Crunch time for African Cities.

Author:Ford, Neil
Position:Urban Africa - Cover story

The march from rural Africa to urban centres is relentless and accelerating by the year. Cities are both becoming denser as well as expanding outwards while brand-new satellite towns and cities are springing up. Cities have always been wealth creators and crucibles of change but they can also become hellish places to live in. Managing cities has now become the first policy priority for African governments and civic authorities. Given the advances made in the design of cities and the technology that can be deployed to enhance urban space, can Africa leapfrog the usual development pattern and go straight into the best the 21st century has to offer? Report by Neil Ford.

African cities can appear chaotic at the best of times. Poor infrastructure and limited transport services often exacerbate the impact of poor city planning and waste management, while rapid urbanisation and migration flows threaten to swamp attempts to impose order on informal housing.

Yet a decade of strong economic growth on the continent has generated a more optimistic mood--with governments and planners daring to dream of a better future for their citizens.

About 430m people now live in African cities, about 42% of the continent's population, and this figure is growing by an average of 3% a year. That is 13m new urban residents every year, partly because of natural population growth but also because of migration.

This is very rapid urbanisation by most standards, although slower than in China, with which the African experience is most often compared. There is, however, a big difference in the way that urbanisation is happening in the two regions.

Beijing's support for rural-urban migration and the creation of tens of millions of new manufacturing jobs in the industrialised south and east of China saw most people move directly from rural locations to huge cities.

Where governments allow the market and socio-economic trends to dictate, migration does not tend to take this form. Unlike in China and much of Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africans are not flocking to vast manufacturing centres in the cities. Most African migration is from rural areas to small towns, from small towns to big towns; and from big towns to cities.

Most people do not migrate directly from a rural setting to Lagos, Kinshasa or Dar es Salaam. As a result, much more attention needs to be paid to the development of smaller African towns.

It is easier to provide services and infrastructure to people in dense concentrations, but the focus on urban areas could also benefit the wider population. New African urban developments have little room for the traditional small plot of land to grow food for an individual family.

The new African middle classes are living an international urban lifestyle that is more curtained off from their rural roots, but they still require food and so the demand for food production in rural areas will rise quickly over time. This should help to transfer some of the new-found urban wealth to rural areas.

Nevertheless, it is clearly worth...

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