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From Skylines to Skyscrapers Hubs in New Cities in Africa

Du skyline des CBD à la création de pôles de gratte-ciel résidentiels dans les villes nouvelles d’Afrique
Valerio Bini et Cristina d’Alessandro


Cet article analyse les processus de verticalisation en Afrique subsaharienne, ses formes et ses conséquences. Il porte plus particulièrement sur les gratte-ciels résidentiels dans les villes nouvelles. La corrélation entre la verticalisation et les villes nouvelles est complexe et encore insuffisamment étudié dans les espaces africains. Pour cette raison, le texte analyse plusieurs projets immobiliers selon deux critères : leur taille et leur attitude par rapport à la verticalisation. Ce croisement produit une matrice avec quatre scénarios, présentés dans les détails dans la quatrième partie. L’analyse montre que seulement certaines villes nouvelles sont déterminées à se tourner vers la verticalité, mais la plupart de ces projets verticaux sont conçus comme des enclaves, physiquement séparées des villes existantes. Plus que de vraies lignes d’horizon, ces projets prennent la forme de pôles de gratte-ciels produisant un modèle particulier d’urbanisation.

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  • 1 PwC is a multinational, structured as a network providing professional services.

1PwC’s1 publication Into Africa The Continent’s Cities of Opportunities (PwC, 2015) on the 20 African cities considered as the most dynamic and focused on the future, opens with a picture titled “Lagos Cityscape Skyline Aerial View of the Capital City and Road Bridges” (PwC, 2015: cover page). This title inspires two comments. First, the skyline is seen as a symbol of dynamism and as a sign of positive transformation in urban contexts, allowing a look at the future with an optimistic perspective (the theme of the publication). Second, one could question whether the picture really shows a skyline and, consequently, ask what a skyline is and how it can be defined specifically in African contexts.

2This paper wishes to investigate the spatial process of verticalization in African cities, emphasizing its specificities, as well as the commonalities, with other contexts outside Africa, in the Global South, and in the Western world. It focuses on the role of skyscrapers in the nascent projects of new cities and neighborhoods, highlighting two major aspects: first, this text aims to interrogate the meaning of the “skyline” concept (if it is agreed that it can be considered as a concept) in contemporary Africa, questioning the insularity of these hubs of skyscrapers in sub-Saharan African satellite cities; and, secondly, to investigate the relationship between the “horizontal” and the “vertical” dimensions of Africa’s new cities, questioning the role played by private and public sector stakeholders. Although generally focusing on sub-Saharan Africa, this text also opens here and there, when possible and explicitly indicated, to generalisation to the entire African continent.

3Globalization, with its corollary of architectural trends and fashions, has had a widespread influence on cities around the world (Castells, 1997). Urban African spaces have been impacted as well, sometimes in unique ways, if compared to “more standardized” global urban places. Although African cities are still vertically limited, as “few cities appear concentrated, vertical, or densified” (Bolay, 2015, p. 417), for urbanization is a more recent phenomenon on the continent, they are nevertheless becoming increasingly vertical. Harris (2015), referring to Kinshasa, points out that vertical urbanism is gradually prevailing in African cities, although the paper does not focus on Africa. Other scholars have analyzed the incipient verticalization of African cities, especially focusing on the spread of large-scale property projects on the continent (Watson, 2014; Murray, 2015) and their consequences.

4In these projects one can observe several features of contemporary global urbanism, with its typical focus on the creation of new and self-contained districts, characterized by the presence of iconic buildings and populated by an emerging high-income class (Sklair, 2005). Nevertheless, African cities present some peculiarities that should be pointed out. The first is the relationship between these new spaces and the existing city, for while the production of enclaves is a typical feature of this new urbanism (Davis, Monk, 2007; Easterling, 2007), the antagonistic relationship with the ‘failed’ city appears far more pronounced in African contexts with Murray’s definition of these spaces as “city doubles”, “mirror opposites of existing urban landscapes” (2015, p. 92) highlighting this contrast. Thus, the issue of spatial segregation is of particular relevance for African urbanism and it will be specifically addressed in the paper.

5Finally, the relatively low price of African land tends to produce space-consuming projects where the horizontal dimension appears dominant, especially in private-led initiatives, and this puts in question the role of private and public actors in the development of vertical landscape around the continent.

