Translating urban infrastructure ideals and planning models: adaptation and creativity in water and sanitation systems in African cities


The research project focuses on the translation of circulating urban and infrastructure ideals and models in the African cities of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Accra (Ghana) and Nairobi (Kenya) and the way they shape the respective water and sanitation infrastructure regimes. These cities display distinct urban morphologies and socio-technical arrangements in the provision of water and sanitation services which differ considerably from those of the global North. At the same time their formal institutions, legal documents, planning policies and strategies reflect concepts and significations of a “modern infrastructure ideal”, a “networked” or “sanitary” city – key models in the construction of cities in Europe and the USA. These circulating models and ideals promote and at the same time assume the centralised topology of technical networks, the provision of universal and standardised infrastructure services through public utilities, and comprehensive planning approaches – characteristics that are not featured by the three cities under examination. Starting out from this apparent contradiction, the research addresses the following hypotheses: 1) persistent models in urban and infrastructure planning have been adapted, appropriated, hybridised, refused and ruptured to suit the specific urban contexts and thus contribute to distinct water and sanitation regimes; 2) these regimes are shaped by fragmented urban landscapes, diverse technological arrangements and forms of self-organisation that are closely interrelated with, complement or replace the networked service provision by public utilities regulated by urban governments; 3) these regimes have creative potential in compensating for the absence of unitary service provision but can also aggravate socio-spatial fragmentation; 4) debates on (the reform of) urban and infrastructure planning need to address these distinct and place-spe­cific infrastructure regimes more systematically. By testing these hypotheses in Dar es Salaam and the two reference cities of Accra and Nairobi, the project will broaden our understanding of infrastructure regimes in African cities, and thereby contribute to both planning theory and studies on urban infrastructure by overcoming their “Western” bias. Through the lens of urban infrastructure we can thus contribute to a deeper understanding of processes of adaptation, appropriation, creative hybridisation, refusal and rupture of circulating technological ideals and planning models to suit the local specifics and needs in African cities.

Starting date:

1 April 2013

Research areas: