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The public is in crisis

This phrase expresses a pressing global concern: the shrinking and privatization of urban public space. Although there is no single definition of public space, its politics centre our attention on socio-political issues including democratic practices, spatial justice, sustainable urban planning, state domination, and citizenship.

By way of example, the COVID-19 pandemic recently brought the consequences of restricting citizens’ access to public space to global consciousness, focusing our attention on the ways in which material public space is intertwined with the ideational crafting of a public (social, political) sphere. This problematic of urban public space is particularly salient in African urban areas, which are [stereo]typically portrayed – mainly via accounts of ‘poor governance’ as well as state and urban fragility – as disorderly and ill-governed, and where private interests, violence and insecurity are widely thought to be eroding public space.

Yet, African cities feature myriad, but understudied, political dynamics and urban formations whose transformative and emancipatory effects far exceed the key tenets of these discourses. Beyond narratives of privatization and fragility, Unruly thus aims to reverse the gaze on the organization and emergence of these alternative politics of the ‘public’ realm in African cities. Unruly is indeed, based on the proposition that the social, political, and urban formations of cities like Abidjan and Kinshasa can come to challenge conventional, and colonially-inflected thinking in two key and interrelated ways:

  •  First, these cities are not disorderly or unruled. They are simply ‘unruly’ in that they harbour a variety of actors deploying a large array of (sometimes contradictory) practices, appropriations and usages of urban spaces, that twist our vision of ‘public’ space as being necessarily formally organized against a ‘private’ sphere.

  • Second, and relatedly, those emergent ‘unruly’ spaces come to question our conventional and western-centric conceptualizations of how urban spaces are governed, used, and materially configured.

"Vivre, c’est passer d’un espace à un autre en essayant le plus possible de ne pas se cogner"

Georges Perec - Espèces d’espaces (1974)

‘The personal is political’

While ‘public space’ has been a theoretical concern of social scientists and urban planners for decades, there remain surprisingly few in-depth empirical investigations on what, where and who exactly ‘the public’ is in non-western urban societies, and by extension, how these become political sites we can learn from globally.


To do so, Unruly draws on post and decolonial thought, feminist theory, and southern urbanisms by focusing on the tension between three key dynamics:

  1. State governance ;

  2. The daily uses local residents make of urban space ;

  3. The contours of urban (physical) environments.


By refusing to work with the conceptual binaries that traditionally undergird the study of urban space and state theory (the formal/informal; micro/macro, and public/private dichotomies), the project’s conceptual premises will develop a theory of the processes through which ‘unruly spaces’ are thus comparatively generated in both cities.

Research questions


How do users of public space in Kinshasa and Abidjan – despite violence and contestation – carve out sites of political expression, collective debate, and inclusion through their quotidian activities?


How can those local acts of appropriation, subversion, and socio-political vitality provide global lessons into both the present dilemmas and possible futures of public space across the world?


Methodological tools

The Unruly project addresses these issues by conducting a comparative visual-ethnography of public spaces in Abidjan and Kinshasa. It places at its core the discursive, material, social and spatial practices the political elite, ordinary urban dwellers and street-level bureaucrats deploy on a daily basis and recovers how these might produce a variety of ‘unruly spaces’ from a comparative lens between Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) and Kinshasa (DRC).


It does so, via an innovative methodological approach that will both empirically document and visually analyze via a composite mapping exercise, the functions, contours and locales of these ‘unruly’ spaces offering therefore, to understand African politics and societies as the dynamic sites of knowledge production from which we can learn globally. In collaboration with a number of colleagues in the DRC and Côte d’Ivoire, the project will employ a range of ethnographic tools, participatory mapping, photo elicitation and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technologies in selected neighbourhoods in both cities.


This will assist the project team in unpacking how the tensions and entanglements at work between the (micro-)practices of state governance, the various usages ordinary citizens make of the city, and their – often precarious – urban built environment can generate new, alternative ways of crafting and inhabiting urban spaces in cities like Abidjan and Kinshasa.

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