developers have drawn up ambitious plans to transform Minna, the capital city of Niger State in northern Nigeria, into an agro-industrial, manufacturing, aviation logistics center built around an existing local airport. Borrowing freely from existing "airport city" mega-projects in Amsterdam, Dallas-Fort Worth, Dubai, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Vienna, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, the property developers behind the Minna Airport City (MAC) scheme envision building an entirely new city on a sprawling 30,000-hectare site, complete with a supermarket of facilities, including state-of-the-art business offices, recreational components, upscale shopping malls, light manufacturing, health industries, educational facilities, and residential housing estates that could accommodate six million residents. The master plan for the MAC project includes a dedicated zone for light manufacturing, cargo warehousing facilities, and a logistics center specializing in the handling and export of agricultural products. The main stakeholders in the MAC scheme hoped to use the development model of a public-private partnership as the catalyst for jump-starting their long-term goal of redefining the entire sub-region of West Africa through the creation of a transportation hub linking nearby Abuja with the Baro port on the coast and development of a manufacturing center capable of undercutting cheap imports, mainly from China (Nurudeen 2010a, 2010b; Bamidele 2011).

Themed Entertainment Destinations: Casa Marina and Mall of Morocco (Casablanca)

City builders in Morocco have aggressively tried to fashion an image of its new city-building projects as the Dubai of the Maghreb. Lacking the revenue of resource-rich Gulf States, real estate developers have turned to European loans and investments to finance their own brand of “petro-urbanism.” The flagship “mega-project” is the $500-million redevelopment of the underutilized Casablanca waterfront into the luxurious, mixed-use Casa Marina. Stretching across 450,000 square meters, the complex will include high-end retail spaces, an integrated business center, and “luxury apartments targeted at VIP customers.” The Central Real Estate Company (CGI) has announced its intention to add three artificial islands to expand the size of the Marina. Prestige mega-projects like the Marina are very powerful frameworks for the design and implementation of complex urban operations where private real estate interests are the driving force. It would seem that major tensions between the common interest and the profit imperative in some ways weaken this new form of global spatial production. Neverthless, beyond the official discourses, prestige projects have taken territorial governance in new directions, involving multi-scale public-private partnerships that seek to circumvent genuine participatory approaches (Barthel and Planel 2010; Bogaert 2012; Zemni and Bogaert 2011).

City boosters hailed the opening in December 2011 of the Mall of Morocco in Casablanca as the first world-class "destination" shopping mall in Africa, and one of five of its kind in the world. With an inauguration ceremony featuring a controversial lip-synched performance by popstar Jennifer Lopez, the sprawling mall complex—what insiders have called a "retailtainment" mecca—consists of around 350 stores, 40 gourmet restaurants, a giant aquarium, an IMAX 3D theater, an amusement park, VIP shopping area, a large aquarium, an ice skating rink, a bowling center, a musical fountain, lush gardens, and meditation pads. Designed to resemble a giant seashell, the architectural design of the mega-project blurs the line between a crass imitation of Western modernity and historical preservation of the traditional souk marketplace. The interior design of the department store Galeries Lafayette, which first opened its doors in Casablanca during French colonial rule in the 1920s but was later closed after independence, mimics the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. The musical fountain outside the back side of the mall facing the ocean bears a striking resemblance to a similarly water-and-music synchronized display at the Las Vegas Bellagio Hotel. The glossy advertisements that overwhelm the surrounding streetscape, and the hundreds of European and American retail franchises that fill the halls inside, demonstrate the desire to instill Western consumption habits in a social world still grappling with post-colonial development. Behind this new symbol of luxury lies a complex web of compromised financial interests and a vision of profit-making enterprise that seems to neglect the yawning gap between rich and poor. While a projected 14 million visitors will enjoy the upscale shopping and exclusive spas at the largest shopping mall in Africa, urban residents of the surrounding neighborhoods continue to live in poverty (Bogaert 2013; Berry-Chikhaoui 2010).

