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Constructivist cartography

The development blogosphere recently lit up with news of South Sudan’s plan to rebuild some of its urban centers in the shape of various animals.

The plan elicited no shortage of guffaws, as is appropriate. But in the interest of maintaining AidWatch’s contrarian reputation, this post argues that we should be careful about focusing our ridicule on the Sudanese. Criticism should to be leveled at the appropriate target: cartography! constructivism.

Cartography actually suffers from the same schizophrenia that besets economics. At its best, it provides striking depictions of and keen insights into the bottom-up forces shaping social reality. (Even the burgeoning subdiscipline of cartozoology–obviously salient to the Sudanese plan–usually focuses on this important descriptive work.)

But, like economics, cartography has also been employed as a tool of central planners. The Sudanese are not alone in having put to paper visions of grandeur that seem goofy upon reflection. At least one such cartographical monument to the hubris of constructivist planning actually exists: Evita City in Argentina.

The point is this: we can and should mock the absurdity of the Sudanese scheme. But it should be mocked for its faith in central planning. Reinforced stereotypes of incompetent African rulers are at their most harmful when they serve as an excuse for wealthy governments and international agencies to throw their weight around, for that merely replaces domestic planners with foreign planners. These maps are a fine example of the absurdity of constructivism and the demeaning character of collectivism; it would be shame for them to contribute to more of the same.

Besides, I’m less worried about actual cartographical collectivism than the figurative kind.

This entry was posted in Grand plans and aid targets, In the news, Maps and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

4 Comments

  1. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Why dont we just make fun of it because it is so absurd? Seriously, let’s not use this to condemn urban, central or any other kind of planning. I suppose spontaneously generated slums would have been better? I think what we have here is someone’s attempt to steer some part of the massive aid flowing into south Sudan in the direction of one of their friends with an advanced degree in urban planning and a fondness for large african animals. Great idea to put that sewage plant in the tail of the giraffe!

    Posted August 30, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  2. Diane Bennett wrote:

    That South Sudan sadly allowed Juba and other cities to grow like topsy in just a few years, now intends to displace people and renegotiate land use to create the city they wish they had built, is frustrating. I have to wonder who is promoting this change – where is the money coming from and who is going to benefit from this “public-private partnership”? Surely not the average Southerner! This is particularly discouraging in light of the impending vote on seccession – are animal shapes really the most important building block in nation-building?

    Posted August 30, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  3. Eric Stuen wrote:

    Historical precedents of cities planned in the shape of animals exist: for example, the Incan city of Cusco which was designed in the shape of a Puma, and the Incan royal retreat of Macchu Picchu, designed in the shape of a Condor. Yes they were the products of an authoritarian society, but were designs that made sense in the context of the Incan culture.

    Posted August 30, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Mario Rizzo wrote:

    Hitler’s proposed city “Germania” also comes to mind.

    Posted August 31, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

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