Urbanisation: For Better Or For Worse

Any discussion of the world’s biggest cities tends to revolve around Tokyo, Mexico City and the mushrooming centres of China’s industrialised southeast. Yet recent forecasts suggest that many sub-Saharan cities will join this list as Africans continue to migrate from rural areas to centres of employment on a wave of hope that all too often […]


Any discussion of the world’s biggest cities tends to revolve around Tokyo, Mexico City and the mushrooming centres of China’s industrialised southeast. Yet recent forecasts suggest that many sub-Saharan cities will join this list as Africans continue to migrate from rural areas to centres of employment on a wave of hope that all too often ends in disappointment.

But it is in the cities that wealth is created, new ideas circulate, fashions and trends created and the good life can be lived – at least for some. Africa’s transformation into a continent of urban dwellers is presenting an increasing challenge for governments and developers, but Africa’s cities of the future also provide an extraordinary canvas for innovation, the application of modern design concepts and novel systems of providing services. We examine where our cities are at present and peer forward into the future of our urban landscape.

The question of global population growth and urbanisation took centre stage when the UN claimed that the world’s population had reached 7bn on or around 31st October this year. It is, of course, impossible to identify the seven-billionth person and even the UN itself admits a wide degree of error over the date on which the historic barrier was broken. Population forecasts are notoriously difficult to make. A slight change in infant mortality, life expectancy or economic growth can have profound implications for long-term estimates.

However, there is no doubt that the global population is growing; and nowhere more rapidly than in Africa. In the midst of such demographic projections it is easy to forget what we are actually talking about here. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “This is not a story about numbers. This is a story about people. Seven billion people who need enough food, enough energy, good opportunities in life for jobs and education, rights and freedoms: the freedom to speak, the freedom to raise their own children in peace and security.”

The population of Africa is believed to have first topped 1bn in November 2009, just 27 years after it reached 500m. There were an estimated 395m people in African cities in 2009, close to 40% of the continent’s population, which is a greater proportion than in India but smaller than in China. The African continent’s urban population growth rate currently stands at 3.4% a year, which may not sound much on paper but is equivalent to 13.5m more people needing housing, food and water in African urban environments every year.

All forecasts suggest that the rate of global population increase will slow down over the next 20 years, followed soon after by a decline in the rate of African population growth. The rate of growth tends to fall as socio-economic conditions improve and women have better access to education and more scope to plan their families. Nevertheless, reproduction by the current huge population of young Africans is likely to take the continent’s population above the 2bn mark sometime after 2050.

Perhaps the most startling national population forecasts relate to Nigeria. The UN’s projection for Africa’s most populous country is 730m by 2100, more than the projected population of the whole of Europe at 675m, at that date. A report published by UN Habitat – The State of African Cities 2010: Governance, Inequalities and Urban Land Markets – found that the population of Lagos is already growing by 6% a year, while the country’s total urban population is expected to rise by 140m by 2050.

The figures are staggering. Over the next 40 years, the number of people living in Africa’s cities is expected to triple, so that 60% of all Africans, or 1.23bn people, will live in urban environments by 2050. The UN forecasts that more Africans will live in cities and towns than rural areas by 2030, a full 180 years after this first occurred, in Victorian Britain. At least 14 African countries are expected to be at least 80% urbanised by 2050. About half of the global population growth over the next 40 years will take place in Africa. We could fill this entire article with equally astounding figures.

Africa’s megacities

The biggest city in Africa at present is Cairo but the Egyptian capital is expected to be overtaken by Lagos by 2015, when it is forecast to have 12.4m inhabitants according to figures from UN Habitat. By 2020, the biggest cities in Africa outside the northern littoral and South Africa are forecast to be Lagos (14.2m), Kinshasa (12.8m), Luanda (7.1m), Abidjan (5.5m), Nairobi (5.2m) and Dar es Salaam (5.1m). The fastest-growing city in West Africa over the next decade will be Ouagadougou, the population of which is expected to increase 81% from 1.9m in 2010 to 3.4m by 2020. The other nine of the 10 fastest-growing cities are Abuja, Bamako, Luanda, Lubumbashi, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Mbuji-Mayi and Niamey, all of which are expected to experience population growth of 47-57% between 2010 and 2020.

It is tempting to focus investment on the continent’s biggest cities but despite the futuristic stereotype of African megacities, more rapid growth is likely in towns and smaller cities than in cities with populations in excess of 1m. An estimated 51m Nigerians already live in smaller urban centres.

Such rapid urbanisation is neither intrinsically good nor bad in its own right. Much depends on how it is managed. An image of African urban life as informal settlements without access to electricity or reliable water supplies is often presented. Such problems are very real yet 70% of African urbanites have access to electricity in some form, compared to just 10% in rural areas. In terms of human history, urbanisation is associated with improved human development, rising incomes and better living standards. However, it can also result in growing inequality, insanitary housing and entrenched poverty.