Retail and Tourist Destinations: Mall of Mauritius at Bagatelle, the La Balise Marina, and Dubai World Africa

Privately built and privately maintained places like the Mall of Mauritius at Bagatelle and the La Balise Marina (located along the nearby Black River) illustrate this global trend toward combining international corporate headquarters with a full range of cultural, leisure, and entertainment opportunities in a resort-like atmosphere. Ambitious mixed-use developments featuring luxury residences, office blocks, hotels, huge shopping malls, and imaginative entertainment complexes have fundamentally altered the image of Mauritius and have put the local property market on the world stage. Over the past decade, the small island nation of Mauritius has positioned itself as a prominent offshore financial-banking center that prides itself on secrecy and confidentiality. In the World Bank’s 2009 Doing Business report, it was ranked 24th in the world and first in Africa. It was also rated among the top 25 global offshore platforms. With the number of globe-trotting tourists expected to reach two million by 2015, Johannesburg-based Atterbury Developments, a leading property investment and development company, teamed with ENL Property, a well-established Mauritian real estate holding company with strong ties to South African firms, to finance and manage the construction of the Mall of Mauritius at Bagatelle. By creating a carefully crafted place-image of "an authentic tropical ‘sense of ease’," corporate boosters have promoted this multi-functional shopping mall as a shopping destination like "no other in the Indian Ocean," where "enthusiastic shopaholics will be spoilt for choice as they match and accessorize to their heart’s content." Outfitted with the large collection of globally recognized designer brands under one roof, city boosters have lauded the Mall of Mauritius at Bagatelle as "the next fashion and entertainment capital of island living" (eProp Commercial Property News, Mokopanele, and Ndala).

Like many of the projects in the ELN Property portfolio, the La Balise Marina project falls under the property development guidelines of an Integrated Resort Scheme development, a government-sponsored initiative aimed entirely at attracting wealthy foreigners who wish to invest in high-end residential accommodation, offering them a vacation home in an island paradise and automatic permanent residency status. This large-scale property development offers a marina lifestyle built around a "sea and sun experience." Promotional materials refer to the La Balise Marina as an idyllic place offering "incomparable outdoor lifestyle" choices that blend yachting and boating, fishing and ocean-cruising, snorkeling and water skiing. In promoting the unique qualities of these sun-and-sea dreamscapes, sales representatives stress the idyllic landscape of sandy beaches, tropical breezes, and blue skies.

Atterbury Developments, in collaboration with ENL Property, is the driving force behind the Bagatelle commercial development zone on the outskirts of the capital Port Louis. The Bagatelle integrated development project is a self-contained "mini-city" consisting of warehousing and light industrial facilities, business office parks, the Mall of Mauritius, the Voila Hotel, leisure-and-entertainment venues, and luxury residences designed for affluent homeowners, "interlinked with a strong synergy in a mixed-use environment" ("Strong Support" 2011, 8). The long-term vision for the Bagatelle commercial development zone is to create a thriving and aesthetically pleasing mixed-use precinct that functions as a regional hub of global commerce, a high-profile tourist destination, and a shopping Mecca.[5]

Map illustration La Balise Marina (Mauritius)

La Balise Marina (Mauritius)

ENL Property is a multifunctional conglomerate involved in multiple projects in Mauritius, particularly in the agribusiness, commercial, and property sectors. In addition to the La Balise Marina, ENL Property is engaged in a variety of real estate projects, including Villas Valriche, a luxury residential development located in the south of the island; Moka, Le Coeur de I’ile, a mixed-use project consisting of a luxury residential development, sports/shopping center, and a business park, located in the Moka mountains; and Kendra, a commercial center based in St Pierre.

Incorporated in 2005 as a regional subsidiary of the state-owned conglomerate Dubai World Corporation (Dubai’s flag bearer in global investments), Dubai World Africa specializes in leisure-and-entertainment properties, wildlife conservation, and eco-tourism in Africa. The company has property investments in high-end real estate resort projects, hotels, and luxury lodge developments in South Africa, Mozambique, Comoros, Zanzibar, Djibouti, and Rwanda, with plans to expand its tentacles into Morocco, Senegal, Gabon, and Benin.[6] In 2006, it acquired the iconic Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.[7] In 2007, it purchased Daallo Airlines, the state-owned air carrier of Djibouti, in an effort to further the growth of trade and tourism on the African continent Rose, 2008). Dubai World Africa has embarked on an ambitious strategy to rehabilitate, develop, and manage high-end game parks and wildlife reserves across the African continent in order to tap into the accelerating demand for eco-tourism and adventure tourism. Its portfolio of African properties includes the Pearl Valley Signature Golf Estate and Spa (Cape Town); Shamwari Game Reserve, Sanbona Wildlife Reserve and Jock Safari Lodge (South Africa); the Kempinski Luxury Beach Resort (Comoros); One & Only (Zanzibar); and the Djibouti Palace Kempinski. In Rwanda alone Dubai World Africa owns such high-end properties as the Akagera Safari Lodge, Gorilla’s Nest Mountain Lodge, Nyungwe Forest Lodge, and the Kigali Residence, Hotel and Golf Club. Inspired by steadily increasing trade between Dubai and the Republic of Benin, Dubai World Africa has entered into negotiations with local investors to construct a 32-hectare master-planned beachfront development along with an international hotel in the capital city of Porto Novo. The aim of these property investments is to provide a gateway into the potentially lucrative business of eco-tourism and adventure tourism (Rose 2008).

