Decolonizing cities

Urban space and the decline of imperial rule

Date: 1 September 2017, 01:30–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 393



While interest in the history of decolonization arguably helped midwife the last decades’ boom in global history and continues to loom large as a topic in the minds of its practitioners, the impact of the end of imperial rule on urban space has received remarkably little attention. Perhaps too closely tied conceptually to “modernization”—the bête noire of many practitioners of global history—the supposedly inexorable path towards urbanization sits uncomfortably with an approach that follows the insight of postcolonial theory. Urban growth at any rate appeared to steamroll over the histoire événementielle of decolonization. Moreover, the political threshold between empires and nation-states did not necessarily interrupt continuities of modernist urban planning. Following this year’s conference theme, our panel enquires about the ruptures and continuities in the histories of formerly colonial cities between the late nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century.

The analysis of cities during moments of decolonization not only promises to shed new light on urban history —one of our discipline’s most resiliently Eurocentric quarters—but also offers a fresh perspective on (post-)colonial histories. After all, a great many of the capital cities of newly independent nation-states had been either founded or significantly built up by former colonial powers, presenting nationalist leaders with a dilemma: On the one hand, some promoted explicitly ruralist ideologies and loathed cities as cosmopolitan bridgeheads of imperial penetration. On the other hand, politicians presented cities as vital for the economic “development” of newly independent countries. In this way, postcolonial cities became epitomes of a new era as well as symbols of the ongoing interactions between postcolonial nation-states and the wider world. Building on these observations, this panels brings together historians working on different regions, in order to explore the global history of decolonization in cities across a variety of case studies.


Michael Goebel (Free University Berlin)

Joseph Ben Prestel (Free University Berlin)


Isabella Löhr (Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO))


Saima Nasar (University of Birmingham)

Michael Goebel (Free University Berlin)

Joseph Ben Prestel (Free University Berlin)



Michael Goebel: Colonialism and segregation: Ethnic unmixing in Havana and Manila, 1870–1930

This paper compares the impact – or the possible lack thereof – of gradual decolonization processes in Cuba and the Philippines on ethnic and racial segregation in their capital cities Havana and Manila. Since colonial states have been identified as a chief culprit in the globalization of ethnic segregation in urban spaces (Nightingale 2012), one would assume decolonization to encourage its undoing. Yet neither in Havana nor in Manila did such a clear-cut development take place. U.S. inspired attempts at reordering urban space partly undercut de-segregation in both cities, as well as decolonization more broadly, but more importantly long-established settlement patterns deeply embedded in the cities’ social histories. Whereas the long-term prevalence of domestic slavery in Havana prevented massive spatial segregation along racial lines even after 1898, the Chinese in Manila were socially and legally separated from the “national” population under U.S. occupation, but the commercial nature of their urban neighborhood transformed the quarter into a multi-ethnic trading hub. Hence, the paper ultimately questions the capacity of states to shape ethnic unmixing in the short run.

Saima Nasar: Postcolonial urban landscapes: Resettling Britain's East African Asians
Joseph Ben Prestel: Postcolonial expertise: Decolonization and urban planning in the Middle East, 1930–1960

This paper considers the history of urban planning in Cairo and Amman during the period of decolonization in the Middle East. In a time span of thirty years that stretches roughly from 1930 to 1960, both cities became centers of the struggle for decolonization and newly emerging nation-states in the region. During the same period, Cairo and Amman also witnessed an enormous growth of population – a dynamic that contemporaries often perceived as a tremendous challenge for national governments. The paper focuses on the proposals of urban planning experts formulated to alter Cairo and Amman in this context. In this way, it seeks to probe whether decolonization represented a break in the history of planning practices in these two cities. Was the postcolonial city imagined as a radical shift from a colonial past or do the histories of Cairo and Amman rather point towards a continuity in thinking about urban space between the colonial and the postcolonial era?

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