Five reasons Africa needs to reinvent the city

by Cape Town Partnership

Africa’s cities are facing some exciting, frightening and rapid change. UN-Habitat’s latest “State of African Cities” report attempts to map this change and create a tool for future-oriented urban planning. What are some of the insights of the report, and what can Cape Town as an African city learn from this?

How dense are Africa’s cities? How developed is their infrastructure? How rapidly are they growing and sprawling? What factors – economic, environmental, political – are affecting the way people live in cities? How do Africa’s cities impact the environment? These are just some of the questions being addressed in the 2014 “State of African Cities Report”, published by UN-Habitat. The report is the third in a series that attempts to measure and map crucial urban trends in Africa, with a view of creating a tool for effective policy-making.

“The main premise of this report is that effectively addressing the vulnerabilities and risks to which the African populations are increasingly being exposed may, perhaps, require a complete rethinking of current urban development trajectories if sustainable transitions are to be achieved,” wrote Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat, in his introduction. His sentiment is echoed by many journalists, such as Marelise van der Merwe, who recently wrote about how Africa’s cities are “crying out for re-imagination” in the Daily Maverick. With the help of the report, we have identified five reasons why planning for Africa needs to be extra-imaginative.

  1.     Africa is not the West

“African cities are often analysed from a perspective that sees urbanism and urban living as progressing towards the example set by Western paradigms,” writes Joan. Upon their independence, many African nations took on various imported development models at the bequest of international organisations and banks, but these models failed to achieve what their proponents had hoped they would. “The conditions and circumstances that prevailed in the world’s industrialised societies during the 20th century – and which shaped their cities’ form and function – are no longer the same in today’s world. Global climate and environmental change, as well as increasing awareness of water, food or energy insecurities, for instance, are now starting to shape our understanding of the dire need for new visions on what good urban management for the 21st century entails.” Africa is not Europe or the United States, and the 21st century is not the 20th. Imported models are not the answer.

  1.     Rapid urbanisation

The primary challenge for Africa in the decades to come is massive population growth in a context of widespread poverty. Below is a graph for the population growth predictions for each major region globally. While growth in most regions seems to plateau after some decades, Africa’s continues to rise.

While the number of people living in Africa’s cities is still below 50% of the continent’s total population, it is a figure that is also growing rapidly. Africa’s city-dwellers are expected to rise from 400 million people in 2010 to 1.26 billion people in 2050 – roughly triple. Over a quarter of the 100 fastest-growing cities in the world are in Africa. The continent already has more than 52 cities with populations of 1 million people or more.

  1.     Widespread poverty and slums

Currently, around 50% of Africans are living on incomes of less than US$1 a day. While the continent is rapidly urbanising, poverty remains widespread. Together with under-developed urban industries and infrastructure, this contributes to the proliferation of slums. According to the report: “Ubiquitous urban poverty and urban slum proliferation, so characteristic of Africa’s large cities, is likely to become an even more widespread phenomenon under current urban development trajectories.”

  1.     Development in an age of globalisation

The world has become more connected. Markets have moved from being primarily local, where each country catered for itself, to being primarily global, where the cheapest goods are sought out on a global scale. This has presented Africa with an additional developmental challenge: global and financial economic markets are fiercely competitive, and the competition is uneven. This often leaves Africa bereft of natural resources or cripplingly dependent on global imports. What sustainable economic models can be imagined for Africa, and how can cities support their growth? Cities can help bring more people closer to newer opportunities, but in order to be resilient, these opportunities need to support a more productive strategy for African global economic participation. “Strategies like exploring new technologies for raising domestic productivity and expanding intra-African trade and investment flows will help take Africa’s economy beyond traditional capital structures into a newer and more resilient pattern of investment, trade, production, and consumption,” commented Cape Town Partnership researcher Andrew Fleming.

  1.     Taking the lead in creating greener solutions

Climate change and resource scarcity are both growing threats for African cities. But the fact that Africa is still well below the 50% urban population threshold presents an opportunity: cities can use this moment to reconceptualise their approaches to urban development and create more sustainable built environments in anticipation of an influx of new urbanites across the continent. By doing so, Africa can take the global lead in innovating greener, healthier and more sustainable cities in ways that continue to expand opportunity for more people.

Challenges of the report

Joan is quick to point out that this report does not offer ready-made solutions: “Cities are simply too individual and specific in their needs and vulnerabilities for standardised solutions. Rather, the current report analyses the emerging challenges and risks with a view to facilitating discussions at regional, national and local levels.” However imaginative our long-term thinking about Africa is, we still need more data.A large informal sector, vital to the functioning of Africa’s cities, means accurate data is not always readily available. In order for the findings of this report to be used with confidence, expanded and ongoing research is needed at a grassroots level.

What can Cape Town learn?

The Cape Town Partnership is inspired and encouraged by the report, having long promoted local solutions for local problems. In defining and promoting a sense of African liveability, some of our research includes the Low Carbon Central City strategy document, the CCID’s State of the Central City Report and the more exploratory work currently being done in Woodstock and the East City.

“The 2014 State of African Cities Report opens up many new ways of looking at urban development work, most importantly in connecting broader themes of development with local results,” said Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, CEO of the Cape Town Partnership. “By working to make sure that the themes of inclusivity, sustainability, economic growth and inter-governmental partnerships are at the heart of our people-first work, the Cape Town Partnership can continue to promote a more resilient city for all who live here.”

Image: A view of the Khayelitsha hostels, photo by Bruce Sutherland

This article originally at The Cape Town Partnership on 27 August 2014.