6The paper is structured in four parts. After this introduction, the second part questions verticality of African urban landscapes and skylines. Part 3 applies this theoretical framework to African new cities. The fourth and last part highlights some conclusions and remaining open questions.

Questioning Verticality of Urban Spaces from an African Perspective

7Verticalization of the urban landscape is an answer to demographic growth and pressure and to limited and decreasing available space for residential and for other social and economic purposes. This is especially true in contexts like in Gulf countries, witnessing rapid urban growth (Wiedmann, 2013). Nevertheless, verticalization is also a political choice and response to specific needs. Appert (2015) indicates perhaps that within the West European context, French cities are generally nowadays less verticalized than British or Italian ones but that trends change over time. After decades during which skyscrapers have flourished in France, this tendency has been reversed from 1980 to 2000, with only a few towers built during these twenty years. Now, in the two last decades, this fashion is coming back. Verticalization is also in fact an architectural and esthetic choice: it is an economic footprint of globalization in urban contexts, but also a planning tool to upgrade urban peripheries. Henceforth, there is a geographical contingency of verticalization (McNeill, 2005). In developing countries, iconic vertical buildings are also used to enhance or to display efforts made by a capital city or a metropolis to become a global urban center (Sandholz, 2017, p. vii).

8In African cities, one may find common patterns with other developing contexts around the globe, according to what has been presented above, but also peculiar characteristics related to the history of the African continent and to its economic challenges. The most evident characteristic is the relative “delay” in the verticalization process, compared to other continents. The construction of tall buildings has been late and limited in Sub-Saharan Africa: if early skyscrapers existed in North America since the end of the 1800s, the oldest in sub-Saharan Africa go back to 1960 in Lagos, Nigeria and in Johannesburg, South Africa. While recognizing that African metropolises are younger than their equivalent in the Western world, this paper will confirm that colonial urban standards and the general availability until recent times of “cheap” land have contributed to make horizontal development the widespread norm and privileged strategy to deal with demographic pressure.

9From a theoretical perspective, Graham and Hewitt (2012) have noted that geography and urban research, in general, have neglected the study of contemporary vertical urbanisation, focusing more on horizontalism. When it comes to developing countries (and they concentrate on the example of Mumbai, in India), they note that, “it is the complex relations between proliferating verticalized enclaves, prevailing networks of urban infrastructure and circulation and the wider, majority-city of informal settlements that currently dominates the politics of the verticality” (Graham and Hewitt, 2012, p. 81). This could also easily apply to the African continent, which has been until recently known for its horizontal landscapes, both urban and non-urban. In the 1950s, the French geographer Gabriel Rougerie referred to Ivory Coast as the “thriomphe de l’horizontalité” (the triumph of horizontality) (Rougerie, 1957), underlining with this expression the common leveling with lateritic accumulations widespread in the countryside across the colony and the astonishing and striking flatness of the landscape for a foreigner. This implicitly referred to urban spaces at a time when other French geographers had noticed that African cities looked more like larger villages than real cities. Rougerie’s remark was in fact not unique to this West African territory, but generally accurate across the subcontinent. Furthermore, this has been the case for decades since the colonial time and until a recent period, the 1990s, when African capital cities and metropolises started looking like other global and emerging cities around the world.

10Different concurrent dynamics have determined this horizontal expansion in African cities: the housing system based on the traditional compound structure (Deverin-Kouanda, 1997) and on the bungalow model (King, 1984), the colonial vision and treatment of African spaces as vacant land, and the planning system based on segregation that characterized both the colonial and postcolonial periods. If verticality is then a recent and still marginal phenomenon in sub-Saharan African cities, Graham and Hewitt’s observation highlights also a focus and trend on informality, on the various spatial expressions of poverty and exclusion, with its dramatic consequences. The urban spaces of wealth, of leadership, of residential neighborhoods for upper classes are viewed as less dramatic realities, implicitly deserving less urgent attention and denunciation. It is a political theoretical positioning, even when not explicitly indicated.

