African urban momentum is an opportunity for sustainable growth

A view of some of the low-cost houses built to accomodate slum dwellers in Kibera, Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The urbanisation of Africa will be one of the most significant economic and social transformations in the next decades, changing the way of life of millions of people.

  • One of the most critical vehicles for this transition is well-designed urbanisation that provides a productive scenario necessary to sustain this very strategic transformation for Africa.

  • The urban transformation that UN-Habitat foresees for Africa considers the legal framework of urbanisation in a given country, its urban design capacity and its financial framework.

  • There is an immediate need for more public space in African cities.

We are entering a new urban era for Africa, with great potential for the continent.

Many countries in Africa are witnessing an unprecedented level of wealth generation — in parallel with a rapid growth in urban population.

Yet in comparison with the rest of the world, Africa has two defining peculiarities: It continues to be the least urbanised continent, at the same time its urbanisation rates are now higher than anywhere else in the world.

The urbanisation of Africa will be one of the most significant economic and social transformations in the next decades, changing the way of life of millions of people.

AFRICA'S GROWTH PATTERN

Until now, the nature of Africa’s economic growth has largely been based on the primary sectors of the economy, mainly agriculture and extractive industries.

The expected next step of substantive development will be a progressive shift towards more productive sectors of the economy, mainly industrial manufacturing (secondary sector) and services (tertiary sector). 

One of the most critical vehicles for this transition is well-designed urbanisation that provides a productive scenario necessary to sustain this very strategic transformation for Africa.

Given these facts and the potential, a great opportunity presents itself to break from the past, where we have seen urbanisation as unplanned, offering some benefits, but resulting in diminished economic and social growth, which is often manifested in the growth of slums. 

It is not only possible to plan and design urbanisation well, but also approach it at all sizes of human settlements as a tool for development of the continent.

IMPORTANCE OF PLANNED URBANISATION

The advantages of such an approach are enormous.

Well-planned and designed urbanisation in Africa can be an essential part of the solutions to many of the problems facing the continent today, such as inefficient transport, pollution, unemployment and social exclusion.

In UN-Habitat, the leading UN agency for sustainable urbanisation, one of the very few global agencies headquartered in the Global South, in Africa, we strongly believe that effective urbanisation is a social achievement that is not reached by chance but by design. The positive outcomes of urbanisation depend largely on the quality of its design.

This reflection could not have come at a better moment for the people and countries on this continent.

The United Nations has already started the consultation processes of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Ecuador in 2016 that will not only assess the successes and failures of urbanisation in the last 20 years, but will also elaborate a New Urban Agenda for the forthcoming two decades.

To foster a more sustainable urbanisation model in Africa, we need to consider our circumstances and strengthen approaches to this huge social and economic challenge. 

UN APPROACH TO URBAN TRANSFORMATION

We believe the urban transformation that UN-Habitat foresees for Africa demands a three-pronged approach that takes into consideration the legal framework of urbanisation in a given country, its urban design capacity and its financial framework.

First, it is important to have the right national, regional and local legal framework that governs how urbanisation proceeds. 

In some cases, there may be no need for more legislation (there is already too much in some cases), but instead a new look at an existing framework and how it is implemented is more important to make sure that it is adequate locally and applied consistently.

Second, special attention is required in urban planning because the current analysis of urbanisation shows an insufficient allocation of land for common spaces and services, or a legacy of poor design of the street pattern and shape of the city or town.

This factor severely undermines the economic value of buildable plots and contributes to the continent-wide issue of urban traffic congestion. 

And third and equally important is the need to focus on the municipal financial design. 

In general, local authorities require more empowerment given the fact that the value that urbanisation generates is currently not shared sufficiently to match its cost. 

In addition to this, building on the three pronged approach, some key issues remain very relevant for the African urbanisation model, such as expanding public space, correcting over time the design of the urban pattern, addressing congestion, and undergoing land readjustment.

NEED FOR MORE PUBLIC SPACE

There is an immediate need for more public space in African cities.

Physical studies demonstrate that there is a systemic problem of lack of adequate public land for the proper design of roads and streets.

Satellite images show that the average provision of public space allocated for the street fabric is in the range of 10-15% of the total urban land.

With such a limited provision of street space, it becomes extremely difficult to design a pattern that provides value to all the buildable plots.

A precautionary standard requirement of street space is in the range of 30-35% of the urban land.

Another systematic issue that needs to be addressed is the correct design of the urban fabric, with a provision of street connectivity in the precautionary range of 90-110 street crossings per km2. The current average is too low and in the range of 40 crossings per km2.

With the current characteristics of the urban fabric, it is quite expected that transit congestion is a common problem of African cities, and that is only going to deteriorate with increased economic growth and more cars.

A systemic approach that includes planned city extensions is urgently required.

This is the only way towns and cities can expand without compounding the problems we are all very familiar with in our daily lives across the continent.

An associated problem with the provision of sufficient space for the street fabric is the acquisition of land.

Most countries tackle this issue through expropriation. But expropriation is not generally a feasible tool for land acquisition due to the lack of financial resources.

Countries that have witnessed periods of rapid urbanisation recently have utilized a Land Readjustment Methodology (LRM), where the factual currency to acquire public land is through the buildability rights applied to the buildable plots, given that the provision of public street space is the critical determinant of the value of the buildable plot.

Those parameters and legal tools have been tested in very different local circumstances and have demonstrated their efficiency in improving the quality of urbanization.

While it must be stressed that the sheer size and diversity of the continent requires a customized approach to each country, I have been struck by how important these approaches are to serve as a basic foundation to building sustainable urbanisation in almost any country. 

STRONG POLITICAL LEADERSHIP

Beyond this, however, we must also look at the opportunities offered by strong political leadership. 

This has advanced considerably due to the decision by governments in Africa to promote the African Urban Agenda, which UN-Habitat has been pleased to support. 

Visionary leaders across the continent have turned to sustainable urbanisation as an engine for development. 

Not only do we see sharing of experience and skills, but the determination to place urbanization within Agenda 2063 of the African Union. 

African countries are also leading on the development of indicators and approaches towards the vital Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

I hope this political leadership will continue to develop and bear fruit across the continent, and UN-Habitat stands ready to support wherever needed.

As we move towards Habitat III, let us seize the opportunity offered by sustainable urbanization to drive the development of countries across the continent. 

The leadership is there, the skills are there, now we just need to do it!

Joan Clos is the Executive Director of UN-Habitat, headquartered in Nairobi (Kenya), and the Secretary-General of Habitat III.

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