High-Tech Cities: Hope City, Accra (Ghana) and Kakungulu Satellite City, Kampala, (Uganda)

Construction has already begun at Hope City, a multi-faceted $10 billion high-tech hub located on a sprawling 1.5 million square meters site roughly 30 kilometers west of Accra. Expected to take three years to complete, this ambitious project is the brainchild of Ghanaian businessman Roland Agambire, head of local technology group RLG Communications. Real estate developers, particularly the AGAMS Group, seek to use this new satellite city to transform Ghana into a major player in competition with the nascent information communications technology (ICT) industry emerging in East Africa. The architects who designed this satellite city have sought to construct an integrated living and working space that functions as a habitat for ICT industries engaged in product research, design, and manufacture. Smart and futuristic, this proposed high-tech city includes a large assembly plant for various tech products, business offices, and an IT university (Kermeliotis 2013).

Designed by Italian firm Architect OBR, the vision for this planned technopolis includes a Dubai-style skyline consisting of six towers of different dimensions, clustered around an iconic 75-story, 270-meter-high building that is expected to be the highest in Africa. Bridges of varying heights will connect various districts of the new city, including residential accommodations for around 25,000 residents, a state-of-the-art private hospital, recreational spaces, and other social amenities such as restaurants, theaters, and activity centers. The telecom giant RGL Communications has spearheaded the initial stages of this mega-project, with funding to cover around 30 percent of the overall costs, while the remainder of the financing has come from a wide array of private investors and through a stock-buying scheme. Acting in partnership with private capital, the Ghanaian government has used various incentives at its disposal to attract well-known companies in the global ICT industry, including Microsoft, to establish offices in this research-and-development hub, which is expected to create jobs for an estimated 50,000 people (U.S. Chamber of Commerce 2013, 1-4).

On the green thousand-acre hillside on the Kampala-Entebbe highway in south-central Uganda, real estate developers have already started work on a new city that is projected to turn the country into the African continent’s answer to Bangalore, the main IT hub of India.[8] The centerpiece of the large business estate consists of a vast IT park, including call centers, back-office facilities, and data processing operations, all of which will be much cheaper for multinational firms to operate than those in Britain. Owned and managed by Akright Projects, Kakungulu Satellite City is also designed to include a central business district, a 50,000-seater sports stadium, a hospital, exclusive housing developments, a luxury hotel, two shopping malls, schools, and a signature golf course with seeds for the greens flown in from Florida (Johnson 2013). The residential precinct contains 2,500 dwellings and is expected to be home to nearly 144,000 people. Kakungulu Satellite City is set to employ a huge pool of Ugandan graduates in outsourced Western-style call centers. Real estate developers behind this new experiment in "organized living" (as promotional materials promise) expect it to generate a projected 20 percent of the total of the yearly exports of Uganda in just five years (Society for International Development 2011; Sitinga Kachipande 2013).


These new satellite cities epitomize speculative urbanism—risky undertakings that depend in large measure on deliberate place-marketing and flashy branding. These re-urbanizing efforts that have blossomed across urban Africa have come into existence under the sign of globalization. These satellite cities signify a pathway to hypermodernity, where building from scratch enables real estate developers to bypass existing urban landscapes and, metaphorically speaking, to leapfrog out of the past and propel themselves into the future (Shatkin 2008, 384). Some scholars have sought to classify these new city-building projects under the umbrella of an emergent model of Dubaization (Choplin and Franck 2010, 193). However, this analogy misses a crucial point, namely, Dubai and the other "instant cities" of the Persian Gulf emerged de novo in virtually uninhabited desert. In contrast, the new satellite cities of urban Africa have been inserted into, or adjacent to, existing urban landscapes, thereby exacerbating spatial polarization (de Boeck 2011b, 74).

These satellite cities signify a pathway to hypermodernity, where building from scratch enables real estate developers to bypass existing urban landscapes and, metaphorically speaking, to leapfrog out of the past and propel themselves into the future.

