Written by Garth Myers.

China’s interests in Africa are considerable; China is the continent’s largest trading partner, a major investor and crucial donor. Scholarship analyzing Chinese investments on the continent has grown exponentially. Significant attention has also been devoted to geopolitical dynamics of China-Africa relations, particularly for Sub-Saharan natural resource industries or oil and strategic minerals.

Besides geopolitics and investment flows a third theme in recent scholarship focuses on sociocultural dynamics of the new Chinese presence in Africa, especially in workplace relations. These themes are linked, of course, and they often intersect in particular contexts, such as Zambia, where Chinese political and economic influence has become most notable.

The impacts and interactions at the urban scale transforming African urban areas have received less attention. Although the literature on China-in-Africa may situate studies in specific urban contexts, it is still rare to see analysis of how these investments and relationships transform urban spatiality in the region. Chinese developers are active in creating new urban spaces around the continent, typically in suburban or satellite communities around major cities. Much attention to these urban development projects has been superficial, as in the fixation with China’s ‘ghost town’ of Kilamba, Angola (outside Luanda). There is a more complicated narrative at work, in the aims, shapes, purposes and character of these new developments – even, it seems, in Kilamba.

Let us examine the Henan-Guoji Development Company’s (HGDC) Silverest Garden development outside Lusaka, Zambia. HGDC, part of the larger Henan Guoji Industry Group, has projects in 24 African countries. Lusaka’s version, Silverest Gardens, originally included 380 home sites, and expanded to 472, with eight different house models, outside Lusaka’s legal boundary.

This edge setting is important. From Accra to Zanzibar, from Dakar to Durban, African urban growth long ago jumped the borders of the city, but the last decade has seen a mushrooming of new suburbs, satellite towns, and gated communities. This urban expansion is consistently bifurcated, though. On one hand, middle- and upper-income housing areas like Silverest Gardens are appearing, with many transnational residents and investors in these properties. On the other hand, urban Africa’s poor and marginalized informal settlements also are expanding apace, often literally next to the new suburbs.

Lusaka’s expansion dynamics are representative of this bifurcated character. Lusaka is a city of 1.7 million people as of the latest national census, with most scholars who study it estimating that its actual population is well over two million. China has become Zambia’s leading trading partner, donor and investor. The initial impetus for Chinese interest in Zambia came from its drive for mineral resources, particularly copper.

But Chinese investments have broadened in scope to include agriculture and land development, alongside Chinese engineering firms’ successful bids for road and railroad construction. Firms like HGDC have emerged in the last few years with residential real estate projects. Zambia’s political and social stability, anchored and manifested in Lusaka, has helped to fuel expansion by foreign, local or transnational Zambian elite stakeholders in suburban Lusaka land and housing.

HGDC’s model plan for Silverest Gardens occupied the central square of Lusaka’s upscale Manda Hill Shopping Mall for most of 2013. The company’s three-dimensional plaster model of the community showed an idealized portrait of what was intended to be an “upgrade in habitation and revolution in LIVING,” according to the company’s paper brochure. The brochure laid out the details of the development and highlighted its capacity for changing Lusaka and transforming the city’s individual residents.

It touted the excellent location, “in a tranquil place away from the city buzz,” but the tag line on the brochure’s front offers this: “The community changes the city.” What the company meant is: “using community development as a basic factor in gradually affecting city planning and development.” They envision a process of “transforming the city with scattered residential layout into a modern city with perfect functionally, rationally planned and comfortable living environment.”

Life in Silverest Gardens has been imagined as fully self-contained. Although it is as of late 2015 still quite incomplete, apparently it will eventually have its own shopping mall, kindergartens, police post, gym, social clubs, and services for landscaping, outside yard cleaning, waste collection and home maintenance. Its developers call it an excellent bargain and investment opportunity that is “delivering a new approach to urbanization and town design based on integrity and amicability”.

More than half of the original 380 homes had sold within the first six months of 2013. Investors (most expatriates or transnational Zambians) snapped up the affordable ones, some buying ten or twelve at a time. The highest priced home sites also sold out, again with an international cast of investors, prompting the company to expand the project. There will be a shopping area in the center of the community so that one might never have to leave. HGDC will not let people change the exterior of homes, and they claim to manage the landscaping and take care of maintenance of the yards.

The idea of Silverest Gardens is to create a neighborhood community that will somehow remake urban society and the city. In reality, as it emerges Silverest Gardens seems to be merely a controlled, authoritarian, suburban space. The staff who service the community – gardeners, guards, maids – are not to be provided housing, and most will reside in expanding nearby informal settlements, perpetuating the bifurcated character of Lusaka’s suburban expansion. This presents troubling consequences that may have significant implications for similar contexts across the continent.

In developments like Silverest Gardens, Chinese investors in urban Africa are undoubtedly improving the quality of the housing stock and laying out efficient and planned model neighborhoods. I have serious doubts both about the extent to which these sorts of neighborhoods will ever deliver on “integrity” or “amicability” where “the community changes the city,” and the degree to which their development simply furthers the splintered, unequal and bifurcated expansion of the edges of Africa’s urban areas.

Garth A. Myers is Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Urban International Studies and Director of the Urban Studies Program, Trinity College, Hartford, US. Image credit: CC by World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr.