How Should African Cities Look in the Future?

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How to tackle the rapid urbanization of African cities was the main question discussed at the seminar titled “Africa’s Cities and Sustainability”. Held during the African Development Bank Annual Meetings in Marrakech, Morocco on May 28, the workshop brought together figures from Washington, DC to Nairobi.

The panelists included Trevor Manuel, Minister of the Planning Commission of South Africa; Robert Luzolanu Mavena, Minister of Planning of the Democratic Republic of Congo; Danny Leipziger, Managing Director of the Growth Dialogue; Thierry Paulais, environmentalist and economist; Juan Clos, Executive Director of UN-Habitat; and Alexander D’Hooghe, Director at MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism. The panel was moderated by Daniel Makokera, Director of Pamuzinda Productions, African Media Production House based in Johannesburg.

While the participants took part in a heated debate, which covered the different ways to urbanize an African city, all agreed that the process required planning and financing to ensure its smooth development. As Juan Clos observed, urbanization on the continent is different than in any other continent in the world because “it is taking place early in the process of economic growth. For instance 65% of the urban population lives in slum in Sub-Sahara Africa today.”

In addition, Danny Leipziger explained that Africa’s lower density renders the delivery of infrastructure difficult and that each city varies in terms of connectivity. “The early urbanizers take a lot more effort to plan than the large cities like Nairobi or than the metropolises like Cairo, which raise questions of livability.”

The Republic of South Africa and the city of Kinshasa were chosen as case studies to discuss how to adapt different concepts to different landscapes. While Johannesburg is a city that has been spreading, a city like Kinshasa needs to expand upwards. In that regard, Juan Clos’ pushed for the creation of pragmatic planet city extension “knowing that we are mainly preaching in a difficult land”.

Even though the idea may sound appealing to some, Alexander D’Hooghe warned against it, claiming that resilience and leap-frogging – the concept that development can be accelerated by skipping inferior and less efficient technologies to directly more advanced ones – were the way forward. He stated that “you do not want to rely solely and be dependent on one economic growth.” Instead, he explained the importance of “economic diversity to ensure economic growth.”

Thierry Paulais stressed the urgency to put plans into place now. “We need to ensure that cities in African are designed in such a way that over the next 25 years they will be able to accommodate the entire population of the United States of America”. So far, very little investment has been carried out and “in many cities the level per capital equipment is actually dropping while we need investment,” he continued.

It appears that because of the current lack of planning and financing, people build anywhere and anyhow which is causing an erosion uncontrolled infrastructure. Mavena is thus working in partnership with UN-Habitat on projects that can restructure and eventually agglomerate part of the city of Kinshasa. “We look at provinces in order to create a corridor of growth. It is good to have growth, but it has to be beneficial to all,” he said.

Each panelist shared the belief that urban plans must be implemented today in order to look forward, but these projects prove to be rather difficult to put into place as there is no political escape. As Juan Clos concluded, “Urbanization is a political and human factor. It’s about humans and it is about vision. Political will is not enough. You need a strategy.”

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