International Development Planning Review

Towards a comparative research agenda on in situ urbanisation and rural governance transformation

International Development Planning Review (2021), 43, (3), 289–320.


This article explores how rural settlements urbanise, and how rural governance transforms in the process. The question is motivated by the significant contribution that smaller urban centres are projected to make to the world’s future urban growth, the majority of which will occur in the global South. Many smaller centres are emerging through in situ urbanisation, wherein a rural settlement becomes urban. Given the importance of small town growth, the article proposes a comparative research agenda with the aim of exploring and comparing the institutional transformations occurring in ‘transitional spaces’, the governance complexities these transformations present and the consequences for establishing urban planning systems in historically rural settlements. The agenda is operationalised in sub-Saharan Africa through a case study of Karonga Town, an emerging urban centre in Malawi. The agenda draws on a varied body of case-study research on small town growth and rural transformation in sub-Saharan Africa generally and Malawi specifically. The agenda has the potential to make a significant contribution to the literature seeking to reveal the informality in different governance landscapes and the forms of urbanisation in which these landscapes are embedded in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

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Author details

Brown, Donald