Urban centers play a critical role in fighting poverty and sustaining economic growth, and are often considered the future of prosperity in the developing world. While strategic urbanization is highly dependent on national macroeconomic policymaking, city governments, the private sector, development practitioners, and urban planners also have critical roles to play.
In Africa an earlier wave of colonial and postcolonial planning, fundamentally shaped the urban built environment, planning laws and institutional processes which still persist today. These planning ideas, with origins in older British and European concepts of what a well-functioning and ‘orderly’ city should look like, are completely at odds with the ‘on the ground’ reality of African cities which have experienced rapid jobless growth under conditions of weak and resource-deprived local government institutions.
When colonialism ended, urban migrants brought country dwellers in search of jobs to cities where they were now legally permitted to live. No thought went into where the new millions would live, how utility services would be provided, or for social necessities from parks to schools. The result was chaos cities choked by pollution and traffic nightmares, and festering with township slums, much larger than developed central business districts.
The nature of the urbanisation process reflects the political economy of national and city economies, often based on resource extraction with rents captured by powerful interest groups combined with a high share of low productivity non-traceable service activities supporting most of the urban population.
Growth is occurring, but the economy, changes in aggregate only; it gets bigger because more resources are extracted and life improves through a trickle-down process. Structural transformation is lacking, movement in the product space is hardly visible, productivity in the urban economy stagnates, and inequalities rise. The quality of growth is poor and cities are increasingly vulnerable to climate change, environmental and natural resource risks.
Africa’s future challenge
The rate of Urban development in African cities is at levels never experienced before. Sub-Saharan Africa is the least urbanized region globally, however, it nevertheless has the highest rate of urbanization. Small towns, municipalities, cities and metropolises are expanding at extremely high rates.
There is no doubt that the African continent is home to the world’s youngest and fastest-growing population. The future of the world’s urbanisation will be in Africa: the continent’s 1.1 billion citizens will likely double in number by 2050, and more than 80 percent of that increase will occur in cities, especially slums.
The implications of this turbo-charged growth are hard to fathom. Consider how Lagos already Africa’s largest city is predicted to expand by an astonishing 77 people every hour between now and 2030.
Linking the urbanization management efforts of different stakeholders presents an opportunity for economic growth in a region undergoing an immense demographical shift.
Rapid urbanization has been perhaps the most dramatic of the social phenomena that marked the end of the colonial era in Africa. From a situation in 1950 in which the total urban population was no more than 28 million, the figure had by 1984 jumped to well over 125 million, representing a sharply increasing proportion of the total population, according to World Bank. Moreover, after an initial period when urbanization was welcomed as a positive tendency in the modernization of the continent there is today some ambivalence as to the contributions of urban centers to the overall development of the continent.
With some 65 percent of urban populations living in slum conditions and 70 percent in informal work, they are also set to double in size over the next decades, as much from natural increase as from in-migration. The already huge backlogs in basic urban infrastructure (especially sanitation and clean water) represent overwhelming challenges to local governments which are underfunded and under-capacitated.
However sub-Saharan cities are booming demographically and economically and will continue to do so for much of this century. The percentage of people living in cities could jump to 84 percent by 2060 (from 40 percent in 2010) according to the African Development Bank. Additionally, a number of African cities will see jaw-dropping economic expansion over the next decade and a half 250 to 350 percent GDP growth, in some cases. Such explosive growth will require robust planning and a surge in social services.
Rising evolution of African cities
Planning is the single most important tool that governments have at their disposal for managing rapid urban population growth and expansion. The first relates to the integration of the city’s informal sector into the formal planning process. This is reflected in two ways. The first is the non-inclusion of informal settlements (mostly slums) in urban planning practice. The second is the lack of planning focus on the informal economy that results in exclusion. Yet this is a sector that constitutes more than 80 per cent of Africa’s urban economy.
The usefulness of the informal sector and the survival strategies approaches for understanding African urban economies has been undermined by the transformations in urban livelihood strategies brought about by the continent’s economic crises and neoliberal economic reform policies. Contemporary livelihood strategies in many African cities involve participation in multiple economic activities, usually in both the formal and informal sectors.
In some countries in Africa, where urban planning is being attempted, it often seems slow and bureaucratic, and by the time it reaches implementation, things have already changed, growth has outstripped the plans. Can planning efforts really keep up?
The first step is the limitation of public space in relation to private space. This is something that has to be done by the government, because there is no other entity. The problem is that if the government is uncoordinated, or it doesn’t have the instruments, the speed of planning is much slower than the speed of city growth. The only solution is to speed up the planning process, because you cannot stop in-migration. If it’s complex because it involves different ministries, it needs to be simplified. And if it’s too dependent on central government, then it should be delegated to the local authorities.
For every “if” there must be a solution. There’s no other alternative for proper city growth than to be planned. If an unplanned city is built, then its reconstruction, the introduction of planning afterward, is much more difficult. It’s very expensive, it brings social conflicts. When you see economies, like the African ones, growing at 6 to 7 percent, there’s no excuse. You cannot have such a rate of growth without at the same time putting in place urban planning instruments.
