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Environment

Risks and contradictions of urban sustainability in Africa

Henrik ernstson

Nationality Swedish

Year of selection 2016

Institution The University of Manchester

Country United Kingdom

Risk Environment

AXA Awards

3 years

250000 €

African cities grow in novel and complex ways, yet they are intimately connected to wider geographies. In preparing for tomorrow’s challenges, in-depth historical and social studies are needed to understand what shapes contemporary urban infrastructures in the Global South. Dr. Henrik Ernstson’s scientific program aims to shed light on the complex realities that shape the heterogeneity of infrastructures in cities such as Luanda, Kampala and Nairobi. His team will look at how urban realities and risks are connected via urban infrastructures with the purpose to provide governments, civil society and external funders with insights that can help to better ground sustainability strategies adapted to urban conditions of the Global South. 

 “The core output of our project,” Dr. Ernstson says, “is an in-depth multi-sited case study about Luanda’s connection with Brazil and China through the selling of oil to secure urban infrastructure investments. Such in-depth case studies that connect ‘local’ and ‘global’ dynamics in African cities, especially through South-South linkages, are missing but sorely needed.” Dr Ricardo Cardoso, who is one of two postdocs in the project, continues: “Oil sits at the nexus of a whole range of exchanges that shape Luanda, including building norms and standardizations, but also how the sudden influx of capital after the long civil war of Angola came to interrupt and displace working class people to give space for new and often prestigious building projects in the name of progress and development.”

 It was Dr. Cardoso’s PhD studies on “petro-urbanisation” between Angola and Brazil that prepared for this more extensive project, which includes recent linkages to China. From the 2000s, China took over the role Brazil had played since the 1980s: “When China emerged as a global power,” says Dr Jia-Ching Chen who will do field work there, “it secured oil and energy in far-off places but also embarked on creating an international market for its newly-found technical and engineering expertise.” While there are many studies that look at how former colonial European powers shaped African cities, this project focuses on novel South-South connections.

 Looking at trends driven from 'above' but also from 'below'

However, while the building of a city through the exchange of oil is certainly a global story, it is also a story that must be deeply situated: “While we examine the political economy of infrastructure planning and construction from ‘above,’ our analysis is also driven by closely grounded attention to the way infrastructures are negotiated through everyday politics from ‘below’,” says Dr. Wangui Kimari, another postdoc in the project.

To deliver cutting-edge outputs, the team will develop a “theory lab” (with Dr. António Tomás) with an international workshop that focuses on how African cities continues to be “targets” for imperialist projects and expansions and how colonial and post-colonial legacies shape the built environment. Dr Ernstson will also develop a “street lab” with Luandan artists building on his previous work across art and research. This will facilitate workshops with residents to surface everyday understandings and contradictions with two planned outputs; a paper zine and a film. The long-term aim is to use the AXA Research Award as a foundation towards a 10-year research programme at The University of Manchester into comparative urban environmentalism with a focus on the Global South.