Finding a truly common vision for African cities

The battle for global sustainability will be won or lost … in African cities.

This “Africanization” of global development pioneer Maurice Strong’s famous phrase seems more relevant today than ever, acknowledging that the urban growth rate in Africa is the highest in the world — some 4.5 percent per year. Currently, at least 40 percent of Africans live in an urban environment, a proportion that could rise to half by 2035.

That means that at least 867 million people will soon be added to Africa’s already-bulging urban population. By 2050, the population of Africa’s urban areas will stand at more than 1.3 billion.

Such urbanization should come with many of the advantages that population density typically brings. For instance, this process will hopefully enhance the continent’s economic prosperity and accelerate growth, offer efficient systems of urban centres that produce industrial goods and high-value services, and provide transportation networks that link national economies with regional and global markets. Ideally, it will even facilitate the sharing of prosperity and the reduction of ecological footprints.

There is reason to be hopeful. Currently, after all, 55 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product is created in the continent’s cities. Further, this figure is expected to increase significantly in coming decades.

For many, however, urbanization in Africa has failed to bring the inclusive growth hoped for, and the challenges that will be brought by this new urban sprawl are daunting. Inequality in African cities remains the second highest in the world; the continent’s average “Gini coefficient” — a common measure of inequality — stands at about 0.58, well above the 0.4 global average.

What does this mean for many in the continent? Today, some 60 percent of Africans continue to live in places where water supplies and sanitation are inadequate. Only an estimated 20 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity. And perhaps most concerning, the continued absence of inclusive policies and forward planning means that the proliferation of slums remains the dominant form of city expansion.

[See: Achieving inclusiveness: The challenge and potential of informal settlements]

Yet this year there is an opportunity to start putting in place global guidelines that could do much to reorient the thinking of policymakers in Africa and beyond in such a way that we can start to change these patterns for the better. In October, global leaders will gather in Quito, Ecuador, for the Habitat III conference, where they will agree on a New Urban Agenda that will set global urbanization strategy for the next two decades.

As part of this process, this week African leaders are heading to Abuja, Nigeria, to discuss and agree on a common continental stance for Habitat III. While there is significant potential in this process, it remains unclear whether it will respond to the specific views, needs and experiences of local authorities in Africa. In recent months, however, we have seen a crystallization of many of these views — recommendations that African leaders now need to take into consideration.

Decentralization key

The seventh Africities Summit, which recently took place in Johannesburg, aimed to address the challenges of the continent’s urban areas through a central goal: understanding the impact that African urbanization has on its citizens and the ability of local authorities to deliver services.

In this, participants at the summit agreed on a few core priorities. Foremost among these was that managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges for Africa in the 21st century. Thus, good governance and urban investment are the core needs to ensure that the benefits of urbanization are maximized while negative effects are minimized.

Still, several participants noted, it is important not to adopt a “one size fits all” approach to African urbanization.

“Africa’s urbanization doesn’t fit into the old paradigms of urban development,” Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, UN-Habitat’s deputy executive director, said during the summit. “In European cities, people were attracted to cities through the Industrial Revolution and pulled by factory jobs. In Africa, people are leaving rural areas due to the lack of basic services and jobs, [and moving] into cities that are not ready for them, with low capacity for basic services delivery and lack of job opportunities.”

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

Such challenges highlight the importance of creating decentralized strategies to provide basic services to smaller “intermediate” cities and towns, which can facilitate the transition between rural and non-rural activities. Nearly two-thirds of Africa’s urban population currently lives in cities that have less than a million inhabitants.

“Intermediate cities have become like the front-liners of where the pressure of urbanization is mostly felt and where some of the urban solutions could be found,” Edgar Pieterse, from the African Centre for Cities, said at the summit.

“The role and importance of these cities need to be more recognized among certain national policies,” he said. “This is where most investment and urban planning need to take place: equipping them with proper infrastructure, helping deliver basic services and enabling them for the generation of job opportunities.”

[See: The New Urban Agenda must recognize the importance of intermediary cities]

In order to implement and enhance such strategies, many leaders at the summit, including Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Parks Tau and Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall, emphasized the need to promote decentralization. The relevance of local authorities needs to be highlighted, as does the crucial role they have in addressing urban challenges in every country.

“Local authorities are supposed to be at the forefront of the Sustainable Development Goals and the new climate agenda. It is very important that they see themselves as the implementing agents of these new programmes and act accordingly to address properly the New Urban Agenda,” Tau said at the summit, referring to the new global development framework agreed finalized in September and the new climate agreement agreed to in December.

[See: The SDGs don’t adequately spell out cities’ role in implementation]

Mayor Sall agreed.

“The development of the continent has to start from the ground, and local authorities have a predominant role to play, given that they are in daily contact with the people and consequently more aware of their realities,” he said. “Therefore, action and mobilization of local actors is going to be key to address urban challenges in Africa.”

Strengthening the common position

With such echoes from the Africities Summit in mind, the focus now turns to the Habitat III process and this week’s Abuja meeting, taking place 24-26 February.

African ministers of housing and urban development have put together a draft common African position that aims to address the challenges African cities are facing. This strategy, which is based on eight “pillars of action”, provides the basis on which the Abuja discussions will take place.

These pillars of action have some strong components. For instance, they properly prioritize the need to enhance the potential of urbanization for accelerating structural economic transformation and for fostering sustainability and resilience, promoting people-centred urban development.

However, the current wording and content of the draft document also raise doubts on how African ministers’ see the roles of cities and local authorities. Currently, the proposal lacks recognition of cities as complex and integrated systems with enormous potential  — rather than as mere administrative units.

These eight pillars now need to incorporate a more courageous, even visionary, understanding of the role of local governments. They also need to systematically support and empower local authorities to perform their role.

[See: Localizing the Habitat III agenda]

As many African urban leaders reiterated at the Africities Summit, such empowerment also needs to be aligned with a broad array of key stakeholders in urban development. These include the domestic private sector, municipal associations and civil society, representing communities and citizens including slum-dweller movements and other relevant constituencies.

Although Africa’s urban development will not be an easy journey, it is today being made more difficult by the lack of a clear vision — and political support — for the role of cities. The Habitat III meeting in Abuja will reveal whether the vision conveyed at the Africities summit is one that is shared by all stakeholders.


Article first published by Citiscope, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope. org.

Fernando Casado is the director of the Centro de Alianzas para el Desarrollo and GlobalCAD, based in Barcelona.

Marie-Alexandra Kurth is a senior urban specialist with the Cities Alliance Secretariat in Brussels.

Lisa Reudenbach is an urban analyst with the Cities Alliance Secretariat in Brussels.

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