Push and pull

The process of moving out of the countryside and into the cities is far from straightforward as different people move for different reasons. However, as in all the best geography textbooks, it is still appropriate to consider this movement in terms of push and pull factors: those dynamics that push people out of rural areas and those which lure them into the cities. Lack of employment, access to services and the perceived opportunities of cities can all encourage people to migrate.

The introduction of more modern agricultural practices usually involves greater use of irrigation, fertiliser and machinery but less manpower, except in niche sectors, such as horticulture. Joan Clos, the UN under secretary-general and executive director of UN Habitat, commented: “People are looking for a better future and they think the city can offer that.” In a report published in October, South Africa’s Standard Bank added: “Enticed by the promise of economic prosperity, millions of Africans are converging on the continent’s ballooning urban nodes.”

This transfer of population creates huge challenges for food supply chains; the provision of water, wastewater and power infrastructure; rubbish collection; overcrowding, transport systems and much more. Some forms of infrastructure, such as water distribution and wastewater collection systems, often do not extend far beyond the colonial-era hearts of capital cities. Yet in many ways it can be easier to provide services in urban than rural settings.

With such rapid urbanisation rates, it is understandable that housing improvements have been unable to keep up with urban population growth. Most analysts predict that urban growth will merely encourage the spread of informal urban settlements, but as the following pages demonstrate, various urban developments are now under way in Nigeria, Kenya and elsewhere on the continent that could be replicated to provide long-term solutions.

Standard Bank analyst Simon Freemantle says: “Given the immense challenges posed by inadequate infrastructure in Africa, urban conglomerations allow for greater and more immediate benefit for public spending on key infrastructure projects supporting economic growth. As a result, urban inhabitants have greater access to basic infrastructure services, providing profound support to relevant commercial aspirations. Moreover, with high user volumes, infrastructure projects in large cities become more economically viable, and are thus more likely to attract private funding.”

There are certainly signs of hope on the continent. The number of people living in slums in the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt fell from a combined 20.8m in 1990 to 11.8m in 2010.

UN Habitat defines slums as informal settlements without basic infrastructure but with insanitary conditions; a lack of sufficient living area; or lack of security of tenure. It estimated the number of sub-Saharan African slum dwellers reached a record 199.5m last year, although the number fell by more than 20% in three countries in the region: Ghana, Senegal and Uganda. In each case, government intervention in the form of planning regulation made a big difference. In addition, the creation of a more regulated form of land tenure has encouraged householders to improve their properties across the continent.

The benefits

It is often argued that people move to cities because of the perceived benefits but in ignorance of the problems that await them. Today’s modern mobile communications mean that people are well informed but still chose to make the journey, albeit often in stages, from rural areas to small towns and then to larger cities. They have much more information with which to make a decision and often vote with their feet. Despite undoubted urban problems, it is too easy to overlook rural poverty. At present, the average poverty rate in rural areas across the entire continent stands at 52%, falling to 35% in urban areas.

Freemantle said: “Urbanisation is both important and inevitable. If leveraged effectively, and supported by enhanced institutions, the swelling of Africa’s large, intermediate and secondary cities can be a profoundly relevant tool in the elevation of socio-economic wellbeing across the continent. African cities will be the pivotal means for the continent to raise productivity, enhance economic output and relevance, and adjust social and economic inequality.”

Economic geographers often talk of the economies of scale and benefits of agglomeration that are achieved through urbanisation. It is certainly true that urban populations tend to generate more GDP than their rural counterparts. Economic growth encourages rural to urban migration and provides benefits to businesses in terms of access to labour.

The Standard Bank report insists that it “positively influences productivity. Meanwhile, a broader local market enables easier access to the benefits of scale in production, facilitates enhanced access to suppliers and specialised services, and reduces transaction costs. Urban employees also tend to earn significantly higher wages than rural workers, enabling a greater swelling of the consumer base.”

While the world has struggled to meet many of the Millennium Development Goals, the target of taking 100m people out of slum conditions by 2020 has already been met. The number of people whose lives have been sufficiently improved to qualify has already reached 227m but most of them live in Asia rather than sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, an estimated 172m live in China and India alone. Far less progress has been made over that period in Africa but growing interest in mass social housing schemes and stronger economic growth in Africa over the past decade suggest that the living conditions of sub-Saharan Africans could improve over the next generation.

Clos of UN Habitat says: “This will take considerable political will and financial resources. Most of all it will require a commitment to strategic urban planning that integrates public private partnerships so that the needs of the poor will be met.”

Even in Africa, the process of urbanisation is about to enter a new phase. Most increase in urban population on the continent over the past 30 has been the result of rural-urban migration but most growth over the next three decades is expected to come from natural urban population growth. Clos adds: “No African government can afford to ignore the ongoing rapid urban transition taking place across the continent. Cities must become priority areas for public policies, with hugely increased investments to build adequate governance capacities, equitable services delivery, affordable housing provision and better wealth distribution.”

As the rest of this report demonstrates, urbanisation offers both opportunities and difficulties. Private sector innovation is vital but even more important is the regulation of new development. Marrying the two sides of successful development is perhaps the biggest challenge for the various ambitious urban projects discussed in this report.

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