Stephen Marr from Malmö University and Patience Musasa from The Nordic Africa Institute in Sweden explore how we can make cities work better for their most vulnerable residents.
The genesis of our recent special issue in Urban Forum on the “Politics of Climate Action in Africa’s Cities” originates in two workshops the authors organized. In Abuja (2017), the assembled researchers and practitioners explored the politics of DIY urbanism in cities across the African continent, while the second, held in Lilongwe (2019), adopted a cross-regional comparative perspective investigating the political and practical implications of urban adaption and mitigation efforts to combat climate change. Although primarily academic endeavors, both workshops were undergirded by a normative question of policy and moral consequence: how can we make cities work better for their most vulnerable residents? The cascading crises of the current moment – climate-induced destructive extreme weather events, food shortages and rising inflation, rampant and worsening inequality, and of course, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, to name but a few – make engaging this question ever more important, especially as the 2030 deadline for achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals draws closer.
The Special Issue constitutes part of our continuing effort to contribute an answer to the preceding question. One factor, perhaps even the determinative one, our research returns to again and again, is that of power. Many, if not most, of the SDG’s lend themselves to technical, technological, and technocratic solutions in which policymakers can aggregate and deploy more and better data, expertise, resources and capital. We’d humbly counter, however, that none of these things matter if equal care and attention is not paid to the grounded realities of the everyday politics, localized histories and cultural dynamics, and socio-spatial ecologies of the urban environments in which solutions might be implemented. On the one hand, power and inequality within and between cities situated across diverse regions and geographies is important, given that the ability of cities to grapple with issues of sustainability in a meaningful way often depends on their geographical location and position within the global economy. Yet, on the other, and this is where our Special Issue directs its focus, deciphering the granular, localized circuits and dynamics of power, along with the marginality it generates, is key to unlocking durable, equitable, and just achievements of the SDGs.
The role, presence, and functionality of the State plays a key role. Across the globe, whether we talk about Lilongwe, Lusaka, or Detroit, the state is in significant retreat. The shrinking of the state in terms of capacity, distribution of common goods through infrastructure or service delivery, or even the diminution of the idea what counts as, or who is included in, the “public” carries profound consequences for all urban residents, but in particular, for those occupying the most precarious socio-economic positions. The question of how communities and individuals respond to climate change in the absence of state support is an increasingly urgent one as the climate crisis accelerates and state withdrawal proceeds in diverse localities around the globe.
Without romanticizing these efforts, the Special Issue highlights the ways in which communities can innovate DIY actions to navigate difficult circumstances. In Dar es Salaam, residents mobilized community insurance networks to provide support following frequent bouts of urban flooding, while in Lilongwe, vulnerable urban dwellers banded together to fill an infrastructural need by first building, and now maintaining a bridge set across a floodplain. These efforts spark the emergence of political action, community-building, and the aggregation of different kinds of, often unrecognized, expertise and knowledge.
Laudable those achievements might be, the Special Issue also flags problematic aspects of these DIY efforts. In particular, amidst a backdrop of worsening global inequality and environmental precarity, these localized efforts may be able to react – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – in the immediate term to impacts wrought by a changing climate. But structural obstacles and power imbalances impede their ability to foment broader, more transformative change. There are limits to local, individuated, private solutions to global, collective, public problems.
In light of this, one area of future research must consider how localized, DIY-oriented solutions might be scaled-up. A second might be a call to develop a framework for thinking across regions and contexts – what might the authors of DIY solutions in different parts of the world learn from each other given their shared obstacles. We look forward to investigating these opportunities and challenges in the next phase of our collaboration in pursuit of the better (urban) world envisioned by the Sustainable Development Goals.
Stephen Marr is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Global Political Studies at Malmö University. Marr’s current research interrogates issues of climate adaptation, DIY urbanism, and equitable/just sustainable urban development in African cities and the post-industrial American Midwest. He is now at work on a comparative project that emplaces Detroit in conversation with sub-Saharan African cities. Marr, with Patience Mususa, co-edited a forthcoming volume on DIY Urbanism in African Cities (published by Bloomsbury in 2022).
Patience Mususa is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala. Her research covers issues of urban climate justice, mining and urbanisation in southern central Africa. She is co-editor together with Stephen Marr of an upcoming (2022) collection on ‘DIY Urbanism in African Cities’ with Bloomsbury publishing. Patience is also author of the monograph ‘There Used to Be Order: Life on the Copperbelt after the privatisation of the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines” with University of Michigan Press.