A massive redevelopment of the old Royal Albert Dock in East London is transforming a once-derelict waterfront into a gleaming business district. The project, which started in June 2017, will create 325,000 square meters of prime office space – a “city within a city,” as it has been dubbed – for Asian finance and tech firms.

Last year, authorities in Kampala, Uganda celebrated as a ferry on Lake Victoria unloaded goods from the Indian Ocean onto a rail service into the city. This transport hub was the final component of the Central Corridor project, aimed at connecting landlocked Uganda to Dar es Salaam and the Indian Ocean.

They are big, big projects  – and they are both part of the US$1 trillion global infrastructure investment that is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China’s ambition to reshape the world economy has sparked massive infrastructure projects spanning Western Europe, Eastern Africa, and beyond. Beijing is engaging in “Silk Road urbanism” – re-imagining the historic transcontinental trade route as a global project, thereby bringing the cities of South Asia, East Africa, Europe and South America into the orbit of the Chinese economy.

By forging infrastructure within and between key cities, China is changing the everyday lives of millions across the world. The project has also kicked off a  new development race between the US and China, to connect the planet by financing large-scale infrastructure projects.

Silk Road urbanism

Amid this geopolitical competition, Silk Road urbanism will exert significant influence over how cities develop in the 21st century. As the transcontinental trade established by the ancient Silk Road once led to the rise of cities such as Herat (in modern-day Afghanistan) and Samarkand (in Uzbekistan), so the BRI will bring new investment, technology, infrastructure and trade relations to cities around the globe.

The BRI is still in its early stages – and much remains to be understood about the impact it will have on urban landscapes. What seems clear, however, is that the project will transform the world system of cities on a scale not witnessed since the end of the Cold War.

Silk Road urbanism is highly selective in its deployment across urban space. It prioritizes the far over the near and is orientated toward global trade and the connections and circulations of finance, materials, goods and knowledge. Because of this, the BRI should not be considered only in terms of investment in infrastructure.

It will  have significance for city dwellers – and urban authorities must recognize the challenges of the BRI and need to navigate the need to secure investment for infrastructure while ensuring that citizens maintain their rights to cities, and their power to shape their own futures.

London calling

Developments in London and Kampala highlight these challenges.

In London, the creation of a third financial district, alongside Canary Wharf and the City of London, may benefit the economy. But it remains to be seen if this project will provide opportunities for, and investment in, the surrounding neighborhoods.

Chinese developer Advanced Business Park is rebuilding Royal Albert Dock – now named the Asian Business Port – on a site it acquired for £1 billion in 2013 in a much-criticized deal that took place under former London mayor Boris Johnson. The development is projected to be add £6 billion to the city’s economy by completion.

The former Royal Albert Dock is now called the Asian Business Port. Image: Google Earth.

But the development stands in sharp contrast with surrounding east London communities, which suffer poverty and deprivation. The challenge will be for authorities and developers to establish trusting relations through open dialogue with locals, in a context where large urban redevelopments such as the 2012 Olympic Park have historically brought few benefits.

Kampala’s corridor

The Ugandan capital Kampala is part of the “Central Corridor” project that aims to improve transport and infrastructure links across five countries – Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The project is financed through the government of Tanzania via a US$7.6 billion loan from Chinese bank Exim.

Under construction: the Chinese-funded Entebbe-Kampala Expressway. Photo: Dylan Patterson/Flickr.CC BY-SA

The growth of the new transport and cargo hub at Port Bell, on the outskirts of Kampala, with standardized technologies and facilities for international trade, is the crucial underlying component for Uganda’s Vision2040.

This national plan is ambitious. It encompasses a further 10 new cities, four international airports, national high-speed rail and a multi-lane road network.

But as these urban transformations unfold, residents already living precariously in Kampala face further uncertainty over their livelihoods, shelter and place in the city.  The demolition of hundreds of informal homes and businesses in the popular Namuwongo district was undertaken in 2017, as a zone needed to be cleared 30 meters either side of a rehabilitated railway track for the Central Corridor.

As Silk Road urbanism reshapes global infrastructure and city spaces, existing populations will experience displacement in ways that are likely to reinforce existing inequalities. It is vital for people to be given democratic involvement in shaping the outcomes.

# This report appeared first in The Conversation. An original version can be accessed here