UCL Urban Laboratory



Find out more about the project objectives, research strategy and background behind Making Africa Urban.

urban africa

The Making Africa Urban project investigates how the future of African cities is being shaped by transnational processes based on sovereign, developmental and private investment in large-scale urban developments in Accra (Ghana), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Lilongwe (Malawi).


Transnational processes are profoundly shaping Africa's urban future - private sector, sovereign and developmental circuits of investment, policy and aid are "making Africa urban". But the motivations and dynamics, as well as the impacts of the developments are poorly understood, and the literature on each are segmented - between academic and policy-driven analyses, and between topics (policy mobility, development co-operation, financialization, geopolitics). This project will range across these fields to assess the urban outcomes which shape and are shaped by these circuits.

Research will focus on how large-scale urban developments are planned, designed, financed and governed, as such developments are focal points for transnational actors and investment. They are also sites through which financial, political and governance innovations often emerge, given that they entail numerous actors and jurisdiction, as well as long time-scales. Large-scale developments can be important new urban spaces in their own rights, but they might also involve renewal and intensification of existing areas (with removal of current land uses), or city-wide interventions aimed at the extensive remaking of urban infrastructures and institutions. All have implications for the form of the wider urban territory, and for the potential for creating more liveable and equal urban contexts, or for undermining urban value.

The project takes as its starting point African urban contexts as these are very poorly represented in wider urban studies and especially within theoretical and conceptual understandings of urban politics. This project will develop and extend comparative methods to propose original theoretical and empirical insights on significant elements of global urbanisation, large-scale developments and city-wide interventions, starting in the African context but contributing new and wider understandings of global urban political processes and urban policy.

Background and Justification

At the same time as the humanitarian impulse reflected in the SDG ambitions to “leave no city behind” (Acuto and Parnell, 2016), is shaping development interventions across urban Africa, powerful private and sovereign circuits of urban investment are also increasingly involved in making Africa’s urban future (UN-Habitat, 2018). Across the globe, interest in opportunities to realise value through investment in urban development has expanded considerably and the growing financialization of the global economy has brought new actors into the urban arena, for example, transnational investment trusts (REITs) and institutional investors such as pension funds. While such processes are incipient in the African context, and local capital and processes are still prominent including African pension funds and sovereign wealth funds, there is a substantial mobilization of global private sector interest in Africa’s urban future and a wide array of private sector urban design and construction firms involved in all developments. Closely intersecting with this is the extraordinary growth in interest in African cities from sovereign actors. China’s role is iconic, although not unique - Japan, South Korea and India will also figure in the research. Alongside these, continuing humanitarian and developmental interventions, funded by Western governments, charitable foundations and multi-lateral organizations are a formidable presence in resource-poor cities.

Project Objectives

In this project we are interested in how a range of actors, circuits and interests, from states to communities, large corporations and distant financiers, major world powers and committed policy activists, are collectively contesting and making Africa's urban future. The core focus of research will be on how large-scale urban developments and city-wide interventions in selected African cities are forged across the array of transnational actors, assembled around specific projects and how transcalar networks are localised in specific territories. To understand these dynamics and actors it is necessary for research methods to match the transnational form of urban development. So, in addition to a comparative analysis of cases of large-scale urban development which exemplify the outcomes of each global circuit (sovereign, private, developmental), this project will also use multi-sited, extended and distended case methods to trace the transnational actors whose activities stretch across Europe, the Americas and Asia, as well as involving intra-African circuits of reference. These circuits connecting urban outcomes also provide the grounds for comparing the selected cases.

Research Strategy

Three cities, three circuits, nine cases - extensive transnational research will follow actors, finances, ideas and policies shaping each of three cases of large scale development in three cities (Accra, Dar es Salaam, Lilongwe). In each city, interactions and overlaps amongst the three circuits of investment will be explored, and city-based analyses of the distinctive path-dependent trajectories and political formations shaping outcomes across all three circuits will be undertaken. Comparison across the three circuits will also be made - for example, comparing differences and interactions amongst development processes and outcomes associated with sovereign entities, state-owned enterprises, charitable organizations, and private sector actors.



This research project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 834999). The application was for an ERC Advanced Grant, and the awarded total is €2,495,276.25. It is hosted in the UCL Department of Geography and supported by the UCL Urban Laboratory. The partner organisations are the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, University of Ghana and University of Malawi. The start date for the project was 1 September 2019 and the funding covers a five year period.

ERC Advanced Grants are awarded to leading principle investigators that demonstrate a significant track record of research achievement.

Making Africa Urban logos (European Research Council; UCL Urban Laboratory; UCL Geography)