Agile or fragile

The future is urban. What cities will look like, whether they service the ­privileged few or the deprived many, depends heavily on the right management. Seth Asare Okyere, Assistant Professor for Urban Development Planning, paints a personal picture of the ideal citiy development in Africa.

Seth Asare Okyere

It was October 2014 when I frequented Dontobori, Osaka’s popular melting pot. It’s an entire sea of people. Crowds troop in opposite directions, bodies seamlessly manoeuvre, shops, eateries and anime centres converge. Just beyond, the busy highways carry fast-paced vehicles, the adjoining canal tourist sightseeing boats, all dwarfed by the very tall concrete or glass buildings of corporate offices while the busy subways can be felt beneath. There is movement everywhere and even the static buildings seem to be in constant motion. This is Osaka, a city of almost 3 million and metropolis of close to 19 million people. Behold, I exclaim to a colleague, what matured urbanisation is: crowded but organised; excessive yet controlled. The huge metropolis of Osaka is on the move and has been since the post-war reconstruction.



How rapid urbanisation is transforming the African continent and expanding its cities.


The risks of urban planning processes that fail to take account of the whole population.


The opportunities unlocked by shifting perspective from lofty visions to urban realities.

Recently, this pattern of urbanisation is finding new ground elsewhere, not the least in Africa, but in a different form and at a different pace. African cities are also on the move, though infant. Despite the fact that the continent is still considered rural (57 per cent), urban population growth was the highest globally between 1950 and 1990 (4 per cent) and it is expected to be more than 3 per cent until 2040. In real terms, the urban population increased from 33 million to 548 million between 1950 and 2018, constituting 13 per cent of the global urban population.

Illustration eines belebten Marktplatzes auf einem honigfarbenen Hintergrund. Die Zeichnung ist detailliert und zeigt verschiedene Stände, Menschen bei der Interaktion und alltäglichen Aktivitäten. Die Szene ist in einem sechseckigen Rahmen dargestellt, der das Bild einrahmt. Take Accra, for example. A city that was little more than an indigenous enclave of dispersed settlements of fishermen has grown tremendously since the British colonial administration declared it the capital of the then Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1877. Between 1960 and 2010, it grew from about 389,000 to 1,900,000 people, with a metropolitan population of some four million. One can hardly escape this growth experience within the city. Over many visits and stays in the last decade alone, the clustering of dense activities in the central area, the lively markets with their own cacophony of bustling commercial life, and the everyday conflicts as motorists and street vendors compete for limited street space symbolise Accra’s growth. The city’s cosmopolitan outlook, its multiple languages of commerce and kinship, the aggregation of natives and strangers, negotiation and disagreement, compactness and expansion are deeply felt. Like earlier urbanised cities, Accra is growing and city life is ever moving. But this movement is apparently slow as traffic congestion mostly regulates the pace of everything that moves.

‘Urban development has become privatisation of communal land and displacement of ordinary citizens from their sources of livelihood.’

Unlike Asian cities such as Osaka and Singapore, urbanisation has not been driven by economic growth or industrialisation. In fact, urbanisation levels increased between 1970 and 2000 amidst the economic contraction of most sub-Saharan African economies within the same period. If anything is certain, it is that urban growth is expected to continue in the next two decades. What is uncertain is whether urbanisation will drive Africa’s urban development to a well-managed human environment that prioritises the needs of its increasing urban population (agility) or engender poor management and vulnerabilities that threaten the wellbeing of its people (fragility). Interestingly, at the moment, it is both.

Expansive rather than compact

More than 10 million people move into African cities each year, especially in small and medium-sized cities. As you read this, someone is moving into a small or bigger city on the continent. This trend manifests in various ways. In terms of space, urbanisation is expansive rather than compact. Indeed, Africa’s urban land expansion is estimated to grow by 600 per cent between 2000 and 2030. Most of this growth is occurring at the edge of cities where wealthy urban residents take advantage of poor urban management to satisfy their appetite for settling in their own worlds away from all that is considered blight and gloomy.

