Urban Forum

, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 85–106 | Cite as

Settlement in Transition: a Transformation of a Village into a Small Town in Western Sudan

  • Mohamed Babiker Ibrahim
  • Leo C. Zulu
  • Frederick L. Bein


UN-Habitat projects Sub-Saharan Africa’s global share of the urban population to increase from 11.3% in 2010 to 20.2% by 2050. Yet little is documented about the underlying urbanization processes, particularly of emergence of small towns. This article uses household interviews, focus groups, observation, and secondary data to examine the spontaneous transformation of a western Sudanese village, Shubbola, into a small town. We use changes in building construction approach, materials, and style as an indicator of development and provide rare documentation of the process, the main actors, choices taken, timescales, and outcomes of the rapid urbanization of Shubbola between 2006 and 2013. Housing transformation was variable but involved a gradual process of replacing traditional non-durable building materials (wood and straw) with modern durable ones (sun- or fire-cured bricks, cement blocks, and metal roofs). Unlike traditional top-down models of urbanization generally driven by government investment, Shubbola epitomizes an organic, bottom-up process dependent on self-reliance and agriculture development fueled by remittances from urban-based relatives. While many small towns with similar origins fail to do so, Shubbola already provided important urban services to its inhabitants and surrounding rural areas. The study enhances understanding of small towns and underlying urbanization processes and their contribution to often neglected bottom-up, low-cost processes that do not fit traditional top-down models. It also contributes to literature and policy on sustainable cities and their role in sustainable development as encapsulated in UN Sustainable Development Goal 11. The study contributes to understanding the processes and implications of rapid urbanization in the Sudan and Africa and other world regions.


Urbanization Transformation Village Small town Sudan Shubbola 



We would like to thank the people of Shubbola and our research assistant Mirgahani Awad Bashir for their hospitality and help while the lead author is in the field. We thank Dana Reimer for her help. Part of his work was supported by the PSC-CUNY 40 Research Award Program at Hunter College of the City University of New York.


