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Building Sustainable Cities

Building Sustainable Cities


For Tola and Chudi, a young Nigerian musical duo who moved from their rural towns to Lagos, the big city is where they hope to build a better future for their families.  The same is true for Ousman Jamba, a 38-year-old itinerant factory hand in Benguela, Angola, and Cheikh, an 18-year-old tour guide in Dakar. They and millions of other ambitious youths across the continent, the big cities are where their dreams for joining the middle class can be realized. 

No one can fault their choices. They are among the over four billion people around the world (more than half the global population) who live in cities. This number is not slowing down especially in Africa and Asia, as young people and their relatives are migrating to cities in search of improved circumstances. 

Urbanisation On The Rise

In Africa, the urbanisation process is taking place faster than on any other continent and its staggering pace challenges the usual image of Africa as a rural continent. For context, in 1900, 89% of Africa’s 120 million people lived in rural areas, meaning that a paltry 11% lived in the few, then colonial-controlled urban centres. 

At the incipient phase of the drive for independence in 1957, Africa remained rural as roughly 16.4% of 260 million Africans were urban. 

In the post-colonial era, the pace for urbanisation accelerated tremendously. This was due to the migration of peasants to the cities such that at the start of this millennium, the share of urban dwellers had jumped to 37.2% out of 811 million and this is expected to reach 43.8% of Africa’s total population of 1.34 billion inhabitants in 2020. 

Accelerated Urbanisation: Unparalleled Difficulties 

According to their nature, cities attract vast amounts of expertise and capital. As such, they have become the world’s major development powerhouse, bringing hundreds of

millions of people out of poverty and squalor as they generate over 80% of the global


On the flip side, the upshot of this juggernaut is that it also engenders unparalleled difficulties; crumbling infrastructure, degenerative environmental conditions and social ills such as widening income gaps and infamous bidonvilles are all signs that our urban centres are increasingly stretched for resources as urbanites struggle to achieve their dreams for a prosperous future.

Globally, an estimated one billion poor still live in ghettos and informal slums, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and they are often exempt from access to better opportunities, basic services, and affordable housing,

Planning, Urban Governance and the Urban Grey Zone

Among the myriad of problems that cities face in Africa, governance is a salient one.

‘Policies do not occur in a vacuum’, notes the World Development Report. They are the result of convoluted political and social settings within dynamic rules which are influenced by different players.

The African city is represented by clear contradictions within itself. Thus, the same city looks very different from one area to the next. While glazed skyscrapers might tower over the central business districts where civic buildings are situated and where the country’s financial district sits, many areas of the city’s grey zone are dotted with modest houses and insufficient, deplorable infrastructure. These are the areas where upgrading and transformation processes are frequent—and where development policies are most relevant.

Territorial Development & Resilience

As half of the world’s production still comes from only 1.5% of the world’s land, strong and niggling divisions between successful and not-so-successful places are spurring inequalities and human suffering, inflaming dissatisfaction and disrupting development. There is an urgent need to galvanise sustainable, inclusive economic growth in these lagging lands and urban spaces.

Also, as cities grow, so does their vulnerability to natural disasters. With over 90% of all urban centres located in coastal areas, cities face increasing risks from devastating natural disasters that are now more frequent than ever, relentless, and fierce due to climate change.

Sustainable Cities Initiatives in Africa

There is hope yet. Only 40% of the places which will be urbanised in 2030 have been built, leaving an ambitious 60%. 

Sustainable Cities Initiatives in Africa should aim at tackling the difficulties of urbanisation, investing vast resources majorly on the environment, land use, public transport, water and sanitation as the most critical issues in Africa’s exploding megacities. Africa must build regional and international networks of cities which may prove as valuable case studies for sustainable development of African cities whilst retaining its unique flavour.

This is where territorial development is crucial. We should envision our cities not only as stand-alone entities but as symbiotic systems that allow faster economic growth and connect people like Tola, Chudi, Ousman Jamba and Cheikh as well as millions of Africa’s teeming young people to better opportunities at home and around the world.

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