African cities and the New Urban Agenda

The International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) recently published a special issue that builds upon debates initiated at the Habitat III conference, held in Quito in October. The issue, titled ‘A new urban paradigm: pathways to sustainable development‘ explicitly deals with African urban issues in two of its chapters. The University of Cape Town’s Nancy Odendaal writes on exploring new parameters for the future planning of cities in Africa. Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, writes on an alternative new urban agenda for Africa.

Other articles also deal indirectly with urban issues on the continent and help to put African urbanisation into perspective on a global scale.

Odendaal’s article draws our attention to the need to better consider the various settlement typologies that make up African urban spaces. As the article notes, cities with under 1 million inhabitants make up 62% of the urban population in Africa but are hardly considered in comparison with larger city-regions.

In order to deliver the promises of the 2030 Agenda, Africa’s urbanisation needs to be adaptive at different scales and prompt new ways of looking at the classic parameters of urban planning, such as the role of state as planner, the power of infrastructure investments and so forth, Odendaal points out. Given the limited technical activity that planning has in many places in Africa, it is clear that urban planning needs to adapt.

Hence, informality must be a central concern for planners. In this respect, it is essential that planning does not constrain economic activities at large but rather enables them and takes careful consideration of the myriad of opportunities it represents. Urban planning needs to better integrate infrastructure investment in its agenda, a domain which is often “outside the realm of city planners and with scant consideration of the interface with land use,” writes Odendaal (p:19). Land tenure issues and the impact of climate change also require full consideration.

In a similar vein, Pieterse  wants to foster a “grounded new urban debate” (p:22). African commitments to sustainable urbanisation, such as the Common African position on Habitat III, are often too “extensive and diluted,” he writes (p:22). It is time that the change in attitude towards urbanisation across Africa now translates into sound and ambitious policy formulations.

Confronting what he sees as four competing imaginaries on African cities, Pieterse advocates for a model of the ‘adaptive city’ characterized by its affordability and inclusivity. This is a city that learns from experimentation and which prioritizes the importance of catalytic infrastructures at the city-regional scale” (p :22). This vision is built against status quo and smart city models, the latter being considered unaffordable and not inclusive enough, though transformative in a sense.

Publication available from International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth.

Image: Four scenarios for urban development in Africa. Pieterse 2015.


Publication Type Report
Publisher UNDP's International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth
Year 2016
Author(s) Nancy Odendaal, Edgar Pieterse
Editor(s) Michael MacLennan
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