The rise of the African megacity

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The world is becoming increasingly urban. Countries across Asia, the Middle East and Latin America have urbanised at an unprecedented rate over the last decades. Now Africa is undergoing mass urbanisation, but is the region equipped to handle the demands of its ever-growing urban populations?

Africa is one of the least urban regions in the world. Rural areas are home to 63 percent of the continent’s population and almost 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africans work in agriculture. However, this may not be the case for much longer. In recent years, there has been a boom in urban growth across Africa. By 2050, it is estimated that over half of Africa’s population will live in cities.

Much of the urban growth is down to natural population increase as Africa’s population is on track to reach two billion people by 2040, according to the World Bank. Conflicts, environmental issues and scarcity of basic amenities or employment opportunities in rural areas also contribute to urban expansion across the continent.

Nowhere are these factors quite as apparent as in Nigeria. The US-based Population Reference Bureau predicts that Nigeria will contribute more people to the world’s population by 2050 than any other country. In recent years, violence perpetrated by the militant jihadi group Boko Haram and other armed factions have displaced more and more rural Nigerians. As a result of the conflict and economic pressures, Nigeria is now home to the largest city in Africa, Lagos.

With an estimated population of 21 million, the Nigerian megacity is one of the most populous cities in the world. As its tremendous growth rate shows no signs of slowing down, Lagos looks set to double in size over the next few decades.

As Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria’s relative wealth has allowed for ambitious urban planning in Lagos since the return to democratic rule in 1999. A process of reform widened the tax base, facilitating the restoration of basic infrastructure and expansion of public services. The plan has helped Lagos on its pathway to becoming a world megacity. Luxury beach front developments, forward-looking urban planning and hyper-modern high rise real estate projects aim to transform the city into the “Dubai of Africa”.

However, urbanisation is not synonymous with rising economic equality. Around 60% of Lagos residents live in slums or informal settlements. They lack formal housing and are prone to environmental or health hazards. The streets are congested and overcrowded with around 20 000 people per square kilometre. Urban population growth in the city is outpacing economic, social and institutional development.

“Running a city that big takes solid institutions and public officials and urban planners who really know what they’re doing,” Vernon Henderson, a professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, told The World Weekly. “That’s a generic challenge across Africa.”

Unusual urbanisation
Urbanisation in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa has occurred more quickly than in other regions and cities have evolved with little change in economic structure. As a result, the income levels across Africa are currently lower than those in other regions at similar stages of urbanisation.

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa had a GDP per capita of $1 800 when urbanisation levels reached 40 percent in 1968. At a similar stage, Latin American and Caribbean countries had a GDP of around $1 900. In the East Asia and Pacific region the GDP was higher, at $3 600 per capita with the same urban growth. Today, Africa is almost 40 percent urban. However, the region’s GDP per capita is only $1000, significantly lower than that of other regions with similar levels of urbanisation. Africa is becoming urbanised while remaining poorer.

“Urbanisation in Africa is unusual in comparison with Latin America and Asia,” Professor Henderson told TWW. “There is usually evidence of structural transformation, regions entering the world markets and selling competitively. This is not happening in Africa at all.” The continent lacks the large industrial sectors seen in many urbanising regions. A rise in industrialisation has typically coincided with the urbanisation process, especially in countries with emerging economies such as Brazil or China, “the poster child for growth through industrialisation”.

This diversion from historical trends is having a significant impact on the development of African cities and the quality of life within them. Urban areas are becoming more densely populated without the accompanying investment in physical structures and human capital. This prevents many citizens from reaping the expected economic benefits provided by modern urban living.

“A big problem is getting around the cities,” says Professor Henderson. “It is very slow-going and difficult to commute in a timely fashion. This causes jobs to be more dispersed.”

Job dispersion reduces economic productivity. In many big cities, firms cluster together to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and personnel. However, experts note that as a city grows, the primacy of the central business district declines. Modern cities are more decentralised, containing many economic sub centres.

Dispersion in African cities tends to be more profound. A study of Uganda’s capital Kampala revealed that, aside from a small central business district, no other area exhibited a high concentration of employment. Most land was used for both residential and professional purposes, reducing the potential for business clustering.

Job dispersion is not the only obstacle facing those working in Africa’s growing cities. Sharp income inequalities across the continent mean poverty reduction is limited. As the number of millionaires living in African cities increases, so too does the number of those who live on less than $1,25 a day.

The urban realities of these residents simply do not intersect with the images projected by the towering office blocks that line the waterfront in Lagos, or the bustling business centres of Nairobi, Addis Ababa and many other aspirational African cities.

Urban contradictions

In a TED talk earlier this year, Nigerian writer and activist OluTimehin Adegbeye spoke of her home city Lagos as a “highly contradictory” place. Ms Adegbeye reflected on the notion of belonging to a city, of the “difference between possibility and impossibility” in Lagos. She concluded that belonging in Lagos depended on many factors, “but most visibly and often most violently, class.”

Last year, Lagos state governor Akinwunmi Ambode announced that authorities would demolish all structures in informal settlements along the state’s waterfronts and creeks.

A recent report documented the forced evictions of more than 30 000 residents of two waterfront communities, Ilubirin and Otodo-Gbame, which resulted in at least 11 deaths. The demolitions, some have argued, go hand in hand with the state government’s pledge to transform Lagos into a modern megacity.

Indeed, the empty land is now being developed into luxury real estate properties. A mixed-use development offering “affordable luxury” is destined for the Ilubirin land area. The Periwinkle estate will stand where the Otodo-Gbame community once lived, with plots of land selling for around $125 000 to $550 000 each.

Ms Adegbeye believes that the real problem lies not in the existence of informal settlements but in the factors which create them, such as “the entrenchment of poverty, social exclusion and state failures”. The realities of Lagos’ millions of citizens may differ, she says, but their rights do not.

In the bid to become internationally recognised “world cities”, growing African cities are in danger of becoming isolated from the reality of their inhabitants.

In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, residents have been cleared from city-centre slums and offered apartments in new developments on the outskirts, unaffordable for most. Rwandan authorities have been accused of illegally detaining those deemed “undesirable” on the streets of capital Kigali, famed for its cleanliness. In cities across Kenya, Nigeria and the rest of the region, slum residents have faced eviction, left with nowhere to go.

However, the future of Africa’s cities should not be viewed exclusively in terms of inequality and exclusion. Many existing cities show great promise, observers say, especially if the implementation of sustainable urban planning is effective.

“These cities are not hopeless”, says Professor Henderson, “good things can be done in them.” Successful plans to reimagine urban space would accommodate the most vulnerable as well as the most wealthy and work to retain a city’s natural character.

In the words of Ms Adegbeye, “You don’t need to be the new Dubai, when you’re already Lagos.” — Wires.

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