11This political positioning is even more evident and striking in contemporary Africa. In fact, in more recent years, urban growth has generally slowed down in sub-Saharan Africa, while several African countries have been characterized by a strong economic growth, giving birth to the “Africa rising” narrative (Fioramonti, 2014). Space being a social construction, every economic and social phase produces its spatial forms (Lefebvre, 1974) and the dominant spatial form of the “Africa rising” period has been the production of plans for new iconic cities and districts (Watson, 2014), in relation with the concentration of leaders in specific urban spaces in African capital cities and metropolises (D’Alessandro and Léautier, 2016). The production of new hypermodern cities has thus become the symbol and the instrument of this economic growth: on one hand these new spaces house emerging elites and leaders, while on the other investments in real estate development significantly contribute to the economic growth of many African cities.

12Several studies have put in the foreground the strategic role of symbolic capital (Acuto, 2010) – especially the ‘vertical’ landscape of skyscrapers – in the inter-urban competition (Sklair, 2006; Appert and Montes, 2015) and in this sense sub-Saharan Africa seems to follow the same path. A number of African metropolises are recently developing new vertical landmarks and/or hubs of skyscrapers (cf. Kigali, Addis Ababa, Abuja, Lagos, Durban, Dar es Salaam…), as it has occurred previously in other large urban centres around the globe.

  • 2 According to the 2015 Global Cities Index by A.T. Kearney, in fact: “nine of the top 10 fastest-gro (...)

13Although the relation between emerging economies and urban verticalization is complex for its numerous and intertwined factors, verticality has accompanied the recent economic rise of the continent and is consequently linked to it. Could verticality be considered as a sign of economic emergence2? This paper argues yes, especially if one considers that economic growth and transformation produce urban development, meaning dynamics by which urban spaces are built or rebuilt, creating new buildings, new neighborhoods, and new cities. Urban development sees vertical cities as a standard, a global model, as if the search for a unique and specific character for cities goes hands in hands with the verticalization of its spaces. Watson points out that towers are also important vehicles for promotional narratives, displaying an iconic identity, being symbols of specific global ultra-modern and distinctive places (like airports, office blocks, trade centers, business districts, etc.) (Watson, 2013).

14Urban development is an instrument of change, but it is also a tool for managing demographic growth, for expanding the city into charter cities, satellite cities, new cities, edge cities. Again economic growth plays a key role in this process, producing new needs and encouraging rural-to-urban migration, but in a different way compared to the massive migration of the past: less dominated by low-wages jobs, but more specifically targeting the new jobs required and offered by global and emerging cities (managers and senior executives for instance).

15The variety of shapes of residential towers is enormous, depending on the level of income of their residents: from vertical urban developments for the poor (Bolay, 2015) to African “urban fantasies” (Watson, 2013) for wealthier social groups and elites. Although the residential function remains not common in skyscrapers in sub-Saharan Africa, residential towers are emerging as an important reality to take into account and analyze. They are producing new urban landscapes that represent a rising demand for this kind of building and associated esthetics, in line with widening middle and upper classes in many African countries.

16The uniqueness of the verticalization of African cities is that it is taking place in the form of self-contained spaces that are not only conceived as “a city within a city” (Acuto, 2010), but nearly against the existing city (Murray, 2015). This fact is producing specific and unique landscapes, questioning the very notion of ‘skyline’: given their structure, they can be more appropriately defined as skyscraper hubs. Although McNeill emphasizes that a skyline is only a collective perception of the materiality of skyscrapers (McNeill, 2005: 52), a skyline is also a peculiar type of landscape. This paper argues that most realities found in African metropolises are not real skylines, intended as coherent symbols or “silhouettes” that, as such, can become icons of a city. Instead, they can more appropriately be defined as skyscrapers hubs, physically and symbolically isolated from the existing city and connected through immaterial and material networks to other similar global hubs around the globe. These skyscraper hubs are consequently a recent and uniquely African expression of this networked reality produced by globalization processes (Castells, 1997). Indeed, they express the evolution of skylines in the new urbanism of Africa, with more fragmented and concentrated vertical spaces, while responding to architectural and building progress and to the specific needs of new elites and leaders.

17The project of HOPE City, planned for Prampram, 44 kilometers north from Accra efficiently illustrates how these hubs of skyscrapers are evolving in contemporary Africa. Supposed to be first and foremost a technological hub, the six futuristic towers, if ever realized, will include business, leisure and residences, to host about 25,000 inhabitants. With investments from RLG communications (a Ghanaian information, communication, and technology company) and support from the Ghanaian government (Ocran, 2015), the project is the symbol of a vision of multifunctional skyscraper hubs. Isolation is here relative, as the distance from Accra is moderate, given the urban sprawl of the Ghanaian capital city, but the project is designed to mark its difference from the traditional city, emphasizing the “otherness” of this new technological district. The HOPE City example also allows the emphasizing that there are numerous futuristic and ambitious projects of skyscraper hubs, planned for construction around the continent, but that have not yet been realized due to difficulties in securing investments and the reality of complex implementation synergies between numerous stakeholders (town halls, land owners, investors, construction companies, architects, etc.).

