African City Model

"Do Africans have cities?" is an FAQ one can actually find on the Internet: a testament to the vast ignorance the rest of the world has regarding the continent that is the cradle of humankind. Not only does Africa have cities, but 40% of the continent is now urbanized, some cities surpass 20 million inhabitants, and the three largest cities in the world are projected to be in Africa by 2100.

African City Model African City Model

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    African cities such as Luxor (Thebes) in Egypt date back over 5,000 years, while south of the Sahara, urbanization began between 200 BC and 1000 AD in places like Djenné (Mali), Ife (Nigeria), Mombasa (Kenya), and so forth. Though it is hard to cram Africa's vast urban diversity into a single model, one famous geographer has endeavored to do so.

    Sub Saharan African City Model Definition

    "Sub-Saharan Africa" is all of the African continent (including islands) except for the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya), Western Sahara, and Egypt. Countries ranging from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east that include parts of the Sahara, but also parts of the Sahel, are traditionally placed in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Sub Saharan African City Model: a model of the African city first published in a 1977 geography textbook that has appeared in newer versions of the textbook as well as in AP Human Geography material on non-Western urban models.

    Sub Saharan African City Model Creator

    The African City Model was created by Harm de Blij (1935-2014), a Netherlands-born geographer based in the US who spent his youth in South Africa and much of his early academic career on research across the African continent. Two African cities he focused on particularly were Maputo, Mozambique, when it was still a Portuguese colony, and Mombasa, a Kenyan port city.

    De Blij (pronounced "de Blay") became internationally renowned as a spokesperson for geography (for example, on ABC's Good Morning America) and also because his human geography textbook, first published in 1977, was highly influential in college geography and provided material for the AP Human Geography exam.1 The "African City Model" in this textbook was included in 11 subsequent editions and became a standard reference for AP Human Geography.

    Sub Saharan African City Model Description

    The African City Model is a simplified and abstracted diagram that focuses on three distinct and adjoining types of central business districts (CBDs) and the ethnic and segregated nature of residential zones in cities within former European colonies in Africa.

    Traditional CBD

    The Traditional CBD is centrally located but its streets rarely follow a grid pattern, because it is based on a pre-European, pre-colonial model. Many cities across Africa predate European colonialism by centuries: Kano in Nigeria is around 1,000 years old, for example, and Gao in Mali, a former imperial capital, dates from prior to 1000 AD.

    Colonial CBD

    The Colonial CBD has a rectangular street grid and was built primarily as the European business and government district during the colonial era (1500s to 1900s AD), next to the Traditional CBD. In the modern era, these have been the focus of continued development with the construction of banks, government buildings, and other prominent buildings.

    African City Model Dakar StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Colonial CBD of Dakar, Senegal is evident in the rectangular layout of the street grid

    Market Zone

    The Market Zone is a transitional area and a CBD of its own, abutting the other CBDs. It is a crowded and chaotic jumble of shops, stalls, and open-air vendors where people from all parts of the city and beyond buy and sell. Many or most of the businesses tend to be small and informal (unlicensed).

    Ethnic Neighborhoods

    Middle-class ethnic neighborhoods in African cities tend to be highly segregated, principally by race or ethnic nationality, with Black African neighborhoods separate from white, East Asian, South Asian, Southwest Asian (e.g., Lebanese), Arab, "Colored" (a mixed Black/white racial category in South Africa), etc. Because the heritage of racial separatism and segregation stems principally from European colonialism, segregation along Black ethnic lines is less common, though groups with mutual antipathies (e.g., Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda) may avoid each other.

    In South Africa during Apartheid, urban segregation was strictly enforced, an extreme example of practices perpetuated elsewhere by colonialism. Cultural differences further atomized cities: in South Africa, white Afrikaaners lived in different neighborhoods than English-speaking South Africans, for example. There, in particular, as in the US, racial segregation led to spatial patterns that have changed little since racist practices were outlawed, and modern cities are still de facto segregated by race.

    Elsewhere, the end of European colonialism and new Black African governments led to greater upward mobility for Black Africans and the restructuring of city residential neighborhoods along lines of class. Thus, in Lagos, a megacity in Nigeria, neighborhoods are now segregated by income, with everything from exclusive, gated communities for the super-rich, to affluent upper-middle-class suburbs, to shantytowns.

    Ethnic and Mixed Neighborhoods

    There was an "irregular pattern of ethnic groups" in middle-class neighborhoods here according to de Blij.1

    Manufacturing Zone

    A "small-scale informal manufacturing" belt is found in a broken ring farther out from the city center than the Ethnic and Mixed Neighborhoods. It consists of cottage industries for shoes, some food production, and other light industry. Some mining may also occur here.

    Informal Satellite Townships

    The typical African city is ringed by informal (meaning unlicensed or unregistered/untaxed) neighborhoods referred to as "townships" in countries such as South Africa.

    Soweto is an iconic example of a satellite township. A neighborhood of Johannesburg, it has over a million people, overwhelmingly first-language Zulu, Sotho, and Tswana speakers. Many struggles against Apartheid began here.

