The last two decades have been marked by a profound turn-around in the perceptions of Africa, both within the continent and internationally. This change has been driven primarily by the exceptional economic growth in many parts of Africa, despite a slow-down and financial crisis about ten years ago. Renewed confidence among many African states is reflected in the Africa 2063 Agenda spearheaded by the African Union. This manifesto puts an important focus on the impressive urbanization of Africa, one of the region's major trends.
At the intersection of Africa’s urbanisation, employment, economic growth, cultural and environmental imperatives sit the question of infrastructure. Traditionally, development policy would simply advocate for the roll-out of modern network infrastructure, through, first, a focus on governance reform so that the country in question could be sufficiently credit-worthy to access the requisite development finance to implement infrastructure projects. This approach has demonstrably not worked in most of Africa for two main reasons.
The growing recognition of the importance of cities for development does not alter the fact that cities and countries are co-dependant, or that cities are better off when supported by their national governments. An appropriate balance of power and responsibilities between tiers of government is at the heart of sustainable cities and in sub-Saharan Africa striking this balance requires policy innovation, if not experimentation.
The inadequacy of Africa’s urban housing markets is evident across the continent, expressed in the cost and scale of housing being delivered, and visible in the very poor housing circumstances of the majority. That over 60% of urban dwellers live in slum conditions is in part a consequence of income, but more significantly one of an inefficient housing ecosystem in which neither price nor scale is achieved.
Since 2015, European leaders have worked alone and in concert to retard and reverse migration to Europe. They have channeled billions of Euros to Turkey to fend off migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Billions more aim to address what they see as the ‘root causes’ of migration from sub-Saharan Africa: chronic underdevelopment, poverty and poor governance.
In policy circles the challenges associated with Africa’s unfolding urban transition is typically reduced to the need for infrastructure to ensure effective urban management. However, what is meant by urban infrastructure, what is the scale of the deficits and how these can be financed, are often obscured.
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.
Pliny the Elder wrote it first and it is still confirmed today: something new always comes from Africa (ex Africa semper aliquid novi).
Cities nowadays form a global urban system, deeply interconnected, and play an increasing role in the economic, environmental, and social level. As urban development is unfolding and developing, the cities as a global phenomenon, i.e. global cities, represent at the same time a formidable sustainability challenge and a priceless source of opportunities.