The scope and scale at which these efforts at re-urbanism are taking place in Africa, and the loud proclamations of real estate developers and public authorities regarding the planned transformation of urban life, have produced a varied and strong response from both urban scholars and local policymakers. In this context, both popular and academic accounts of the current state of new city-building projects in urban Africa quite often read like interpretations of a Rorschach test—they may say more about the hopes and anxieties of the observer than about the images themselves (Shatkin 2014, 11). On the one side, the real estate developers behind these mega-projects—along with their coteries of place-promoters, boosters, and ideological advocates—see these new satellite cities as a prescient glimpse of a hopeful future of a fully modernized and up-to-date metropolis (de Boeck 2011b). On the other side, skeptics suggest that these large-scale projects "portent of a future slow-motion apocalypse," where the urban poor are pushed aside and "brutally dislocated to make way for a partitioned city in which the elite retreat into fortified enclaves." What is needed is a sanguine assessment of the evolving dynamics of city building in Africa, in order not only to gauge the direction and impact of these changes, but also to contribute to debates about how urban planners, policymakers, and community organizers might intervene to shape what is happening (Shatkin 2014, 11).

Working hand-in-glove with global design specialists and architecture firms, real estate developers have unveiled new urban fantasies that seek to circumvent if not erase the harsh realities of overcrowded and deteriorating mega-cities like Nairobi, Luanda, or Lagos, where the majority of urban residents remain extremely poor and are entrapped in informal housing with irregular work. "Best practice" terms such as "smart cities" and "eco-cities" underpin these new utopian fantasies, but in fact the experience of implementation suggests that the new cities are unsustainable in the extreme. New urban plans are pointing the way to what will be "splintering urbanism" at a regional scale, as these satellite cities attract corporate business and affluent residents while leaving slums in place, functioning as autonomous city states that operate by a different set of formal and tacit rules and regulations. The juxtaposition between these planned satellite cities and the current state of affairs in urban Africa reveals the tensions that exist between the utopian dream of starting over and the failure of planners and policymakers to develop realistic remedies to incorporate ordinary residents into the mainstream of urban life. The fundamental disjuncture between the here-and-now of actual urban life and the there-and-then of sweeping utopian gestures has reinforced a false opposition that results in real-life separation (de Boeck 2011b, 74, 82). As Edgar Pieterse (2008, 4-6, 84-87) has argued, the existential core of urbanism is the desire for genuinely radical transformation, but this radical impulse often stands in sharp contrast to the kind of "necessary prudence" which characterizes a more incremental, bottom-up approach to the pressing problems of everyday life that often seems to be lacking in cities in Africa. It is this profound disjuncture between "the on-the-ground practices of everyday urban life and survival" and the elitist urge to start over with new satellite cities that produces the utopian dreamscape of escapist urbanism (de Boeck 2011b, p. 74)—the fantasy that technology, infrastructure, good governance, and enforceable rules offer a "quick fix" that can make the present state of affairs simply disappear (Johnson 2013).


  1. Updated news about African city development can be found at,, The East African and City Lab.
  2. Some of the ideas contained in these first several paragraphs are borrowed from Murray, The Urbanism of Exception: The Dynamics of Global City-Building in the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  3. In the metropolises of the Arab world, the construction of such mega-projects as "City of Silk" in Kuwait, "Al-Abdali" in Amman, "Solidere" in Beirut, "Saphira’" and "Bou Regreg" in Rabat reflects the experimental turn in city building toward the creation of highly profitable city fragments (Barthel 2010, 133).
  4. Gunther Barth (1975) coined the phrase "Instant Cities", although he actually had a different image in mind.
  5. ENL Property, Our Projects, 2009 (retrieved from ENL Property: ( See also Geneva Management Group, Mauritius: High-level overview of the Integrated Resort Scheme (‘IRS’) and Real Estate Scheme (‘RES’), 2010 (retrieved from Geneva Management Group (; La Balise Marina, The United Nations Development Project Studies La Balise Marina’s Social Integration Project, 2012 (retrieved from La Balise Marina: Black River, Mauritius:; and La Balise Marina, Vision, 2012 (retrieved from La Balise Marina: Black River, Mauritius: Note that since this research was accomplished, some of these web pages are no longer available.
  6. These plans are partially put on hold following the worldwide financial downturn of 2008.
  7. This was subsequently sold in 2011.
  8. The choice of name is, indeed, interesting. Kakungulu was a Ganda chief in the 19th century who abjured medicine and inoculations, broke away from the Ganda hierarchy, and set himself up as chief in Busoga in the east, where he founded a Ugandan Jewish sect. That this island of techno-paradise would be named after an anti-tech dissenter is bizarre. (Thanks to Derek Peterson, Department of History, University of Michigan, for this insight.)


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This paper is an early version of a chapter entitled “Frictionless Utopias for the Contemporary Urban Age,” in Mega-Urbanization in the Global South, edited by Ayona Datta and Abdul Shaban (Routledge Studies in Urbanism and the City, 2016), pp. 31–53. Included here by permission of Routledge/Taylor & Francis. All rights reserved.