Replicating American style suburbs outside a growing Ugandan city

In the United States, wealthier and whiter residents tended to leave big cities and their problems for the safety of the suburbs. Is the same process underway in Africa?

In many ways, Akright City, 15 miles from the capital city Kampala, feels like the anti-African city, a polo-wearing, golf-playing suburban inversion of the continent’s teeming metropolises. And that is exactly the point. Akright, like other private cities sprouting up across the Africa in recent years, offers a tantalizing answer to the question of how to fix the continent’s creaking colonial cities: Give up. Start Over.

It’s a trend repeated across the continent, from Johannesburg’s Steyn City — a walled town twice the size of Monaco — to Lagos’ Eko Atlantic, a beachfront cluster of skyscrapers and condos that bills itself as Africa’s Dubai. Private cities are not unique to Africa, but they have special significance on a continent where most urban infrastructure was designed for a long-gone colonial elite, rather than the millions who now crowd in searching for economic opportunity. By some calculations, this is the world’s fastest urbanizing region, and from Dar es Salaam to Luanda, its overtaxed cities are ill-equipped to keep up. By grafting entirely new cities onto the edges of these metropolises, their builders say they can leap-frog the region’s development challenges and create outposts of first-world luxury on the world’s poorest continent…

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Today, neighborhoods with dreamy names like “California Village,” “New World Village,” and “European Village” stand less than half full. Soaring mansions sit beside gaping construction sites, many on roads that are little more than a gash of dirt cut into the hillside. A lush golf course stands completely empty on a recent afternoon. Midway through the project, the money dried up, and many of Akright’s more grandiose components were abandoned, including a massive call centre that once ambitiously promised to help Uganda displace India as the world’s outsourcing darling. Kamugisha promises the slowdown is only temporary…

“Life is more or less like Europe: it’s enclosed, we don’t see our neighbors, everyone goes away during the day,” says Grace Amoah, who has lived in Akright for a decade and runs a small convenience store here, one of the few businesses open on a recent afternoon. “They want more people to come here, but I think the distances are too far, it’s too expensive.”

I wonder if the lesson is this: it is difficult to develop and maintain American-style suburbs without an advanced economic system that can support lots of private housing away from employment and cultural centers. In other words, this represents an attempt to take a shortcut through the development process by which cities in the United States were successful and then gave rise to suburbs. The sorts of American suburbs we have today couldn’t have developed without the rapid growth of cities from the mid-1800s onward. (This leads to interesting questions for today such as whether suburbs can continue for long periods with a decaying or dead urban core – think the suburbs of Detroit where many are well-off even as the city has struggled for decades.)

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