This goal is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. It reflects growing recognition that human development depends on how well urbanisation is managed. According to Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-Habitat and former mayor of Barcelona, the global view of “cities as containers of problems” must change. Cities are, in fact, “accelerators of development”.
This is important for Africa, where despite high urbanisation rates the development focus has been primarily rural. Consider Ghana. The country’s urban population has grown from four million in 1984 to more than 14 million today. Fifty one percent of Ghanaians now live in cities. While urbanisation rates vary across Africa, Ghana reflects an overall global trend towards a predominantly urban future.
Ghana demonstrates how cities can be highly productive in Africa. One World Bank report draws an explicit link between urbanisation, productivity, and poverty reduction. Over the same period of its urban growth annual GDP growth has averaged 5.7%. The number of industrial and service jobs has increased by 21% and the capital city, Accra, has registered a 20% reduction in poverty.
Similarly, the Nairobi metropolitan region generates at least 50% of Kenya’s GDP. While it has too many unemployed youth and significant poverty, the more rural counties in Kenya are often the poorest.
The scarcity of affordable housing
As Africa’s cities grow, the challenge will be to provide adequate services and equitable access to its opportunities. Currently, large gaps exist between needed and current services and infrastructure. One result of this gap is an affordable housing crisis. This produces slums, often near expensive gated communities and suburbs.
Transit services are overstretched and spaces that connect people to work and create a more socially inclusive civic culture need to be supported, fostered or created by African architects, artists and planners with citizens and government.
Like many other countries in Africa, Ghana’s urban housing stock is growing. But, like many cities across the globe, much of this housing is for the middle and upper classes, and the housing is not growing fast enough. African real estate is hot. In Nairobi real estate investment gives a high rate of return - more than almost any other sector.
This housing demand is an incredible investment and growth opportunity if managed effectively. Given current housing inequalities the question is: how will this sector develop in an “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” way?
With Chinese, European Union and African Development Bank involvement, investment is flowing into urban infrastructure, especially road building all over the continent. But are these investments helping to create access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all? Are they doing all of this taking into account the needs of the vulnerable as aspired to by the new sustainable development goal?
More often than not, Africa’s cities are building high carbon, unsafe infrastructure for the minority with cars, not the majority who need or want excellent mass transit and healthy and affordable options like cycling and walking.
The biggest challenge is politics
Often the mantra about African cities is that poor planning is an obstacle to unlocking the promise of urbanisation. Much of the problem dates back to the colonial period. Planning does need to be reinvented to address the specific needs of African citizens. More often than not these citizens were and are victims of planning instead of beneficiaries.
Ghana has had a series of plans for its cities since the colonial period. The 1958 Town Plan for Accra pointed to the small and insecure land market as a problem for the provision of housing, and formed state bodies to address the issue.
The Strategic Plan of 1991 sought greater collaboration between agencies, as well as coordination with international funders - the perennial problem that is not entirely the fault of African cities. The World Bank report highlights some of the same problems, without outlining a political solution.
Like cities in Ghana and elsewhere, Nairobi has had a series of “master plans”. From the 1948 “Plan for a colonial capital” to an excellent 1973 Metropolitan Growth Strategy, which was never properly adopted or implemented. The more recent Nairobi Metro 2030 and Nairobi Master Plan reflect the heavy use of foreign consultants in planning.
These “plans” have not passed through any elected body and often reflect a high modernist vision that justifies large infrastructure projects and excludes attention to citizen priorities.
The central problem to unlocking equitable opportunities in African cities remains politics. In today’s competitive multi-party environment, leaders make political calculations that privilege short-term horizons to win votes over long-term solutions to urban problems. Most critical, many urban planning problems are the result of power struggles and, in particular, the capture of “public goods” such as land or transit routes for certain interests.
Communities must be involved
Many politicians have an interest in maintaining insecure rights around these critical public goods needed for making a city function, because they are part of networks that benefit from the status quo. In Ghana, some traditional authorities benefit from selling land multiple times.
This contributes to numerous land disputes that get stuck in an underdeveloped legal system. In Kenya, “land grabbing” wreaks havoc on land-use and transport planning. The outcome is the escalation of the cost of urban improvements and it encourages environmental disaster.
Community leaders and their followers often internalise societal norms to win elections. For example, politicians strive to be parents, employers and friends to their constituents, often using state goods and resources as patronage for their political supporters.
This undermines the achievement of sustainable and inclusive cities. Of course, some neighbourhoods can and do sustain civic cultures and public service, and it is these communities that deserve more attention.
For projects and policies to have the desired results of improved urban space, better transit or more affordable housing, incentives need to be reshaped to make it beneficial to follow sound policy prescriptions and play by the official rules.
Registering land and businesses should be profitable and not invite predation. Relocation to and development of new neighbourhoods should consider local architectural, social, and economic preferences but also equity. And providing public goods and services to all citizens including newcomers should contribute to electoral advantages.
The mayors from Johannesburg and Maputo came to New York to explicitly signal their support for the sustainable development goals, and especially Goal 11, which promotes inclusive, safe and sustainable cities and settlements. Whether progress will be made on these laudable goals will depend on politicians working in collaboration with citizens.
As people continue to move to urban areas in Africa in search of opportunity, let’s hope that they can help fashion an urban politics that gives birth to the kinds of cities that are better for all.