The future for Africa will be urban, but will it also be green? Answering this question is of paramount importance, as rapid African urban growth has had – and will have – a dramatic impact on the environment. The outward expansion of African urban settlements has increased the pressure on natural resources, fostering loss of biodiversity and the depletion of green spaces and exacerbating the consequences of climate change. For instance, Kilimanjaro and the Virunga National Park are almost entirely encircled by urban agglomerations. Moreover, the consumption patterns of African urban dwellers have been extremely environmentally impactful, in terms of biofuel use, transportation, water and solid waste. To provide an idea, in sub-Saharan Africa, 62% of the urban population uses biomass fuels for cooking and heating. Ecosystem degradation has resulted in higher economic and health costs, loss of tourism value and the worsening of living conditions for poor households. The idea that it was possible to “grow now and clean up later” has turned out to be an illusory hope.
This scenario can appear even more worrisome if we consider the fact that urbanization in Africa has “just” begun: there are expected to be 824 million urban dwellers in 2030, and 1.5 billion in 2050, against 548 million in 2018. This means that most of African urban spaces have yet to emerge. New cities will be built, others will expand and, as a result, the environmental footprint of African cities will further increase. Without mentioning the fact that urban growth is predicted to be concentrated in coastal areas or regions characterized by huge biodiversity, such as the Nile River in Egypt, the coast of West Africa and the northern shores of Lake Victoria. For instance, the Nakivubo Wetland area, located between Kampala and Lake Victoria has shrunk, producing negative impact on the wetland’s ecological function and increasing the cost of water supply.
Analyzing this data, we could imagine that the worst is yet to come, as the pressure on natural resources, forestry, fisheries and biodiversity cannot but increase. Yet, there is a bright side to the story of Africa’s growing urbanization. If we change our perspective, we can perceive that the fact that urbanization in Africa is still in its early stages is good news: it means that it is still possible to intervene in order to change the trajectory of urban growth and steer it towards a more sustainable future. Urbanization is an unstoppable phenomenon, and the problem is not urbanization per se, but how it is (not) managed. Hence, now that there is still time to do so, it is crucial to implement a multidimensional and forward-looking plan to set African cities on a sustainable development path and then, when possible, reverse environmental decline.
To be effective, green urban development requires two elements, which are often absent in many African cities: financial resources and urban planning. With regard to the financial aspect, most municipalities lack sufficient own-source revenues and transfers from the government are insufficient to finance large capital investments. In Africa, apart from South Africa, public expenditures on urban plans are on average between US$1 and US$15 per capita per year. Therefore, it is of paramount importance for central governments to invest more in urban policies, as well as to strengthen accountability and efficiency, by improving the conditionality of transfers and making them more predictable and transparent. Furthermore, to overcome financial constraints, it would be useful to foster cooperation with international donors and empower municipalities to work directly with multilateral development banks to negotiate financial support to local-led sustainable projects. Finally, the role of the private sector in green urban projects is yet to be fully explored. It would be pivotal to upgrade public–private partnerships (PPPs), by increasing bankable projects and easing the regulatory framework, especially in the renewable energy, transport and water and sanitation sectors. For instance, PPPs were successfully carried out in Dakar, Senegal, where a highway connecting the city center to the airport was built, or in Kabwe (Zambia), where municipal solid waste (MSW) has improved thanks to a PPP supported by the International Finance Corporation.
The second issue concerning green urban development consists of reversing the lack of urban planning that has characterized African urbanization so far. Indeed, to create resilient and sustainable cities, investments have to be based on preliminary, sound spatial planning policies. Five key areas can be identified: greening measures, sustainable transportation, energy efficiency and eco-architecture, MSW management and urban smart growth.
Regarding greening measures, it is important, as has been done for instance in Durban, South Africa, to increase the number of parks, (indigenous) trees and gardens, as they generate aesthetic value while positively impacting on air quality and temperatures. Another key point is to reduce traffic and vehicle emissions, which can be done by encouraging the transition from private to mass public transport and improving “active mobility” through new bike lanes and walking paths. A notable success story is Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, where the bus rapid transit system has radically improved transportation in the city. Third, to increase energy efficiency and reduce biofuel use, it would be crucial to provide affordable housing programs with innovative materials for more eco-friendly buildings and implement clean cooking technology. Another overriding priority is to improve waste segregation and recycling systems and regulate waste management and disposal. In fact, although the average MSW collection rate in Africa is expected to be 69% by 2025 (it was 55% in 2012), the coverage will vary considerably between cities. Furthermore, while an estimated 70–80% of the MSW generated in Africa is recyclable, only 4% of MSW is currently recycled, mainly because most municipalities are not well equipped. Finally, to curb urban sprawl and therefore limit pressure on the surrounding environment, municipalities have to encourage so-called urban smart growth, by drawing “urban growth boundaries”, promoting urban infill development and implementing large slum upgrading programs underpinned by a bottom-up participatory process.
The challenges ahead are daunting, but this does not mean that the future of a chaotic and unsustainable urbanization should be accepted deterministically: there is room to change the trajectory and steer urban growth towards a green future. Moving from the worst-case to the best-case scenario is still possible, provided that concrete policy measures inspired by forward-looking urban planning are taken here and now. The race against time has already begun.