    Townships and their equivalents across sub-Saharan Africa are inhabited by migrants from rural areas who become "squatters" in that they have no legal title to land. They simply occupy it and construct dwellings, when they first arrive, out of inexpensive material. Over time, these squatter settlements, as elsewhere in the Global South, begin to develop social services, and as families are able to accumulate capital, they rebuild their homes out of higher-quality material.

    Satellite townships tended to be almost completely comprised of people from Black African ethnicities.

    Sub Saharan African City Model Example

    Most sub-Saharan African cities do not precisely fit the de Blij model, because it lumps different types of cities together. In addition, there are numerous regional variations: cities of the Ethiopian highlands are structured differently than those of the West African coast, those along the Niger or upper Nile rivers, those along the Indian Ocean coast, and so forth.

    The cities that de Blij and his co-authors cite as following the model, though mostly without the Traditional CBD, were founded by European colonizers. For example, the British laid out Nairobi (Kenya) as a railroad stop in 1899 and Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) as a commercial town in 1890, while Henry Morton Stanley founded the trading center of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) in 1881 for the infamous Congo Free State.

    The French set up a fort at Ndakaaru, Senegal, in the mid-1800s in an area with several prior settlements, and it eventually became Dakar. They later founded Abidjan near a small African fishing village in 1903.

    The Portuguese founded cities such as Luanda, Angola in 1576 and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) Mozambique in the mid-1800s.

    Africa city model Maputo StudySmarterFig. 3 - Street plan of Lourenço Marques, c. 1929, port city and capital of the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, later renamed Maputo. The Colonial CBD and ethnic neighborhood areas are visible

    For their part, South African cities such as Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg are basically European in layout, without any incorporation of Traditional CBDs and limited involvement of traditional market zones. As mentioned above, they were (and remain) among the most segregated cities on the continent.

    Mombasa, Kenya, a city de Blij had studied in detail, is a good African City Model fit. it was founded in 900 AD and has Arab and Swahili layers of historical habitation and street plans dating from centuries prior to British colonization. Now, it contains all three types of CBDs, originally had ethnically segregated neighborhoods, and has a ring of informal settlements on the outskirts.

    African City Model Strengths and Weaknesses

    Given the vast cultural and historical diversity of sub-Saharan Africa, it is difficult for a single model to capture the complexities of the modern African urban area. The de Blij model serves primarily as a teaching tool and a means for geographers to make comparisons with other parts of the world. It has not been influential in urban planning in the ways that the US models (Hoyt Sector Model, Concentric Zone Model, Multiple Nuclei model) have been.

    Nevertheless, as a fundamental achievement, the de Blij model stands out as an attempt to recognize the importance of African cities, something often excluded from Western discourse and pedagogy. Thus, we could classify it as an inspiration for a world where the three largest cities by the end of the current century are projected to be in Africa. By that time, Lagos and Kinshasa may pass 80 million residents each, while Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is predicted to top 70 million.

    A major weakness in de Blij's model is the lack of applicability to modern, post-colonial Africa. In many countries, race is not the geographically divisive element it was when Europeans were present as colonial administrators and enforced segregation of neighborhoods.

    Finally, the model does not address any spatial differences based on Black African ethnicity. That is to say, it does not specify whether the segregation of "ethnic neighborhoods" is between Black Africans (as a group) and others (Europeans, South Asians, Arabs, etc.) or also between different Black ethnic groups.

    African City Model - Key takeaways

    • The African City Model is a generalized diagram of an urban area in sub-Saharan Africa that contains pre-colonial, European colonial, and post-colonial elements and is or was segregated by race.
    • The African City Model was created by geographer Harm de Blij and was first published in 1977.
    • The African City Model glosses over the regional, historical, and cultural differences and complexities that make African urban areas diverse and distinct.
    • The African City Model is a teaching tool and comparison aid that helps create an appreciation for the nature of African urbanization in a world where the largest cities will be in Africa by the end of the 21st century.
    • The African City Model incorporates three CBDs, but many cities have only one or two of these; South Africa, for example, has Western cities with historically little African influence on the layout.


    1. de Blij, H. 'Human geography: culture, society, and space.' Wiley, New York 1977.
    Frequently Asked Questions about African City Model

    What is the African City Model?

    The African City Model is a simplified diagram of different zones found in a typical sub-Saharan African city.

    Who created the African City Model?

    Geographer Harm de Blij created the African City Model in 1977 and it was published in each edition of his human geography textbook after that.

    What city did de Blij use for the sub Saharan African City Model?

    De Blij used Mombasa, Kenya and Maputo, Mozambique as inspiration for his model because he carried out extensive urban geographic research on both these places. 

    When was the African City Model created?

    The African City Model was first published in 1977 but it is based on research dating back to the 1960s.

    Where is the African City Model applicable?

    The African City Model is applicable to cities in sub-Saharan Africa founded during or before the European colonial period. It is most applicable in cities that retain a pre-colonial street plan, such as Mombasa, Kenya, as well as colonial and modern sections.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Africa's population today is around _______% urban.

    The following European colonial city in Africa was founded in the 1500s AD:

    Europeans tended to live in mixed neighborhoods with Black Africans in colonial times.


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