New Cities and the Vertical Dimension

18In Africa, the production of new urban spaces has nevertheless a long history, encompassing both the colonial and postcolonial eras: the obliteration of previous territorial systems and structures was a fundamental part of the colonial planning strategy (Mudimbe, 1988) and, after independence, many states used the creation of new cities (or the transfer of the capital city) as a means to overtake the colonial spatial order (Myers, 2011). Yet, despite this relatively long history, current projects represent an original process of change that produces new landscapes and new social dynamics in African urban spaces.

19The examples presented in this section deal with different Sub-Saharan African countries and, although they are not representative of the diversity of the continent, they share some contextual elements that indicate the evolutionary direction of this process. The first issue to highlight is that most of the countries mentioned in this section have experienced a strong economic growth in the “Africa rising” period (Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, DRC, Zambia), thus confirming the link between capitalist dynamics and the production of new urban spaces and landscapes. More precisely, these countries (Angola, Nigeria, DRC, Burkina Faso) are, typically, export-oriented with one or few natural resources accounting for the majority of export. This extraversion is strictly connected to the strategy developed both national governments and municipalities, willing to attract foreign investments. Henceforth, the production of new urban spaces becomes an opportunity for foreign investments and a response to the needs of new elites. The leading role of foreign actors from emerging countries in the production of this new urbanism is another crucial point: the majority of the projects presented below is being developed by foreign actors, especially from China (eg. Nova Cidade de Kilamba, Angola) and from other BRICS countries (eg. Rendeavour projects).

20This new urbanism entertains an ambiguous relationship with the vertical city: on one hand, new developments contribute to urban sprawl, accentuating the “horizontal” direction of African cities, while on the other, the “hypermodern” narrative of these projects is deeply based on the symbolic power of vertical buildings. Therefore the landscape of new African urban spaces is quite diversified. For the purpose of this paper, we classify these projects according to two criteria: their size; and, their attitude towards the vertical dimension. On the first side, one may observe two different strategies: the development of residential enclaves, like “pockets” inside the cities, and/or the planning of larger and more complex spaces that can take the form of real “satellite cities”. Concerning the vertical/horizontal variable, it is possible to highlight that the horizontal dimension is still dominant in most of these projects, as already indicated above, but significant examples of a new strategy of producing tall buildings and towers is developing. This division creates a matrix with four scenarios that can be described in order to emphasize the patterns of evolution of vertical urban spaces around the subcontinent.

21The first strategy affects smaller portions of urban spaces (up to a few hundred hectares) and it is mostly developed along the horizontal direction. It produces new neighborhoods, usually physically separated from the existing city by large roads that contribute to the process of residential segregation and to the increasing fragmentation of African urban spaces. These projects can take the form of luxurious gated communities (especially in Anglophone countries) for high-income residents, but it is also increasingly common in projects targeting the (slowly) emerging middle classes (Grant, 2005). For example Henan Gouji, a Chinese construction company, has specialized in building residential communities for civil servants and is developing projects in more than twenty African countries. This category is by far the most common of the four and it involves hundreds of projects, from small developments of few dozen hectares to larger initiatives that can cover more than 100 hectares.

22The second strategy, characterized by geographically limited interventions with a dominant vertical direction, is small in number but it enjoys better visibility, due to the presence of towers specifically designed to become landmarks. The most prominent example is probably the project of HOPE City, mentioned above, whose master plan with circular towers was developed by the Italian firm OBR, has acquired a global notoriety. This example is certainly relevant for emphasizing the power of urban development projects (Bhan, 2014), but it can hardly be used as a concrete manifestation of this second category for its realization is still in doubt. On a lower scale, but perhaps more tangibly, Villaggio Vista, in the airport area of Accra, is an example of this strategy characterized by the presence of towers: the Alto tower will be one of the tallest residential building in sub-Saharan Africa. Villaggio Vista is also interesting because the iconic power of high-rise buildings is coupled with the unusual shapes and colors of its towers.