As I walked along the northern edge of Accra city three years ago, it was startling to see all these new town houses and apartments that were mushrooming along the periphery. The lush green spaces, farmlands and undeveloped lands of yesteryear have made way for concrete with no form or logic in spatial terms. One might appropriately wonder: where did all the peri-urban farmers go? What happened to the vast expanse of green that covered this part of the edge of the city metropolis? It takes a cautious look up to see that the mountain is no longer a barrier and unplanned and unregulated developments still go high.

Urban development, as I have experienced, has become privatisation of communal land and displacement of ordinary citizens from their sources of livelihood. A decline in indigenous peoples’ access to land and the alarming rate of loss of ecological resources in peri-urban areas mark trajectories of unsustainable urban development. With climate change effects high on the agenda everywhere, it is perplexing to ponder the nature of urbanisation, and urban development is creating a fragile future of severe vulnerabilities to people and places.

‘With climate change effects high on the agenda everywhere, it is perplexing to ponder the nature of urbanisation.’

But it doesn’t end there. Shortfalls in basic services and infrastructure, pollution, crime and acute traffic congestion abound. It is no secret that urbanisation unravels intense activity: people are on the move to work, home and everywhere in between in dense crowds. Given that Africa’s urbanisation runs faster than development planning, the majority of new urban arrivals end up in informal settlements. Yet, such settlements are often located in vulnerable areas where deprivation, infrastructural deficiencies and risks persist.

Unsurprisingly, they are home to more than 60 per cent of the urban population. In central Accra, informal settlements are as visible as the daylight, hosting one third of the population. In Old Fadama (Accra), access to toilets, water and adequate housing is an acute problem. Year in, year out, makeshift houses of iron sheet, clogged drains and crowded housing units are a common sight. Urban deprivation has no hiding place here. In 2015, floods ravaged most parts of the community, killed 150 people and swept away livelihoods. Frequent outbreaks of fire are also prevalent.

However, it’s not all gloomy. African urban residents are not watching their local communities deteriorate. It is within the enclaves of so-called fragile living that new collective practices of citizens with community organisations (agility) are arising. Clearly, in light of existing challenges, it’s a matter of urban sur­vival for residents to locally collaborate around diverse interests; make little out of nothing.

Community-based initiatives are growing and networking

From the slums of Kibera (Kenya) to the informal settlements of Agbogbloshie (Ghana), community-based infrastruc­ture, collective alliances to reduce disaster vulnerabilities and collaborative mechanisms for afford­able housing have emerged. Urban poor federations, for instance, are undertaking community-led mapping and enumeration exercises to negotiate and challenge state neglect. Community savings groups are mobilising finance to improve the condition of houses. In some cases, local coalitions are bringing together NGOs, slum dwellers, professionals and local authorities to address community challenges. These favourable initiatives may offer glimpses of the African city ‘yet to come’.

‘More importantly, a shift from visions to an actual experience of a city.’

During a study visit to an indigenous informal quarter in Accra, one community leader remarked: ‘We’re doing things, changing things, creating the kind of community we want.’ Observably, residents in this area have not surrendered to deprivation. I have witnessed how local communities have collaborated with traditional authorities to improve the physical condition of houses, provide drainage infrastructure, build community toilets and mobilise local artisans for facility management. Far from exaggerating the potential of community-based initiatives, it is suggested that oiling such local actions can provide enough energy to establish agile urban development on the continent. It appears, however, that a large part of state-supported programmes, such as the well-promoted new ‘smart city’ initiatives, are not well aligned to the everyday realities of the urban majority.

One can hardly ignore new (smart) city branding, positioned high and wide to be visible, readable and appealing at strategic locations in a number of African cities. Whether proposed or under construction, they are advertised to appeal to passers-by as visions of the true African future city. They are aggressively promoted by a combination of state actors and private developers (domestic/international) as a ‘novel’ response to the urbanisation conundrum. And they are branded as the model African future city: slum-free, smart, ecologically integrated, technologically innovative, sustainability-sensitive and efficiently managed. They are often top-down and supported by global capital that has found new profitable ground in growing African cities.

