Dakar: a fragmented agglomeration

In Senegal’s capital a long absence of urban planning has led to the anarchic development of economic activities and residential settlements as well as the remarkable polarity of the city, writes Alé Badara Sy.

To analyse the geopolitics of the Dakar agglomeration, it is necessary to recount a little bit of history and a lot of geography. The recent history of the Senegalese capital arises from the colonial period during which it was preferred to Saint-Louis to host the capital first of French West Africa and then of an independent Senegal. These strategic choices are explained by its privileged position as a crossroads, which has reinforced its international ascendance from a political, cultural, economic and touristic point of view.

Today Dakar represents 0.3 percent of the Senegalese territory but concentrates more than 80 percent of its economic activities. It is home to more than a quarter of the total, and half the urban, population of Senegal. The attractiveness of the capital, which is a place of many challenges, has unfurled in an anarchic manner since the city has been developed without any urban planning. This reinforces the complexity of dysfunctions and urban challenges within the city, which enjoys a particular status making it worthy of the greatest attention of the central state that drives it.

Despite these constraints, Dakar constitutes a major asset for Senegal.

Assets and weaknesses of a city in flux

A showcase for Senegal, the city of Dakar possesses numerous assets: an oceanfront, a moderate climate, a relatively young population, a national theatre, museums and several university institutions. It constitutes the veritable motor of the national economy, which explains the high number of jobseekers swelling the ranks of its informal sector.

The local economy, of which the state remains the principal animator, contributes over 60 percent to the creation of national wealth. It is dominated by the tertiary sector, whose activities are essentially concentrated in the city centre: banks, big businesses, state-owned enterprises, the seat of the central government, the chief of staff of the military, embassies, and commercial centres surrounding the great market of Sandaga.

The City of Dakar itself concentrates more than 80 percent of economic activities [of the region of Dakar]. Its port is the largest provider of employment. Because of its strong primacy Dakar constitutes the focus of immigration as much at the national level as at the sub-regional level. Its demographic dynamism is the result of a strong natural growth, combined with the exodus issuing essentially from secondary cities and sustained immigration from countries elsewhere in the sub-region. But the existence of these assets must not mask the weaknesses and important dysfunctions of the city.

In effect, the urban phenomenon of Dakar is characterised by a lack of spatial control. This is the result of the long absence of urban planning which has led to the anarchic development of economic activities and of residential settlements, to the degradation of the quality of life, to the housing crisis and to the already very remarkable polarity of the city. The urban structure is marked by a spatial disequilibrium and an incoherence of the urban tissue.

This strong primacy of Dakar has become very constraining and brings with it a chronic congestion of vehicular traffic, which affects both the local and national economy. The deployment of the tollway system since August 1, 2013, has strongly contributed to easing movement between Dakar and its hinterland.

Urban challenges and dysfunctions

The urban development of the city is strongly constrained by an ensemble of dysfunctions that find their origins in the city’s poor spatial division. The poor repartition of economic activities and organising infrastructure, the road system maladapted to this spatial division, the anarchy of land uses, the isolation of the suburbs, the overpopulation and overcrowding of poorer areas, real estate speculation, the absence of multimodal transport links, are many of the factors which form obstacles to the harmonious development of the agglomeration.

The current form of the city is the result of a segregating process advanced in a piecemeal fashion since the colonial occupation with a “working” city (la ville “utile”) that was planned while the rest of the region was left to itself. This illustrates the social and spatial disparities that prevail in the agglomeration.

The population of Dakar represents a quarter of the national population and half the urban population. Young people—those less than 35 years old —represent more than 70 percent of the regional population. This population is unequally repartitioned and is located principally in the large cities of the agglomeration (Dakar, Guédiawaye and Pikine). More than 97 percent of residents live on close to 40 percent of the region’s area, the rest being composed of weakly populated rural and agricultural zones. This illustrates a “one-way” urbanisation which has not unfurled without bringing with it social consequences (insalubrity, begging, delinquency, etc.). These disparities explain the importance of flows between Dakar, zone of activity and employment, and its suburbs, zone of dormitories, underequipped and isolated.

Dakar is animated by the most entrenched forms of poverty and a growing level of begging. It constitutes a refuge for job seekers and the vulnerable population increases daily.

At the spatial level, poverty manifests itself in precarious modes of living (slums, spontaneous neighbourhoods, squatting of houses under construction) and by the relegation of the most empty-handed to the most remote areas. This residential segregation is accentuating and appears as a reinforcement of the disparities between Dakar — “city of the rich” — and its poor suburbs. This phenomenon is on the rise in moments marked by a scarcity of housing and land in the large cities of the agglomeration and a reconversion of residential areas into zones of economic and commercial activity.

The degradation of the environment is the consequence of poor territorial division. Environmentally, Dakar is today characterised by the disappearance of urban green spaces, the amplification and spread of risks, the pollution of seawater and the air, particularly due to dysfunctions in urban transport. To this is added coastal erosion, the accelerated degradation of the Niayes nature reserve, the chaotic management of urban waste and the recurrence of problems related to flooding.

A territory of challenges and permanent conflicts

Dakar poses powerful challenges and the current territorial division of the agglomeration, which smacks of politics, is a perfect illustration. The division issuing from the last decentralisation reform of 1996 is marked by a fragmentation of local government and a juxtaposition of different forms of government over the small area of 550 km². The territorial organisation is translated into an accentuated splintering of institutions horizontally and vertically, leading at the same time to a sectorisation of politics and of urban conflicts between local government organisations themselves, and between them and the central state whose omnipresence on the urban domain chokes municipal initiatives.