23The diversification of these smaller projects, both in their horizontal and vertical dimensions, translates into the engagement of a large and diversified group of stakeholders: from local medium-size firms coming from construction and public work sectors (as in the case of BTM Immo in Burkina Faso, in charge of the project of the “cité des dauphins” in Ouagadougou), to large international firms, such as Rendeavour, probably the most significant private urban developer operating on the continent. Rendeavour was in fact created as the urban development branch of Renaissance Capital, the Russian investment bank founded in 1995 by the New Zealand-born businessman Stephen Jennings (now CEO of Rendeavour). The company is developing seven projects in six African countries, focusing primarily on satellite cities. Yet, the most advanced of these projects – Roma Park, in Lusaka – is significantly smaller (200 ha) than others realized by the same group. This development started in 2010, when the company acquired 120 hectares in Lusaka, and it is known as a high-income mixed-use area3.

24The other projects developed by Rendeavour cover larger surfaces (1000 hectares or more) and envisage the construction of extended residential areas mostly made of single or double-storey detached houses. They are examples of the third category, characterized by complex and multi-functional urban spaces, veritable “satellite cities”, taking a horizontal direction. The number of these projects is low but, given their size, they have an important impact on African cities, especially in terms of land use, with inevitable tensions on land ownership. Perhaps the most interesting example of this category, among the Rendeavour projects, is the plan for the satellite city of Kiswishi, 12 km north of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The project spreads over 4,400 hectares with residential areas, business corridors, light industrial zones, and green areas. The first construction phase is a 100 hectares gated community with two-storey houses of different size, between 130 and 250 square meters.

25Tatu City, probably the most important ongoing Rendeavour project, pays more attention to the vertical dimension but it is still characterized by a predominantly horizontal direction. The city is developing on a 1000 hectares area 18 kilometers northeast of Nairobi, in Kenya, with a central sector characterized by apartment buildings (seven levels on average) and two outer communities with single-family houses. The central sector of Tatu is an example of satellite city where the vertical dimension is present, but is limited to condominiums and a few public buildings, without real skyscrapers.

26A slightly more “vertical” example is the well-known new city of Kilamba, 30 kilometers south-east of Luanda, in Angola, which has acquired global resonance for a number of reasons: its demographic dimension (it was planned for 200,000 inhabitants); its construction by a Chinese firm (China International Trust and Investment Corporation); and, because the city remains mostly unoccupied (Cain, 2014). In this case, the structure of the city is based on an orthogonal grid with apartment buildings (up to 15 floors), but the central promenade will host some towers that are supposed to mark the landscape.

  • 4 A 70 million dollars loan has been approved in 2015 to support the government in the development of (...)

27A similar situation can be found in the city of Diamniadio, 30 kilometers southwest of Dakar, in Senegal, close to the forthcoming new airport Blaise Diagne. Diamniadio will host residential buildings for 300,000 inhabitants, industrial structures, conference centers, a new university and, above all, the new “digital park”, planned by the Emerging Senegal Plan (PSE: Plan Sénégal Emergent). The city is still on a preliminary phase of construction, but the masterplan is based on a dominant component of residential buildings (both detached houses and condominiums) with a smaller part of towers. The project, co-financed by the African Development Bank4, involves companies from several countries: Senegal (Générale de travaux publics et de négoce, Getran), India (Swaminarayan Vijay Carry Trade and Gorasiya Farm), Morocco (Alliances and Médina Invest), and United Arab Emirates (Doozy Gulf Group).

28The complex partnership between local and foreign companies on one side, and the public sector on the other, introduces our last strategy: the new cities and large Central Business Districts (CBD) where the vertical architecture is in the foreground. The vertical dimension plays a capital role in this kind of projects, both from a public and a private perspective. On the public side, the construction of towers is part of an urban marketing strategy, based on the production of landmarks that are used to compete in the global market: “imaging a city through the organization of spectacular urban spaces became a means to attract capital and people (of the right sort) in a period of intensified inter-urban competition” (Harvey, 1989, p. 92).

29The use of towers as iconic buildings is strategic for real estate companies as well, in order to promote their projects on the global market. The case of Eko Atlantic City, the new CBD under construction in Lagos, is representative of this effect: the presence of dozens of towers characterizes the ten districts planned by the project and the definition of the new development as the “Hong Kong of Africa”5 is quite indicative of the symbolic power of these buildings. The towers become an instrument of distinction, a symbolic capital used by multinational companies, municipal and national public sector leaders, and emerging African elites to express their power. In the case of Eko Atlantic City one may also underline the strategic partnership between local businessmen (the Chagoury group), foreign companies (the Chinese China Communications Construction Group and the Dutch Royal Haskoning DHV), global organizations (the Clinton Foundation), and public authorities (Lagos State Government).

Political Aspects of Verticalization in African Cities

30The analysis of the links between the “verticalization” of African cities and the creation of new urban spaces, both in the form of small developments or through plans of larger cities and districts, has shown that although the horizontal dimension remains dominant, tall buildings play a significant role, both physically and symbolically, in several of these projects. An approach towards the materiality and the impact of skyscraper hubs on African urban morphologies is relevant. These vertical hubs are not only critical for the dynamics linked to their planning and to their implementation, but they are also important for the consequences they may have on African cities, reshaping centralities, boundaries, and power relations between stakeholders.

31There is a link between the “verticalization” and the creation of new cities: on one hand, towers are a crucial element of these “urban fantasies”, and on the other, the construction of new cities is a inexpensive and easier way to “verticalize” African urban landscapes, avoiding potential conflicts with existing “horizontal” cities. Instead of upgrading urban spaces that have become too complex to manage, public and private stakeholders prefer to occupy new land that is relatively inexpensive, being considered as “empty”, “idle”, “unoccupied” (White et al., 2012). Even if prices are generally rising as a consequence of demographic growth and subsequent increasing demand for land for real estate purposes, prices remain in most cases lower in Africa than in other continents. Prices are certainly very different, depending on contexts, changing economic interests, and on the characteristics and location of the land but, despite some exceptions related to speculative operations, real estate land is generally inexpensive in Africa. While the literature also reports a general trend of increasing prices in sub-Saharan Africa, land generally remains cheap: 80 USD for an acre in the Karoo, South Africa, 3 USD per acre in the Tana delta, Kenya (Kantai, Katerere, Serumaga, 2012) and 2.5 USD a year per acre for a lease in rural Ethiopia (Abbink, 2011).

32This strategy, targeting land considered ‘available’ as if it did not have any owner, will furthermore produce a new form of segregation: a “secession by the rich” (SID, 2011), where the wealthiest part of the population moves to more functional urban spaces, diverting investments and taxes from existing cities. The production of a new vertical landscape is strategic, because it contrasts with the horizontal dimension of already existing urban areas, emphasizing this separation.

33The presence of iconic buildings in these new spaces seems to be more significant where public powers play a major role. If one compares two projects that have been developing in the outskirts of Nairobi, Tatu City and Konza City, it is possible highlight the differences between private and public experiences. Tatu City was born from the initiative of a private stakeholder, the previously mentioned Rendeavour company, while Konza city is bound to host the new technological pole envisioned by the Kenyan government and therefore it is primarily a public project. In Tatu City, the vertical dimension is limited to a few condominiums, while Konza is planned to include several iconic buildings.

  • 6 See, for instance, Un-Habitat’s report “Sustainable Urban Development in Africa” and the post-Apart (...)

34Private developers appear to be more interested in the extension of the horizontal city, following a long tradition in African spaces that has led to the extraordinary expansion of the urban fabric with considerable consequences on urban management (especially on transportation systems and basic services) and on land tenure issues. More recently, some institutions6 have started advocating for more compact urban forms and a higher-density living, but efforts in this direction have been quite rhapsodic and contested (Todes, 2003). Economic drivers do not seem strong enough to push towards this direction for in most African cities land is still too affordable to stimulate private investments in more expensive and risky (also for cultural reasons) verticalization.

35Therefore, the development of new vertical cities and CBDs is based primarily on a monumental and symbolic strategy, promoted by public authorities in order to express an image of power and modernity, as in the case of Eko Atlantic City or in the Kigali masterplan. The process seemingly follows a consolidated tradition of ostentation that characterized many African powers after independence: urban development is certainly a powerful tool to this extent. The category of modernity as well has played a significant role in shaping the urban landscape of African countries, but in recent years this concept has been partially transformed by new models coming from Singapore and Dubai (Acuto, 2010). In this sense, it is interesting that two of the most cited “urban fantasies” are being developed through land reclamation projects (Eko Alantic city in Lagos, in Nigeria, and the Cité du fleuve, in Kinshasa, in Democratic Republic of Congo), thus following a new offshore strategy typical of these new urban models.