So far, about 70 existing and planned new smart cities in Africa can be counted, including Appolonia City (Accra, Ghana), Eko Atlantic (Lagos, Nigeria), La Cité du Fleuve (Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo), Roma Park (Lusaka, Zambia), Al Tajamouat Industrial City (Cairo, Egypt) and Sipopo (Malabo, Equatorial Guinea). A couple of years ago on my way from the airport to Accra, I was struck with this new reality of urban development branding: billboards showing intelligently curated master plans dotted with manicured green spaces, majestic homes and the appeal of smart technologies. It was as if a piece of Singapore or Dubai was being grafted onto the African city space.

The wealthy set themselves apart from the rest of the city

Following the actual developments later, whether in Airport City or Apolonia City, I see exclusive spaces, luxury homes and apartments that speak to the aspirations of the upper class rather than the urban poor majority. These are often gated compounds with (semi-)detached houses of similar Western architectural design and features that suggest conformity to an overall plan. Security, maintenance and order are premium values that are not only provided for but also branded to showcase their distinction from the rest of the city. Sadly, most of these new developments either sweep poor people from their land and livelihood or price those on low incomes out of afford­able housing opportunities. It is an apparent paradox that these new models are smart only to a privileged few, as more than 72 neighbourhoods are classified as slums in Accra city alone.

The future of Africa’s rapidly urbanising cities is a contested road of divided, vulnerable and underserved communities (fragile) and a potential of locally oriented collaborative improvement (agile). Either way, urbanisation can perform a quintessential role in building future cities that blocks the path of fragility and opens the way to agility. I am convinced that (rapid) urbanisation can be managed and utilised for the benefits of the urban majority. This journey must be cemented on the central pillar of people, especially the urban majority often ignored. New (smart) cities will not change much while older areas continue to experience inadequacies and deterioration. Neither will uncoordinated policy fixes from above or localisation from below.

Sustainable finance is needed

Across the cities my feet have trodden and my hands have worked, it is apparent that better results emerge from urban development planning that is organised around a coalition of ordinary citizens, local authorities, policy-makers, civil society organisations, private agencies and universities. Such coalitions are centred on the actual conditions and aspirations of the urban majority. That is, local authorities should roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty: reach out to local people in their communities to comprehend their lived realities. Also, engage them in the process of defining and framing urban problems, deciding on and experimenting with appropriate solutions, while including their opinions and experiences in reviews and feedback. Ultimately, this is a call for deep local democracy in urban development planning.

Secondly, sustainable finance and mobilisation is needed to support investments in infrastructure services and facilities. To do this, authorities must control the recent exponential growth in foreign direct investments and channel it into sustain­able urbanisation issues. At the local level, co-production (community finance with socially responsible investment from private entities) can provide alternative resources for urban improvement. Additionally, local governments should aggressively improve taxation and levies linked to property and urban land investments. It goes without saying that the benefits should be redistributed to tackle the urban challenges of the deprived many.

Investment in planning schools

Thirdly, adequately respond to the challenge of who will plan the future African city. There is a shortage of accredited planners. Uganda, for instance, has one national association member per 463,102 inhabitants. This lack needs to be addressed through investment in planning schools in terms of infrastructure, capacity building and ‘indigenisation’ of curricula to the realities of Africa’s urbanisation. And, fourthly, it means protecting rights to land against elite grabbing.

Arguably, I envisage a future African city that plans for and manages urbanisation to work for the wellbeing of the population, especially the urban poor and vulnerable. An Accra, for example, where growth does not mean chaos and high density does not equal confusion. A city where traffic is well managed through bus rapid transits and light rail, affordable housing is promoted and co-produced with citizens and governments, adequate infrastructure is provided and maintained, and local initiatives are not ignored but supported to build capacity for urban management. A city where green and blue spaces are brought back to give life to its growth. A city where aspirations are achievable and the future is driven by the needs of the majority rather than the interests of the few. More importantly, a shift from visions to an actual experience of a city where one can say, the beautiful African city that was not yet, is now finally born.

published in akzente 2/20

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