Lagos in Nigeria is expected to be the world’s biggest city by the turn of the century. Image credit: Wikipedia

01 October 2020 – Africa is the most rapidly urbanising continent, with 50% of the population projected to be living in cities by 2035. The populations of the continent’s 10 fastest-growing cities are increasing at rates ranging from 19 people per hour in Mali to 77 per hour in Lagos, which is expected to be the world’s biggest city by the turn of the century.

Most of the growth is occurring in slums and informal settlements. As many as 86% of African urban residents are reliant on the informal sector for their livelihoods. The phenomenon of African urbanisation and the unique nature of the continent’s cities is explored in the sixth edition of Africa Insights, a collaboration between African law firm Bowmans and researchers at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Complex Systems in Transition.

The publication outlines the enormous challenges facing most African cities – further exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but it also highlights the potential for new and transformative city systems.

This does not necessarily mean that eco cities, also known as smart cities, are the answer. Such cities, examples being Nigeria’s Eko Atlantic City, Kenya’s Tatu City and Rwanda’s Vision City, might offer tantalising visions of potential, but have been criticised for reinforcing splintered urbanism that effectively excludes the poor.

Rather than using approaches from the global north, urban development should be designed specifically to suit Africa by, for example, working with rather than against the informal character of African urban life.

It will also be important to implement urban development policies that address land use mismanagement and fragmented development, as well as to reform and enforce urban regulations, and strengthen urban governance.

Critically, there must be investment in smarter urban infrastructure and 4IR technologies, and the establishment of dedicated funding for the upscaling of urban technology. Equally critical is the need to protect the environment. If African cities are to be sustainable, they must be underpinned by an understanding of their resource flows so that consumption can be managed to lessen environmental impact per tonne of materials consumed.

By finding a balance between protecting the environment, encouraging economic growth, and relieving social equity pressures, it should be possible to establish African cities that are equitable, liveable, and economically productive. The starting point is to view the cumulative crises occurring in African cities as an opportunity.

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