  1. Abou-Zeid, A. M. (1979). New towns and rural development in Egypt. Africa, 49(3), 283–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Abu Sin, M. E. (1980). Nyala: a study in rapid urban growth. In: V. Pons (Ed.), Urbanization and urban life in the Sudan (pp. 352–380). Development Studies and Research Center, University of Khartoum and Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Hull.Google Scholar
  3. Abu-Saleem, M. I. (1979). The history of Khartoum (in Arabic). Beirut: Dar Al-Jeel.Google Scholar
  4. Afolabi Ojo, G. J. (1968). Traditional Yoruba architecture. African Arts, 1(3), 14–17 and 70-72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Agab Al Feya, A. (2013). Highlights on the areas of Al Rahad and Um Rowaba towns. Al-Sahafa Daily Newspapers Khartoum (May 11—in Arabic).Google Scholar
  6. Ahmad, A. M., & Abu Sin, M. E. (1990). Urban development in a rural context: the case of New Halfa, Sudan. In: J. Baker (Ed.), Small town Africa: studies in rural-urban interaction (pp. 247–263). The Scandinavian Institute of African Studies.Google Scholar
  7. Asomani-Boateng, R. (2011). Borrowing from the past to sustain the present and the future: indigenous African urban forms, architecture, and sustainable urban development in contemporary Africa. Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability, 4(3), 239–262.Google Scholar
  8. Awanyo, L., McCarron, M., & Morgan Attua, E. (2016). Affordable housing options for all in a context of developing capitalism: can housing transformations play a role in the Greater Accra Region, Ghana? African Geographical Review, 35(1), 35–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bank of Sudan. (2008). 48th annual report. Khartoum, Sudan.Google Scholar
  10. Bascom, W. (1962). Some aspects of Yoruba urbanism. American Anthropologist, New Series, 64(4), 699–709.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Besser, T. L. (2009). Changes in small town social capital and civic engagement. Journal of Rural Studies, 25(2), 185–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bloom, D. E., Canning, D., & Fink, G. (2008). Urbanization and the wealth of nations. Science, 319(5864), 772–775.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Blumin, S. M. (1983). When villages become towns. In D. Fraser & A. Sutcliffe (Eds.), The pursuit of urban history (pp. 54–68). London: Edward Arnold Ltd..Google Scholar
  14. Boateng, E. A. (1955). Recent changes in settlement in South-East Gold Coast. Transactions. Institute of British Geographers, 21, 157–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Burckhardt, J. L. (1980), Berber, Damer and Shendi in 1814. In: V. Pons (Ed.), Urbanization and urban life in the Sudan (pp. 48–78). Development Studies and Research Center, University of Khartoum and Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Hull.Google Scholar
  16. Champion, A. (1999). Urbanization and counter-urbanization. Applied Geography. Principle and Practice, 347–357.Google Scholar
  17. Cohen, B. (2006). Urbanization in developing countries: current trends, future projections, and key challenges for sustainability. Technology in Society, 28, 63–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Coquery-Vidrovitch, C. (1991). The process of urbanization in Africa: from the origins to the beginning of independence. African Studies Review, 34(1), 1–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Crawford, O. G. S. (1951). The Fung kingdom of Sinnar with a geographical account of the middle Nile region. Gloucester: John Bellows, Ltd..Google Scholar
  20. El Agraa, O. A., Haywood, I., El-Arifi, S., Abdalla, B. A., El-Sammani, M. O., El-Hassan, A. M., & Salih, H. M. (1986). The Gezira region, the Sudan. In J. E. Hardoy & D. Satterthwaite (Eds.), Small and intermediate urban centers: their role in regional and national development in the third world (pp. 81–130). Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  21. El Bakri, Z. B., Gore, P. W., & Kameir, E. M. (1987). Urban growth in the Sudan. In: A. A. Saghayroun, A. Farah, S. A. Ahmed, & A. Mohamed Kheir (Eds.), Population and development in the Sudan: the quest for a national policy (pp. 149–163). Proceedings of the Third National Population Conference, Khartoum (October 10–15).Google Scholar
  22. El-Arifi, S.A. (1980). The nature and rate of urbanization in Sudan. In: V. Pons (Ed.), Urbanization and urban life in the Sudan (pp. 381–411). Development Studies and Research Center, University of Khartoum and Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Hull.Google Scholar
  23. El-Bushra, E. (1980). The development of industry in Khartoum. In: V. Pons (Ed.), Urbanization and urban life in the Sudan (pp. 269–296). Development Studies and Research Center, University of Khartoum and Department of Sociology and Anthropology. University of Hull.Google Scholar
  24. Grant, R. (2015). Africa: geographies of change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Hale, G. A. (1974). Urbanization in the northern Sudan: trends and problems. In: C. O. Hodge & C. N. Hodges (Eds.), Urbanization in the arid lands (pp. 169–186). International Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Land Studies (ICASALS) Publication No. 75–1. Lubbock, Texas.Google Scholar
  26. Hamdan, G. (1960). The growth and functional structure of Khartoum. Geographical Review, 50(1), 21–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Han, S. H. (2010). Urban expansion in contemporary China: what can we learn from a small town? Land Use Policy, 27, 780–787.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Han, F., Cai, J. M., & Liu, J. P. (2010). Regional economic types and spatial differentiation of small towns in peri-urban Beijing. Urban Studies, 17(4), 123–128 (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  29. Henderson, J. V. (2003). Urbanization and economic development. Annals of Economics and Finance, 4, 275–341.Google Scholar
  30. Hopkins, N. S. (1979). The small urban center in rural development: Kita (Mali) and Testour (Tunisia). Africa, 49(3), 316–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hoyle, B., & Smith, J. (1998). Transport and development: conceptual frameworks. In B. Hoyle & R. Knowles (Eds.), Modern transport geography (2nd ed., pp. 13–40). New York: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  32. Ibrahim, M. B. (1985). Adjustment to drought hazard in the semi-arid areas of the Sudan. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Alberta, Canada.Google Scholar
  33. Ibrahim, M. B. (2014). Recent rapid urbanization in Sudan. Sudan Studies, 50, 39–45.Google Scholar
  34. Ibrahim, M. B., & Zulu, L. C. (2014). Development without intervention: a successful self-initiative of rural development and urban growth in the Sudan. Geographical Review, 104(4), 481–505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ibrahim, M. B., & El-Tayeb, O. Y. (2015). Socio-economic changes and challenges of Tuti Island after the construction of the bridge. Sudan Studies, 52, 15–26.Google Scholar
  36. Ibrahim, M. B., & Omer, O. A. (2014). Evolution and changes in morphologies of Sudanese cities. Urban Geography, 35(5), 735–756.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kabwegyere, T. B. (1979). Small urban centers and the growth of underdevelopment in rural Kenya. Africa, 49(3), 308–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Knox, P. L., & Mayer, H. (2013). Small town sustainability: economic, social, and environmental innovation. Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag.Google Scholar
