Research Studio
Highway Africa

Highway between Nairobi and Limuru, Kenya
Highway between Nairobi and Limuru, Kenya. © Manuel Herz

Highway Africa is a multiyear collaborative research and teaching project that explores the past, present, and future of the trans-African highway system. With the end of colonization in Africa came unprecedented dreams of modernization. These coalesced around plans for highway networks linking the continent’s newly independent nations. For members of the elite, such networks were first and foremost economic propositions to facilitate the movement of locally extracted materials toward coastal ports for export abroad. Political actors saw in the projected networks opportunities to forge a new era of pan-African cooperation and transcontinental development. For a fledgling middle class, the highways conjured imaginaries of upward social mobility, and for entire communities they opened up hopes of movement unlike anything experienced before. With the gigantic boom in infrastructure investment across the continent today, the trans-African highways are experiencing second lives. Chinese developers, the African Development Bank, and other large institutions are laying vast multilane highways that are radically transforming urban centers and countrysides across Africa.

How does highway infrastructure shape the course of history, and why are its dreams of development more pertinent than ever? Focusing on the multiple dimensions of development on the ground, Highway Africa unmoors conventional approaches to infrastructure urbanization in and beyond Africa. When highways or railways figure in urban or Africa-focused research, they tend to appear as merely technical problems of development: either they are described as lacking, or they are treated as magical solutions. Our research project proposes a radically new understanding of the relationship between material infrastructure and the everyday realities of urbanization by taking account of its historical complexity and the multivalent dreams and projects it generates.

Highway Africa is the research studio theme of the Master in Critical Urbanisms, starting in Fall 2017.