There is one piece of data that everyone knows. In the world, the urban population has exceeded the rural population and the United Nation’s World Urbanization Prospects 2018 revision estimates that by 2050 this percentage will have risen to 68%, with the proliferation of megalopolises, especially in countries with emerging economies. Since 2050 is still a long way away, hearing this information is not something that gets us particularly excited. However, seen from a different perspective, it means that approximately 10,000 people are moving to live in a city every single hour. From yesterday to today, more than 200,000 people have been urbanized. And the same will happen from today to tomorrow, and so on, for over 30 years.
The trend of world urbanization is having serious repercussions on the African continent. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) claims that, in a short space of time, the so-called “medium-sized cities” of Asia and Africa (and above all their outlying areas, we can assume) will host almost all of the world's urban growth. In a handful of years, the number of African people living in cities will rise from 500 million to 1 billion. A 100% increase.
In some regions of the world, the urbanization process – although immense – has been more gradual, following the rhythm of industrial growth. As a result, cities have been able to “prepare themselves” better to welcome the incoming flows of people, rendering the entire process smoother. In Africa, vice versa, extreme climatic phenomena and the emptying of rural areas have made the urbanization process much quicker and often turbulent. In some cases, the lack of planning has generated large informal settlements, with serious impacts on health and the environment, displacement, illiteracy and unemployment, especially among young people. According to a study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (The Global Liveability Index 2018), 7 of the world's 10 least livable cities are located in sub-Saharan Africa, with several of these in countries characterized by high GDP growth rates. On the other hand, the United Nations communicates that by 2100, 5 of the 7 largest cities in the world will be African. Lagos will be the biggest, with 88 million inhabitants. In 1960 it had only 200,000.
Therefore, the phenomenon of urbanization is tightly interwoven, more than others, with that of migration. According to the IOM, there are more than 250 million international migrants in the world, which means about 3.5% of the global population. Four times the Italians, or Brazilians and Spaniards all together. One thing is sure. Most of these people will continue to be absorbed by the cities, and not only in Africa. It is said that in Sydney, London and New York, non-natives already account for over a third of the resident population today, but with one significant difference: those arriving in such cities usually intend to remain there. On the contrary, for thousands of Africans, the megalopolises are often a “stepping stone” between rural poverty and the search for better conditions elsewhere. On the other hand, according to the estimates by Un-Habitat, more than 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, that is, 56% of the entire urban population, live in slums. If only 10% of these were to decide to seek their fortune elsewhere, we would suddenly have over 20 million new migrants in the world. Without a doubt, this is a global problem. But also a serious issue to be properly faced at the local level, before it becomes an unsolvable problem at the international.
On this subject, perhaps the first step should be to explore ways to address the two problems in a more coordinated manner, by optimizing the impact of available resources and making solutions more effective. Indeed, despite the close link that exists between urbanization and migration, the two trends are not always tackled together. “At the global level,” – reports a study by IOM – “migration policies and urbanization policies tend to be discussed in separate fora, which results in a lack of policy coherence”.
A second link brings the relationship between urbanization and the territory into play, in a perspective of sustainable development. According to C40 Cities, although the cities occupy a limited area of the planet, they consume around two-thirds of generated energy and are responsible for 70% of global CO2 emissions.
Cities are the focus of SDG 11 in the UN 2030 Agenda, which is very ambitious since it aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, in a limited time. For the African cities, this is a particularly challenging goal. If indeed, on the one hand, urbanization has modernized large sectors of the economy and accelerated growth, on the other it has sometimes been a cause of instability, draining the workforce away from rural areas, with no opportunity of reasonable relocation in the urban contexts.
The unique nature of the African case study requires us to look at SDG 11 from at least 3 different viewpoints. First of all, from that which upholds an integrated rather than a sector-specific approach to urban development; to make the cities of the region more environmentally sustainable, for example, it is not enough to focus only on reducing emissions, but also to act on the other political, social and economic levers.
Secondly, we must make the most of the new technologies to make African cities “smarter”, as well as more resilient and livable. Hope City in Ghana, or the techno-city of Konza in Kenya, are experiments (even if not always successful ones) that attempt to combine environmental protection, energy efficiency and economic sustainability, also relying on digital platforms to activate the typical services and functions of a modern “smart city”.
Last, but not least, it is important to reduce the contrast between cities and rural areas, which is particularly stark in the sub-Saharan area. If, indeed, the cities are the driving forces behind growth and innovation, we cannot promote their development to the detriment of the agricultural sector. From this viewpoint, urbanization should also be observed from the different angle presented by SDG 7, that is, with a view to ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. Generating renewable energy not only means helping some African countries to alleviate dependence on commodities, but also promoting the natural resources they have and giving their national industries a competitive edge. Furthermore, better distributed energy production favors a more localized and sustainable economic development of the rural areas, helping to promote access to energy for the almost 600 million Africans who are still without it today. For some years now, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has stressed that although the sub-Saharan area has experienced an increase in investments in a new range of energy, since 2000, two thirds of the total have been used to develop energy resources destined for export purposes. A dangerous imbalance for everyone.
On the other hand, favoring access to (fully sustainable) energy in Africa means offering immediate opportunities for growth and development. In that regard, the International Renewable Enegry Agency (IRENA) claims that integrating renewable sources into the agro-food chain could slow down price volatility, strengthen energy security, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and help improve food sustainability in the long-term. An important contribution to reducing the impoverishment of rural areas, but also – similarly – to slowing down the migratory flow towards cities. Urbanization is undoubtedly an unstoppable phenomenon. However, we can paraphrase the famous saying, “if the energy won't come to the people, then the people will come to the energy”.
Finally, this observation on the urbanization process in Africa reminds us that cities belong to the geo-economy of modernity. The morphology of the international arena is experiencing a phase of rapid change, in which sub-state entities are definitively acquiring a role of increasing importance. The foreign policy of the future must therefore also deal with the need for a state-to-city diplomacy, considering cities as co-protagonists of an all-new, dynamic scenario. In this geo-economic logic, cooperating with Africa means not only managing governmental urgencies and tracing the problems back to a hive of international legality. A new partnership also requires creating new political and economic restrictions, transferring and adapting models of sustainable urbanization, promoting local development to modernize the continent. While moving in this direction is an unpostponable priority, cities are vital to embracing a radical change of perspective and turning risks into opportunities.
Many say that Africa is “the continent of the future”: to make that true, cities should really become the driving force that helps pave the path towards it.