Perspectives #03/2012: What Are Sustainable African Cities?

While Africa’s average level of urbanisation still lags behind that of the developed world, the world’s fastest growing cities are in Africa. The 2010 State of African Cities Report indicates that Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, grew at an annual rate of 8.6 percent between 2000 and 2005. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme estimates that 40 percent of Africa’s population lives in urban areas. By 2030 this figure will have climbed to 50 percent, and is projected to rise to 60 percent by 2050.

In absolute figures, the continent’s urban population will triple from 395 million to 1.23 billon people between 2009 and 2050. Growth in sub-Saharan Africa is particularly strong, with South Africa’s population already 61.5 percent urbanised. In the next ten to fifteen years the population of Nairobi could double, while Addis Ababa is expected to grow by over 60 percent. Lagos will become the largest city on the continent, surpassing Cairo.

The message these statistics convey is clear: African governments and their development partners cannot afford to ignore the rapid urban transition taking place across the continent. However, finding and implementing solutions to the overwhelming challenges involved is daunting, even more so in a context where diverse development priorities and objectives must compete over scarce resources.

The growth of African cities is typically reflected in the growth of their slum settlements. This means that most of Africa’s new urban dwellers will reside in an urban fabric characterised by low employment, shoddy building material, housing construction on unsuitable land, poor sanitation, and inadequate access to water, energy, health and education services. Under such conditions, urban sustainability depends on African cities implementing mutually reinforcing social, economic and environmental decisions and actions.

It also demands careful consideration of the technological and infrastructure change trajectories that these cities adopt. Technologies that are promoted without adequate assessment of their social, economic and environmental contexts run the risk of failing to deliver on developmental objectives - namely, to make African cities more sustainable, equitable and liveable. An integrative approach to urban development is key to achieving sustainability objectives.

This edition of Perspectives asks, “What are sustainable African cities?”. In so doing, it offers a snapshot of Africa’s urban sustainability challenges, ranging from tensions between heritage and urban renewal in Addis Ababa to building climate resilience in poor African households. We look at issues such as urban fragmentation through private-sector led developments that create “islands of privilege” in a “sea of poverty”.

This edition also highlights selected sustainable development initiatives offering innovative solutions that are sensitive to the overwhelming challenges posed by urban African informal settlements. The Floating Cities Project, for example, was inspired by the informal fishing community of Makoko which was built into the lagoon waters of Lagos. It offers an urban development vision for coastal African cities that allows for “maximum urbanisation with minimum means” in a context of rapid urbanisation and climate change.

Importantly, the articles gathered here advocate sustainable development approaches that build the urban political constituency, and catalyze its participation in decision making and in-situ development processes in the vast, densely populated informal settlements that characterise African cities. Physical and political sustainability within urban governance and planning frameworks is critical in order to bring the urban poor into planning, finance and political decision making processes at the local and national government levels, as well as in international development agencies.

By 2030, two-thirds of Africa’s total population will likely be under the age of twenty-five. This projection adds urgency to the need to engage hitherto marginalised youth - a task that African authorities seem hardly equipped to tackle. Whether marginal youth, women in slums, or poor communities in general, the urban poor must be empowered by harnessing their agency, while at the same time ensuring that institutions fulfil their responsibilities. The alternative is to continue reducing Africa’s growing urban population to recipients of development aid.

This issue of Perspectives addresses some of the issues at the core of this dilemma. There are of course no “blueprint” solutions, especially in the diverse and varied range of African urban contexts. Nonetheless, it is our hope that the articles in this edition can contribute some lessons, reflections and ideas to help map a way forward in tackling the challenges of sustainable growth and development in African cities.

Product details
Date of Publication
December 2012
Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Office South Africa
Number of Pages