A more recent wave of context-less planning ideas is attempting to impose visions of cities such as Dubai, Shanghai or Singapore on cities which are largely informal and poor. This new era of planning (using terms such as eco-cities, smart cities and world-class cities) is again imposing a concept of ‘good cities’ derived from other and very different contexts.
Again the impact of these interventions, driven in part this time by the international property development sector, has highly negative impacts on African cities. But the real impacts will be felt in increasingly unequal cities in which the poor are consistently marginalised in both a spatial and functional sense as they are pushed further and further towards the urban peripheries, and as public infrastructural and facility resources are redirected away from meeting basic needs and towards supporting the demands of the new enclaves of the elite.
The conflict of rationalities emerging between this new grouping of urban actors and those attempting to survive in rapidly growing and impoverished cities in Africa is stark. Yet there is little in the way of theoretical resources in the planning field to suggest how these conflicts can be explained or the kind of positioning needed to address them.
African cities are closed to the world. Compared with other developing cities, cities in Africa produce fewer goods and services for trade on regional and international markets. To grow economically as they are growing in size, Africa’s cities must open their doors to the world.
They need to specialize in manufacturing, along with other regionally and globally tradable goods and services. And to attract global investment in tradables production, cities must develop, scale economies, which are associated with successful urban economic development in other regions. Such scale economies can arise in Africa, and they will if the city and country leaders make concerted efforts to bring agglomeration effects to urban areas.
Spatial justice and social diversity
New private property investments in Africa’s cities are on the rise, and they often take the form of entirely new cities built up from scratch as comprehensively planned self-contained enclaves.
Development of new cities across Africa are overwhelmingly designed according to twentieth-century planning models ranging from functionalist Chinese grids to American gated communities. Contemporary African new cities based on these models are often unable to adapt to stimuli and, as a result, exacerbate both spatial and ecological challenges.
Although most new cities are private-led projects, they are inserted into diverse and dynamic political economies with states ranging from the developmentalist to neoliberal to absent. The majority of these new cities are suburban enclaves catering to higher income groups. They offer amenities ranging from luxury from reliable water and electricity access to private 24 hours security and horse racing tracks.
The vast majority of these new cities are not designed to transform in response to either system shocks or incremental socio-ecological changes. Rather, they are planned as finite products, with little attention to either existing environmental conditions or future threats.
New and existing urban informalities
Pandemics provide us with opportunities to reflect on our spatial management: good impacts, bad effects and ugly incidences. Although the general trend is that we are coerced into making short term changes; in many spheres, pandemics can serve as potential triggers for implementing long term improvement.
In a time of COVID-19, slums and informality are critical due to the sector’s vulnerability to transmission. It is challenging to deploy testing and contact tracing, as well as adhering to social distancing rules. Many slum residents in African cities lack access to basic essential services such as water, sanitation, housing and health care.
And, given that the informal sector is characterised by unregulated economic activities including uncontrolled hawking and unplanned open markets, overcrowding is impeding social and physical distancing rules in African cities.
Given the disruptions to the supply chain between major cities and the adjoining districts due to the pandemic, it’s about time that planning practitioners and educators learn to prioritise urban planning to reflect these imbalances.
A poorly managed relationship between cities and adjoining regions can create inequality that may lead to unhealthy city-regional interdependence, environmental damage and unmanaged waves of health crises. These can have ripple effects across the urban-rural spectrum.
Planning for climate resilient future
Sub-Saharan Africa’s most pressing challenges include both the development of skills and sustainable governance systems. These challenges are particularly daunting in view of the significant impacts that climate change will impose on African populations. African city government officials are required to deal with these challenges while facing major resource shortages.
Therefore, it is essential that local governments do not work alone, but harness the skills and energy of multiple and diverse city stakeholders. Planning in Africa should ensure city-regions are more resilient by addressing imbalances to produce a more integrated city-regional planning around health, economies, transport networks and food production.
The low levels of development in many African countries, as well as limited institutional, infrastructural, and technical capacities to respond successfully to climate change impacts and climate variability, can exacerbate the situation. In terms of contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, although African countries are the lightest polluters, it has also become apparent that alternative energy sources can offset the increasing energy demand and dependence on biomass. Addressing climate change offers possibilities for low-carbon development.
Moreover, there are promising mechanisms that can address both climate change actions and development goals simultaneously. Africa, a continent exceptionally rich in biodiversity. Existing ecosystems can serve as foundations for green infrastructure to serve the needs of its urban populations while safeguarding fragile biodiversity. The conservation planning and practice will increasingly need to account for direct and indirect impacts of the continent’s urban settlements.
Strengthening resilience, or the ability to respond to and absorb the effects of a hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner and to sustain this ability in the future, and adaptation; the process of adjusting to actual or expected climate change stimuli or their effects, should be at the forefront of planning. Local governments have an important role to play through the provision of adequate infrastructure, regulation of land use, and other public services that are crucial for urban resilience. Mobilizing local governments, in collaboration with national governments, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations, among others, is also critical for an integrated multi-sectoral approach to climate change.