Architectures of the New Silk Road

Sino-African Infrastructure-led Urbanization – Deficits and Potentials

China’s Belt and Road Initiative can be considered one of the largest and possibly most consequential territorial ventures currently underway on the planet.

Taking this thesis as the point of entry and going beyond pro-or-contra narratives associated with the initiative, the seminar will focus on its direct and indirect effects on socio-spatial constellations on the ground – namely, on the realities of lived space in specific locations affected by transnational cooperation.

In order to limit the investigation, projects along development corridors in Africa will serve as case studies to unravel the mechanisms at work in infrastructure-led urbanization. This world region is of particular interest because China has been active there long before the Belt and Road Initiative was officially announced in 2013 and remains intent on expanding its operations through more public- and private-sector contracts in the future. Though the pacts among Chinese and African actors have put a premium on building highways, bridges, ports, dams, railways, industrial zones as well as energy networks at breakneck speed, their significant influence on settlements has been too often overlooked in on-going debates regarding the initiative’s geo-political and geo-economic ramifications. It is in this respect that the research in this seminar intends to examine the physical and social impact of transnational undertakings as they are being implemented in situ, official rhetoric notwithstanding. 

Three research questions will orient the work: 
(a) What are the operative practices at work in Sino-African development projects? 
(b) What are the short- and long-term effects of the development projects on settlement systems?
(c) How can development protocols be reworked in order to attain more sustainable and equitable habitats?

The objective is to investigate not only the dynamics of Sino-African alliances in terms of what is really at stake and for whom in specific locations, but just as important, to explore feasible ways to make infrastructure-led development – usually perceived as a financial and technical issue alone – a true driver of beneficial economic, social and environmental change for all affected stakeholders.