  39. Konadu-Agyemang, K. (2001). A survey of housing conditions and characteristics in Accra, an African city. Habitat International, 25(1), 15–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lees, L. (2001). Towards a critical geography of architecture: the case of an Ersatz Colosseum. Cultural Geographies, 8(1), 51–86.Google Scholar
  41. Linn, J. F. (1982). The costs of urbanization in developing countries. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 30(3), 625–648.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Mabogunje, A. L. (1990). Urban planning and the post-colonial state in Africa: a research overview. African Studies Review, 33(2), 121–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Mapes, J. (2009) Urban revolution: rethinking the American small town. PhD Dissertation, University of Southern California.Google Scholar
  44. Mayer, H., & Knox, P. (2010). Small-town sustainability: prospects in the second modernity. European Planning Studies, 18(10), 1545–1565.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Morgan, B., & Pugh, J. C. (1969). West Africa. London: Methuen & Co..Google Scholar
  46. National Population Census Council (2008). Sudan - Population and Housing Census 2008. Sudan Central Bureau of Statistics, Khartoum.Google Scholar
  47. Ngowi, A. B. (1997). Improving the traditional earth construction: a case study of Botswana. Construction and Building Materials, 11(1), 1–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Oruwari, Y., Jev, M., & Owei, O. (2002). Acquisition of technological capability in Africa: a case study of indigenous building materials firms in Nigeria. African Technology Policy Studies Working Paper, Series No. 33. Nairobi, Kenya.Google Scholar
  49. Owusu, G. (2008). The role of small towns in regional development and poverty reduction in Ghana. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32(2), 453–472.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Owusu, G. (2005). Small towns in Ghana: justifications for their promotion under Ghana's decentralisation programme. African Studies Quarterly, 8(2), 48–69.Google Scholar
  51. Pallme, I & Petherick, J. (1980). Accounts of El Obeid in the 1830s and 1840s. In: V. Pons (Ed.), Urbanization and urban life in the Sudan (pp. 79–96). Development Studies and Research Center, University of Khartoum and Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Hull.Google Scholar
  52. Pantuliano, S., Buchanan-Smith, M., Metcalfe, V., Pavanello, S. & Martin, E. (2011). City limits: urbanization and vulnerability in Sudan. A Synthesis Report for Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), Overseas Development Institute, London.Google Scholar
  53. Servillo, L., Atkinson, R., & Hamdouch, A. (2017). Small and medium-sized towns in Europe: conceptual, methodological and policy Issues. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie.Google Scholar
  54. Shilgami, N. I. (1991). Kosti: the story and the history. Khartoum: Khartoum University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Sikainga, A. A. (2002). City of Steel and Fire- A Social History of Atbara, Sudan’s Railway Town (1906 – 1984). Oxford: James Currey.Google Scholar
  56. Southall, A. (1977). Small urban centers in rural development in Africa. Research Proposal. Mimeo, University of Wisconsin-Madison.Google Scholar
  57. Steinführer, A., Vaishar, A., & Zapletalová, J. (2016). The small town in rural areas as an underresearched type of settlement. Editors’ introduction to the special issue. European Countryside, 8(4), 322–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Suzuki, H., Dastur, A., Moffatt, S. & Yabuki, N. (2009). Eco2 cities: ecological cities as economic cities. World Bank Conference. Washington D.C.Google Scholar
  59. Taaffe, E. J., Morrill, R. L., & Gould, P. R. (1963). Transport expansion in underdeveloped countries: a comparative analysis. Geographical Review, 53(4), 503–529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Tacoli, C. (2017). Why small towns matter: urbanisation, rural transformations and food security. IIED Briefing Paper, March 2017. London: International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). URL:
  61. Taffese, W. Z. (2012). Low-cost eco-friendly building material: a case study in Ethiopia. International Journal of Civil, Environmental, Structural, Construction and Architectural Engineering, 6(2), 183–187.Google Scholar
  62. Tipple, A. G., & Korboe, D. (1998). Housing policy in Ghana: towards a supply-oriented future. Habitat International, 22(3), 245–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Turner, J. C. (1968). Housing priorities, settlement patterns, and urban development in modernizing countries. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 34(6), 354–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. UN-Habitat (United Nations Human Settlements Program). (2009). Urban sector studies and capacity building for Khartoum State. Nairobi, Kenya.Google Scholar
  65. UN-Habitat (United Nations Human Settlements Program). (2014). The state of African cities 2014: re-imagining sustainable urban transitions. Regional State of the Cities Reports. Nairobi, Kenya.Google Scholar
  66. United Nations. (2009). World urbanization prospects: the 2009 revision. New York: Economic and Social Affairs.Google Scholar
  67. Wang, Y. P., Wang, Y., & Wu, J. (2009). Urbanization and informal development in China: urban villages in Shenzhen. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(4), 957–973.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Ward, C. D., & Shackleton, C. M. (2016). Natural resource use, incomes, and poverty along the rural–urban continuum of two medium-sized, South African towns. World Development, 78, 80–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Winters, C. (1977). Traditional urbanism in the north central Sudan. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 67(4), 500–520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Winters, C. (1982). Urban morphogenesis in Francophone black Africa. The Geographical Review, 72(2), 139–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Wirth, L. (2010). Urbanism as a way of life. In R. Paddison & M. Timberlake (Eds.), Urban studies: economy (Vol. 1, pp. 128–143). London: SAGE.Google Scholar
  72. Yok-shiu, F. L. (1989). Small towns and China's urbanization level. The China Quarterly, 120, 771–786.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Zhou, L., Dickinson, R. E., Tian, Y., Fang, J., Li, Q., Kaufmann, R. K., & Myneni, R. B. (2004). Evidence for a significant urbanization effect on climate in China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(26), 9540–9544.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mohamed Babiker Ibrahim
    • 1
  • Leo C. Zulu
    • 2
  • Frederick L. Bein
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of GeographyHunter College of the City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial SciencesMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  3. 3.Department of GeographyIndiana University-Purdue UniversityIndianapolisUSA

Personalised recommendations