36This dynamic puts at the forefront the role of African states in the process of verticalization: Gautam Bhan (2014) has highlighted the political dimension of these “urban fantasies.” In sub-Saharan Africa, this aspect appears more evident than elsewhere, as this political dimension (and the consequent role of leaders on one side and public sector stakeholders on the other side) is a critical factor that remains to be studied in-depth to underline geographical and historical differences and commonalities in sub-Saharan Africa, especially given the differences in the administration and laws between Anglophone, Francophone, and Portuguese-speaking countries.

Conclusion: What Future for Verticalization in Sub-Saharan Africa?

37The link between public investments and vertical city in Africa casts a worrisome shadow on the future of this urban model in the continent: most recent African towers have been built in countries that have experienced remarkable economic growth, but that now suffer from the contraction of raw materials markets. Following this path, the link between urban development projects and natural resources is particularly evident: if “urban fantasies” have been the spatial form of the “Africa rising” narrative, what will be the landscape symbolizing the impending crisis? After the explosion of projects in years of economic growth, unoccupied new cities, unfinished buildings, and abandoned towers can be seen in many African countries. The crisis of the new city of Kilamba, in one of the most resource-based African states, is the best-known example, but nearly all the projects mentioned in this paper are experiencing difficulties and slowdowns. The question is if this is a temporary phase of a fluctuating dynamic or if this “landscape of abandonment” will be the future of the vertical city in Africa.

38The verticalization of urban landscapes is not unique to sub-Saharan Africa and, as emphasized, it can be even considered as a constant feature of emerging economies around the world. Nevertheless, similar vertical urban developments for residential purposes or mixed use are spreading in developed countries in recent years. In both cases, they wish to add symbolic and iconic value to the urban landscape, even more important in new cities, willing to attract new dwellers. This verticalization takes peculiar material forms in the subcontinent, underlining that the material dimension is as crucial as the symbolic characteristic and the ethnography studied in the literature. The paper has shown that the link between verticalization and new cities is complex: not every new city is bound to take a vertical dimension, but most vertical projects are designed as enclaves where the distance from the existing, full, and chaotic city is marked, both materially and symbolically.

39As shown in this paper, these skyscraper hubs raise as a first and fundamental concern the problem of implementation of these projects. How many of these futuristic, expensive, and ambitious projects will be implemented? Will they be realized as they were initially planned or will they have to deal with political and economic constraints coming from the ground? Under what conditions are they implemented? What factors support or handicap them? The insularity of these skyscraper hubs is thus peculiar to sub-Saharan Africa and raises the question of their connections with other urban spaces. Are they sustainable despite this separation? How will they be evolving? Are they destined to crisis or only going through a temporary negative conjuncture? In any case, their study from a geographical perspective is relevant, especially when it focuses on the materiality and functions, underlining interactions of stakeholders and their implications.

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1 PwC is a multinational, structured as a network providing professional services.

2 According to the 2015 Global Cities Index by A.T. Kearney, in fact: “nine of the top 10 fastest-growing cities are located in emerging markets” (A.T. Kearney, 2015, p. 4).

3 The marketing strategy, both visual and verbal, used on the website ( is in line with the targeted wealthy social groups.

4 A 70 million dollars loan has been approved in 2015 to support the government in the development of the Digital Technology Park.


6 See, for instance, Un-Habitat’s report “Sustainable Urban Development in Africa” and the post-Apartheid urban planning in South Africa.

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Valerio Bini et Cristina d’Alessandro, « From Skylines to Skyscrapers Hubs in New Cities in Africa »Géocarrefour [En ligne], 91/2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2017, consulté le 21 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Valerio Bini

Chercheur, dipartimento di beni culturali e ambientali Università degli Studi di Milano Via Festa del Perdono 7, 20122, Milano , Maître de conférences, SciencesPo , 27, rue Saint Guillaume - 75337 Paris Cedex 07

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Cristina d’Alessandro

Senior Fellow, Centre d’Etudes en Gouvernance, Université d’Ottawa

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