This book has been published very recently, in 2020, and it therefore has a current perspective. It discusses many other works on the subject of urban history, from long ago to recently. The authors seem to have developed their ideas in a sort of opposition against how earlier works on the subject of urban history have described, or failed to describe, Sub-saharan and Senegalese urban planning. The authors are Liora Bigon and Eric Ross. Liora Bigon is a senior lecturer in the department of Multidisciplinary Studies at HIT, where she teaches postcolonial history, urban history, and islamic history. She has also written extensively on the subject of African urban history and planning cultures. Eric Ross is a Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane. He is an "Urban and Cultural Geographer whose research focuses on Muslim Africa". The purpose of the book could be described as two things: to trace the grid plan as a phenomenon in Senegal (and in this process, to also show the variety of contexts that the grid plan have been used in, globally), and to contribute to creating a more global history of urban planning, to replace the euro-centric urban history that has been prevailing. These two purposes is intertwined, as the zoomed-in case-study of Senegal, and the discussion about how Sub-saharan urban planning have been described in earlier literature is often connected. I´ve chosen to mainly focus on these two points in this text.
As mentioned in the instroduction, the authors make the argument that in western research traditions of urban and planning histories, the sub-Saharan Africa is generally not described as having a urban history, or even having a culture of designing urban settlements. The practice of using grid-systems when planning settlements, is in general described as being a result of european colonization. However, the authours make the case that the practise of grid-planning is something that developed independently in Senegal before the French colonization. This means that, instead of seeing the grid system as something that only was used and developed in the western countries, before it was "exported" when european nations colonized Africa, this book proposes a, in their own words, "more interactive, poly-centric and processual approach of "entangled histories"."
The book describes the global history of the urban grid as encompassing multiple regions and time periods. This description is very intersting in itself (without making the connection to the case of Senegal especially), because it describes the variety of ideas, ideologies and functions that have led to grid-structured city plans. The grid plan as a way to organize a city or a settlement has been produced under vastly different regimes and economic systems through history. The book, for example, mention the studies of Jill Grant, that classified the political structures of the societies that have used the urban grid system as an important form in their urban planning. Interestingly, she comes to the conclusion that the grid system was most commonly used by societies that centralizes its power - but also, of course, by egalitarian societies that wanted the city structure to incorporate their idea of egality, to diffuse the concentration of power. The grid plan has been used to symbolise very different ideas. And it has been used in many places in the world, since ancient times - by the ancient Romans, Greeks, Assyrians; by imperial China, ancient pakistan and Egypt; in rennaisance Italy and Germany. It is a design model that does not correlate with any specific context. The only common denominator, according to the book, is the presence of an authority with the necessary power and interest to build cities in this way.
The book presents several exampls of places where grid plans have been developed, to demonstrate the variation of purposes and stories behind the planning. It is a very convincing argument, and a fascinating discussion, that not only touches city planning and architecture but also subjects like, among other, the colonial history, political history and administration. The idea of the grid plan as a kind of vessel that can contain any societal view, any ideology, any economical or religious purpose, is in itself fascinating. In the dicussion in the architetcture school I attend today, it have often been viewed as something flexible and non-imposing, despite how "unnatural" it is as an environment. It is a way for the architect to create variation within a system; to let other forces and interests than the singular vision of the architect guide the urban design. To decentralize the power over the built environment. But, obviously, it could easily be interpreted as the exact opposite. It is clear that the grid system has an inherent flexibility of meaning and purpose.
What is also interesting is that this general description of the grid system, this ideological versatility, is also true in the specific case of Senegalese urban planning. The book uses this case-study to solidify the points made regarding the grid plan in general, and it is very effective since the story is the same in Senegal: the way of organizing urban space in grids have been used and given different values in different places and times. Different powerful institutions, that have been able to impose their ideas on the territory of the nation, have used the grid system. The royal courts used it to actualize their secular authority. The Sufi orders used it to promote islamic conduct and values. The french colonial authority used it to rationally organize the exploitation of the nations agricultural resources. It is a rich description, and as a reader you realize the importance of understanding the specific society of Senegal, in order to understand the development of the urban planning. The Sufi orders, and their individual leaders (Sheikhs) was established as authorities well before the french colonial system. Their religious authority influenced the daily life. While the french authorities was unable to manage rural localities directly, the Sheikhs was able to influence the public spere. For example, they implemented the grid plan, as a way to strengthen their spiritual authority, and as a way to tie their following together, building an identity and a sense of community.
This description adds to something I think is a recurring theme in the book (besides the ones previously mentioned): the importance of understanding the societal context that leads to a specific urban design. The book describes in several chapters how Sufi Islam, this alternative authority, that works outside of the formal administration, have been crucial to the urban development in Senegal. It shows and discusses several examples of areas where the grid system has been implemented by the Sufi order. It becomes clear how the city planning is deeply intertwined with the political, economic and administative situation in Senegal - and that it, in this sense, differs greatly from how it would work in many other countries. In the planning you can see the societal ideas being realized, and the negotiation between different powers. To undertand these powers, and how they interact, is very important to understand where the urban planning comes from. When I read the book, this complexity seems to create problems in regards to how the urban history of Senegal have been described (or rather, not described) in the global urban studies. The euro-centric urban history discourse can, according to the book, have problems interpreting non-european urban contexts. Since the subject of urban history requires understanding of so many levels of how a place works, there is many traps to walk into when the knowledge of Senegalese society is not sufficient.
So, from the specific case of Senegal, to the general history of the grid plan, to the kind of meta-discussion about the previous studies about the subject. The book discusses in length the global urban studies and how it fails to include Sub-saharan experience. It is decidedly euro-centric, starting with the antique southern european civilizations and then, in more recent history, mainly focusing on western Europe and North America. While the chinese and islamic history of city planning might be mentioned, the history of african urban planning, both before and after colonization, is ignored.
I think it is very nice how the book effectively uses the study of Senegal, and the observations about the grid plan, to strengthen this point: because despite appearing almost everywhere, at different times, the grid-planning is often considered to be closely linked to one specific context, namely a western context, as a expression of rational organization and modernity. By making the case-study that proves the opposite, this book manages to question the urban studies history, both in the case of Senegal, but also in general. This, along with the rich source material and the examples, is a very positive aspect of the book.