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African Urban Planning. Way Forward for Africa’s Cities?

Posted by Lindy on October 20, 2011

African Urban Planning. Way Forward for Africa’s Cities?

15 October 2011

An important dimension of Africa’s demographic change is rapid urbanisation. The problem of urbanisation in Africa, however, is not merely the number of urban residents. Compared to other regions, Africa still has one of the lowest levels of urbanisation in the world. According to UN estimates, only 40 per cent of the region’s population lived in urban areas in 2010, compared to about 50 per cent globally. The concern over Africa’s urbanisation, rather, is with its speed: while the roughly 3.3 billion worldwide urban resident population is projected to double by 2050, Africa’s 373 million urban resident population is expected to more than double by as early as 2030, and much of this growth is concentrated in a few areas.

The 2010 population of Lagos Metropolitan Area, for instance, was estimated to be over 12 million, and Kinshasa-Brazzaville was 10.5 million, which now both classified as megacities. Another notable aspect of urbanisation in Africa is that it has not been accompanied by improvements in basic living standards. Unlike in some of the other regions, Africa’s urbanisation is driven by the “push” factors, too many people trying to make a living in rural areas, desertification, lack of resources and wars rather than “pull” factors that result from economic opportunities in the cities.

The region has experienced little or no industrial growth to support this rapid growth of cities, and many African cities are imploding due to infrastructure overload. African urbanisation thus runs counter to the general theory that urbanisation provides greater access to jobs, basic services, and social safety nets.

Africa’s urbanisation challenges

1. Making a living in African cities

A lack of economic opportunities compels Africa’s urban residents towards an array of creative, innovative and inventive strategies to make a living. The informal sector absorbs over 60 per cent of the urban labour force in some African countries, with women forming a large majority of proprietors. While the informal sector has always been part of the urban economy in Africa, many urban residents are now involved in “multiple livelihood strategies”, as people are compelled to employ diversified means of income generation through the acquisition of additional jobs. This practice is not only limited to those in the informal sector, but also by those sections of the population dependent on fixed wages. As a result, the informal sector is no longer the preserve of the poor, but also includes professionals, administrators and other highly ranked formal sector employees. Another activity that many urban residents, including the poor and slum residents, engage in is urban agriculture. Over a third of Kampalans, for instance, now claim to practice it.

2. Difficulty of providing infrastructure

The chaotic expansion of urban spaces in Africa limits the ability of national and local governments to provide urban security and a basic social infrastructure in areas such as health, education, water, and sewage disposal facilities. As a result slums or shanty towns grow, overcoming and swallowing what little crumbling infrastructure that already exists. Many African city dwellers do not have access to electricity or potable water. Waste disposal presents a tremendous health hazard, and indoor air pollution, poor nutrition and urban crime all pose further threats. Slums face additional environmental challenges due to the low quality of construction materials and location on marginal ground. Many slums also flood routinely, and are vulnerable to accidental or malicious fires. The emerging threat of climate change is only likely to intensify these problems.

3. Slum growth

Slums are becoming the norm in the urbanisation of Africa. Nairobi’s slums, for instance, account for about a quarter of the city’s estimated total population of around three million. Poverty, deprivation, crime, violence and general human insecurity have become more prevalent. The unhealthy environment and overcrowded housing expose the urban poor to high rates of infectious diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrhoea. In some African cities, slums emerge due to the lack ownership of land, while inappropriate zoning laws and building codes seem to be the culprits in others.

4. Disease

Urbanisation generally has positive effects on overall human health. African cities, however, have mixed effects on the spread of diseases. On the one hand, urban areas in Africa have better health status because of the availability of healthcare facilities and lower malaria infection rates, due in part to the availability of bed-nets. On the other hand, HIV infection rates are generally higher in urban areas and especially high in slums, where sexual coercion and violence against women accelerate its spread.

5. Urban environmental problems

As African cities become overcrowded, the pollution of the urban environment exacerbates environmental disasters and contributes to health problems. Heavy traffic and emissions are the cause of respiratory problems, heavy noise pollution, road accidents and stressful journeys, as well as other urban nuisances. Industrial and residential emissions, domestic wood and coal fire emissions, crude dumping of solid waste and improper landfills, sewers, septic or fuel tank leakages and water effluents all contribute to the degradation of environmental health in already overcrowded cities. Food and other contaminants, as well as communicable diseases – cholera, malaria, and diarrhoea, amongst others – also threaten the life and health of urban dwellers. These areas are also more vulnerable to health hazards like natural disasters.


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