There is no doubt that the African Continent is experiencing the highest rate of urbanization globally. Since the early 60s African cities have grown at unprecedented rates and continue to do so. This growth, however, is interspersed with tales of success and misery, affluence and poverty. African cities exhibit the highest levels of inequality and social division within them exemplified by familiar sights such as the Mathare Valley informal settlement and adjoining Muthaiga suburb in Nairobi, Kenya. Located on opposite sides of a highway, the informal settlement has a population density of 1,200 persons per Ha in contrast to the exclusive Muthaiga residential area’s density of 5/Ha . The adjacent Highridge residential area’s density is 70 p/ha.
In the aftermath of Independence many African countries experienced an upsurge in their urban population. Rampant rural poverty caused partly by land ownership inequalities and partly by poor tenure systems has continued to fuel the search by many for better prospects in urban areas.
A large number of African cities, especially those in the former British colonies, were initially designed and planned along the principles of the 1947 British Town and Country Planning Act. Owing to their focus on colonial policies, this type of design translated into urban areas that were highly controlled and racially segregated, for the benefit of the middle class- primarily European- populace. Although post-independence, cities were opened to everyone, most cities retained many of the former bylaws and policies. In addition, hardly any change in investment was made into these cities despite the fact that they had began to grow at astronomical rates.
Four key factors observed over the last few decades raise the question whether city authorities are underprepared or simply overwhelmed. First, spatial growth has occurred at significantly high levels and the cities are not only densifying but also sprawling to the outskirts. As a result, the cities have struggled to cater for this growth and to provide essential services to all levels of society represented in them. In Nairobi, this is illustrated by poor distribution of water and sewer supplies in the sprawling city areas as well as informal settlements. Densified areas also have to endure massive water rationing.
Secondly, the population has grown at a rate faster than what the authorities are able to respond to. The ensuing impact and excessive pressure on services and land use is clear. In many cities, land use policies such as zoning regulations have not changed to adapt to these needs. The third factor is the delay in providing services to city residents. Most African capitals are struggling to provide simple services like garbage collection, public sanitation facilities, effective public transport and street lighting, among others. The fourth factor has to do with ever-expanding informality and the failure of urban policies to create a space for them. Almost all sectors, including housing, trade, industry and transport, have been overtaken by informality. What is interesting is the manner in which the informal sector is viewed with contempt and disdain by the many of the minority middle and upper classes.
In the meantime, development partners and donor agencies are having a field day giving out loans for massive infrastructure projects like highways and railroads whose impact on the majority of city residents is questionable. Most urban residents in Africa can only afford to walk to work or use informal transport. A recent study done in a middle-class suburb of Nairobi described an NMT survey of over 6000 pedestrians at peak hour (4.30 pm to 6 pm) in contrast with 210 cyclists and 800 vehicles. According to the survey, the infrastructure did not come close to addressing these discrepancies. It was found, for example, that not only were pedestrians expected to wait for over 70 seconds at signaled junctions, there also existed incomplete cycling lanes while adjacent roads are expected to be expanded to allow for vehicles.
These are just a few of the most visible challenges facing African cities and that are a cause of concern as to what these cities will look like the next 50 years. Faced with rampant inequalities, corruption and land grabbing, there seems to be little place for the majority poor in urban areas. In the absence of a paradigm shift oriented towards the development of proactive futuristic policies that meet the realities of their people, African cities will continue to be victims of increasing corruption and mismanagement, to the detriment of all their residents.