Analysis in brief: Groaning under the weight of unplanned growth, African cities struggle to be habitable. Taking urban planning seriously will become vitally necessary as the continent’s population becomes larger and more urban. The key is intelligent city planning, starting at the drawing board.
- African cities have been allowed to grow ungainly and unsafe as, for decades, local and national officials have been commissioned and then city planning studies were ignored
- A growing African middle-class is demanding more liveable cities and applying political pressure on local and national officials to improve urban environments
- Stricter zoning and green technology will bring investors to cities, generating revenues for urban improvements
Most African cities were not meant to be – that is, they were planned as congenial little ‘white’s only’” colonial towns that were never intended to be giant metropolises hosting millions of residents. When colonialism ended, urban migrants brought country dwellers in search of jobs to cities where they were now legally permitted to live. No thought went into where the new millions would live, how utility services would be provided, or for social necessities from parks to schools. The result was chaos – cities choked by pollution and traffic nightmares, and festering with township slums much larger than developed central business districts. In June 2017, the World Bank released another of its periodic reports on Uganda’s urban situation and blamed poor city planning for contributing to high unemployment. For one thing, potential investors are off-put by the dilapidated physical appearance of Kampala. Co-sponsored by the Kampala Capital City Authority, the study, “Enhancing economic development and job creation in greater Kampala” found transportation systems and building codes also failed to support a business-friendly environment.
Like many African cities, Kampala suffered from governmental neglect. Administrations disregarded or never put in place zoning regulations, and allowed anyone to erect any building anywhere they liked. Throughout Africa, unplanned growth was, and still is facilitated by bribery, as inspectors and issuers of permits are paid off.
Despite such chaos, Africa has seen economic growth that has burst forth despite such constraints as dysfunctional cities. The African middle-class is growing, as is the wealthier demographic. Both groups demand better housing, communities and social amenities. Reacting to pressure from residents who are wielding their payment of property taxes as a weapon to achieve better services, urban authorities are beginning to take seriously one of their primary functions – to plan habitable environments for homes and businesses. The future look of African cities will improve as political pressure rises.
Taking seriously commissioned studies is a good place to begin reviving African cities
No African government is without its ministry of urban affairs, which like local governments’ planning departments considers its reason for being the commissioning of reports. These reports, given to consulting firms to execute, are with few exceptions received by government authorities as if the improvements the reports recommend have already been achieved, and that just commissioning the report was action enough. The report is then filed away until a collapsed building, social unrest caused by uninhabitable neighbourhoods, skyrocketing crime or some other malady prompts the writing of another report.
In fact, the ideas contained in urban renewal proposals can be quite useful. If followed, they are blueprints to sorting out cities’ problems. The work of professional urban planners, proposals can provide lessons to apply to brand new cities built from scratch, the way Tanzania has done with its new capital Dodoma. However, most cities cannot be abandoned for new locations – Tanzania still has Dar es Salaam to contend with – and so urban planning is more useful for the transformation of existing locales.
Trends for Africa’s future cities
What are urban planners envisioning for Africa’s cities of tomorrow? Breaking them down into key themes they show a coordinated effort to bring coherency to chaos, in an overall effort to improve ‘livability’ in the following aspects.
Housing – A return to the colonial-era ‘everything in its place’ dictum will ensure that residential areas are demarcated and honoured, with codes determining housing density to not only keep high-rise apartments out of single-family home neighbourhoods but also to ensure that roads, electricity, water and sewage services are not strained.
Security – Well-planned cities are easier to police. Neighbourhoods become communities where residents look out for one another; and emergency vehicles can move easily through a better street layout.
Transportation – Planning cities includes directing activity along traffic arteries to reduce bottlenecks and relieve congestion that takes an economic toll from traffic jams. Planning high-density zones allows for light rail urban systems that require heavy passenger volumes while reducing auto traffic and pollution. Updating existing street systems to accommodate the technology needed for future autonomous vehicles is also necessary before self-driving cars and trucks become available in the 2030s.
Amenities – Parks and community sporting venues, libraries and museums spread throughout the urban landscape are woefully lacking in most African cities can be expected to appear and elevate the quality of residents’ lives, paid for by increased tax revenues. These revenues can be expected from business growth, drawn by more coherent and liveable cities.
Green technology – Renewable energies will not be restricted to lighting homes and businesses, but will be incorporated into urban design, such as solar-powered street and traffic lights and electric buses and trams, and into the architecture of energy-saving commercial and residential structures. Green spaces will sprout as civic improvements and be encouraged in private properties.
Better cities will be a result of the democratisation of Africa. While national leaders living in their executive mansions and retiring to great estates have had little concern for the aesthetics and liveability of their country’s cities, middle-class urban residents enjoying growing political power will push for physical reform of their city environments. The African urban renaissance is just beginning.