African urbanism expert to discuss conflicting planning ideas in a rapidly urbanizing continent

Vanessa Watson of the University of Cape Town is UB's 2019 Clarkson Chair in Planning

Rendering of a master plan for Kigali, Rwanda, a rapidly growing African city.

Vanessa Watson will present a public lecture on the disconnect between private developer visions for African cities - like this one for Kigali, Rwanda - and the reality of poverty and social inequity fueled by inappropriate planning for rapid urbanization.

by Rachel Teaman

Published October 28, 2019

Urban planning scholar Vanessa Watson will visit the University at Buffalo next week to host conversations with the university and surrounding community on the intersection of rapid urbanization in Africa with issues of equity and conflict around food security and global health.

Portrait of Vanessa Watson.

Vanessa Watson is a professor of urban planning at Cape Town University.

A professor of city planning at University of Cape Town and founder of its African Centre for Cities, Watson is an internationally recognized expert on Global South perspectives on planning theory, African cities and urbanization, urban food security, and planning and corruption in Africa.

She comes to UB as the Clarkson Chair in Planning, an endowed visiting position awarded semiannually at the School of Architecture and Planning to spur public debate and knowledge exchange on pressing issues in the profession.

Through her research and teaching Watson addresses the unique dynamic of African urbanism. The rapid and poorly governed urbanization of Africa has led to growing urban inequality, environmental degradation and social conflicts. Watson is also founder of the Association of African Planning Schools, which works to revitalize planning education and prepare future planning professionals for practice in Africa.

More recently Watson has followed new economic forces re-shaping African cities, in particular private-sector driven development initiatives. On Wednesday Nov. 7, Watson will present a public lecture on the disconnect between rapidly urbanizing and largely poor African cities and Dubai-like proposals for their development. Watson’s talk, “African Urban Fantasies: Dreams or Nightmares?,” will take place at 6 pm in 403 Hayes Hall on UB’s South Campus.

Says Watson: "A southern urban planning perspective reminds us that a deep understanding of, and engagement with, context is key to any planning action, and the nature of context is significantly different across the globe."

Samina Raja, a professor of urban planning at UB and director of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, which is organizing Watson’s visit with UB’s Community for Global Health Equity, says Watson’s alternative perspective on urban planning will foster critical dialogue with scholars and students at UB examining the impact of rapid urbanization on food security and global health equity.

“Her work challenges the geo-politics of knowledge production in planning by foregrounding Global South perspectives on planning theory,” says Raja.

In addition to a public lecture Watson will participate in a panel conversation on post-colonial planning institutions in Africa with UB urban planning professor Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah. The seminar will take place Tuesday, Nov. 6, at UB’s Community for Global Health Equity (12:15 pm, Hayes Hall 220).

Watson will meet with students and faculty in urban planning, environmental design and related disciplines throughout her visit. She will also participate in a workshop with community members to discuss the relationship of local food system dynamics in Buffalo and African cities to the global food system. That event is by invitation only.  

Widely recognized for her expertise on rapid urbanization across the Global South, Watson served as lead consultant for the United Nations Habitat’s 2009 Global Report on Planning Sustainable Cities. She is also the Global South Editor of Urban Studies, an editor of Planning Theory, senior editor for Oxford Bibliographies Online: Urban Studies and a member of the editorial boards of multiple national and international journals.

For nearly 30 years the School of Architecture and Planning's Clarkson Visiting Chair program, which includes an architecture visiting position, has hosted annual visits by distinguished scholars and practitioners in architecture, urban planning and design. The program was founded in 1991 by the late Will Clarkson and his wife Nan Clarkson, both ardent champions of Buffalo and its legacies in urban design and architecture.