The administrative region of Dakar, represented by a regional council, is subdivided into four départements: Dakar, Guédiawaye, Pikine and Rufisque. These are further divided into four cities (of the same names) comprising 43 communes d’arrondissement (which are similar to boroughs), six other communes (Bargny, Sébikotane, Jaxaay-Niakoul Rab, Sangalkam, Sendou et Diamniadio), and three rural communities (Yenne, Bambylor and Tivaouane Peulh-Niaga).

It should be noted that the decentralisation reform has created territories that are politicised, with little sense of solidarity and in perpetual conflict. The “balkanisation” of local governance is at the origin of multiple conflicts over control of portions of the political territories created by decentralisation. The most exacerbated conflicts are seen on the one hand between the communes d’arrondissement and on the other hand between them and the principal cities. These rivalries contribute in a significant manner to the degradation of the quality of life. For many experts, the communes d’arrondissement “pose more problems than they resolve”, thus the necessity to “rethink the way decentralisation is managed in Dakar”.

In practice, the implementation of decentralisation has led to a re-emergence of territorial conflicts, which have also involved local populations. Multiple urban challenges result: institutional, territorial, environmental and economic. Public space and land constitute the principal objects of challenges and conflicts and these are principally linked to their use.

In urban areas, public space has become an economic challenge for the communes d’arrondissement in search of financial manna for the functioning of their institutions. The “cantinisation” (the breaking up into tiny allotments) of space, the proliferation of street markets and commercial activities occurs to the detriment of public space, which now sees a major crisis. This contributes to the degradation of the environment and to urban sprawl. In peri-urban areas, the unrestrained race for land and the land conflicts that result have never been larger than since the decentralisation of urban governance. The fragmentation of local government born of this reform has led to a terrible territorial competition between local government bodies. This competition has weakened the less competitive and less attractive territories, preventing them from profiting from the increasing urbanisation of the agglomeration from which the potential remains enormous.

Large projects induce conflict around Dakar

For a decade, to improve conditions for the people of Dakar, successive governments have initiated large projects within and surrounding the capital. Seeking the realisation of organising infrastructure, these projects are the origin of multiple urban and environmental conflicts. The realisation of the Dakar-Diamniadio tollway has led to the displacement of close to 100,000 inhabitants. This is the largest operation of population displacement in sub-Saharan Africa. It has necessitated the creation of a new city in the peri-urban area of the capital. This and its knock-on projects have not been developed without clashes with residents in these areas, local government bodies, the displaced populations and between the different branches of the state.

The case of the waste management site of Sindia is an example of environmental conflict. This locality in the region of Thiès, 42 km east of the capital, is destined to house a new modern waste management centre receiving waste from Dakar and surrounds, replacing that of Mbeubeuss. For more than five years this project, which ought to be perceived as an opportunity by these populations, continues to sustain recriminations on their part. The current situation seems very critical and the social context is unfavourable.

The conflicts related to the implantation of the waste management project appear to be paradoxical with regards to the socioeconomic development objectives sought through this infrastructure. The analysis of the sociological challenges highlights the social perception of environmental infrastructure projects and the place of the territories in the management of conflicts in peri-urban areas that are in full growth. Today, the peri-urban has truly become a veritable place of challenges because of the land shortage within Dakar and the opening of urbanisation into these rural spaces thanks to the tollway.

Metropolitanisation is an opportunity

The urban sprawl of the agglomeration seems irreversible. The large projects enacted in the periphery of Dakar inevitably reinforce the interdependencies between the capital and its immediate hinterland. These sites will inevitably give birth to important spatial transformations, and a political and institutional recomposition of the project territories. We are heading towards a metropolitanisation of the agglomeration with the establishment of a new urban pole around the triangle Diass-Pout-Diamniadio. This space will constitute a new centre in competition with the city of Dakar above all by the fact of its position as a gateway and entry point between Dakar and its hinterland, but also by the fact of its proximity with Mbour (a tourist capital), Thiès (the second economic city of the country) and Diass (a new industrial city and airport in planning).

The city is spreading but is also densifying increasingly and we are wending towards the multiplication and intensification of conflicts. The mutations have taken such a scale that if no reflective and urgent action is taken, in substance and in form, the expected growth of the city will be negative. The process of urbanisation has attained an irreversible level. The dynamic of urbanisation has reached a new step which the local collectivities, urban professionals and even the central government are not equipped to face.

The urban context in Dakar is marked by spatial mutations that accentuate the urban dysfunction. The mutations underway risk amplifying due to the economic dynamism of the agglomeration, and everything would leave one to believe that the works enacted in and surrounding the region are only the beginning of a long process of metropolitanisation of the agglomeration which will tend to reinforce the geopolitical centrality of Dakar.

Alé Badara Sy, geographer and urbanist, is founding President of the Club de Réflexion sur l’Urbain, a think tank on the urban issues of Senegal. Within UN-HABITAT he has coordinated the urban development strategy of greater Dakar. Today he works in the domain of large projects.

This article forms part of urbanafrica’s urban reporting series and was translated from French to English by Kerwin Datu.

Image via wikimedia commons user mostroneddo.

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply