Friday, 24 March 2017

The Urban Sustainability Challenge in Africa

According to the revised World Urbanisation Prospects data in 2011[i], the average national level of urbanisation in Africa is projected to reach 47.7% by 2030. By 2050, it will reach around 57.7%,  and will still lag behind the average urbanisation levels that exist in developed countries today (e.g. Europe is 72.7% urbanised). Notwithstanding Africa’s lower overall urbanisation levels, African cities are currently the fastest growing in the world. The growing number of urbanised Africans are set to constitute an important new global consumer market, which will require large-scale infrastructure development to meet their needs. According to a 2010 McKinsey report[ii] entitled “Lions on the move”, Africa’s middle class (which constitutes earnings between $4 - $20 per day) will rise from its 2010 value of 355 million people to 1.1 billion in 2010, by then overtaking both China and India’s middle class. Africa’s current youth bulge, will translate into a significant consumer and labour market in the medium term. By 2030 alone, Africa’s wealthiest cities are projected to have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion. Moreover, the demand for infrastructure, technologies, services, goods, housing and land is high in African cities, due to their largely defunct infrastructures, which cater to wealthy elites while the majority of urban dwellers (i.e. 61.5% in 2010) reside in informal settlements and slums.

Consequently, Africa has attracted the attention of a wide range of international investors, businesses and service providers. Between 2004 and 2008 the return on investment in Africa was four times higher than anywhere else in the world[iii]. According to the African Development Banks “Africa in 50 Year’s Time” report, Africa’s real GDP is projected to rise from a 2008 value of $1.6 trillion to $2.6 trillion by 2020. Both existing and newly emerging African cities are major attractors for development opportunities, where both state-led and private sector driven agencies find themselves operating amidst a milieu of competing and coalescing agendas. Consumer goods and services such as telecoms and banking are projected to constitute more than half of Africa’s GDP growth between 2008 and 2010. Infrastructure development is projected to grow the fastest, with annual growth of 9 per cent between 2008 and 2020. These constitute major opportunities for developers and technology and infrastructure suppliers, as it is a market that has global significance. While some scepticism in the private sector exists in respect of the “New Scramble for Africa”, there is growing and widespread acknowledgement of the relevance of the rapidly growing cities of Africa. China has been quick to seize opportunities for infrastructure development in Africa.

Yet the question of how sustainable the growth of the key urban engines that are driving economic growth in Africa, that is; in social, economic, ecological, physical[iv]  and political terms remains largely unanswered[v]. That is, how sustainable is the socio-cultural and political urban fabric of African cities, as well as the ecological and physical technological and infrastructure development trajectories that are currently being adopted, and what is required to realise urban sustainability in Africa in the long term? African cities are where the challenges of integrating socio-political, economic and ecological development agendas are most deeply and directly manifested. Consequently, the 21st Century African urban sustainability challenge arguably provides the greatest test of the notion of sustainable development itself as an integrative development philosophy.

This piece argues that realising urban sustainability in Africa is more than just a technological and technocratic affair. Rather, when taking into account the high levels of socio-cultural and economic dysfunction in African cities (i.e. segregation, poverty, inequality and informality), it is clear that realising socio-cultural and political stability is perhaps the most important dimension of the African urban sustainability challenge. However, the social dimension is often the most neglected dimension in urban planning and development[vi], and physical urban development in Africa (i.e. spatial development and infrastructure and technology deployment) largely proceeds in an uneven, skewed and piecemeal manner.

In cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, which are transitional – in the sense that they are mostly formalised, and exhibit strong, diversified economic growth – ironically, the highest levels of inequality in the world prevails. Africa is also characterised by a majority young population, large portions of which remain illiterate, unskilled or semi-skilled, and unemployed and destitute, with little or no avenues for improving their livelihoods. Moreover, urban development agendas are often driven by private interests at the cost of the public good, and result in piecemeal urban development that does little to reverse or improve the conditions under which large, often majority, sections of the urban citizenry live. Economic growth, that was brought about by trade liberalisation and de-regulation measures that were insisted upon by global institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, has not brought about the greater levels of socio-economic and political stability that were anticipated, and instead, public protests in informal and low-income neighbourhoods over lack of service delivery and improvements in access to employment and opportunities for growth have escalated in African cities over the past decade.

In terms of sustainable political stability, African countries and cities still face major challenges. The socio-economic and political sustainability of African cities (and countries) is endangered by the persistent internal and regional drivers of instability  in Africa, which includes; poverty, inequality, slums and informality, social fragmentation, marginalisation of the poor, corruption, bribery, nepotism, lack of transparent governance, crime, the activities of international criminal organisations, to wars and radicalisation. These challenges require that empowered democratic political constituency is engendered. Yet, it is most likely that the foundation for this democratic transition will be laid in African cities, as cities are where the majority of Africans will live, and where the major political changes of 21st Century Africa will likely be generated as a result. Hence the importance of cities in determining the future political sustainability of Africa is evident, and they will likely play a key role in determining what kind of democracy emerges in African countries and regions in the future.

This piece does not argue that technological and infrastructural should be neglected. To the contrary, the material and physical sustainability of African cities in a largely resource-scarce global future warrants close attention. The mutual social, economic, ecological, physical and political sustainability of African cities will likely be determined by the patterns of urbanisation that take hold due to large and small-scale infrastructure decisions that are made today and in the near future. The type of development that takes place in African cities today, whether within existing cities or completely new cities, will determine urban patterns of consumption and waste and the competitiveness of urban production and services activities in Africa. In this respect, both large and small scale infrastructure choices are important for the future material and economic sustainability of future African cities and economies. However, large-scale infrastructure choices are more difficult to reverse or change, and lock urban populations into patterns of behaviour for many decades; hence they must be considered more carefully. Hence, the future sustainability of African cities requires close scrutiny of decisions over infrastructure and planning that are made today.

However, the models of urban planning and governance that have been adopted in African cities,  which has historically been heavily dependent on centralized master planning, requires revision; as pointed out by numerous contemporary African authors. In general, a push towards decentralised governance has prevailed through the majority of the literature on African cities. It is an argument with some merit, as centralised systems of governance have proven largely incapable of meeting the urban development challenges of African cities. Yet decentralisation of authorities without adequate fiscal decentralisation has ensued, and decentralised authority is sometimes easily captured by local elites.  Amidst the ongoing developmental debate on decentralisation, the sustainability agenda has only recently entered the discourse on the governance of African cities.  

Yet, what is a ‘sustainable African city’? Indeed, is it even possible to define a thing such as ‘the sustainable African city’ in empirical terms? African cities occupy a diverse range of local, national and regional spatial, socio-cultural and economic realities. They are also subject to diverse local pressures within the urban fabric - i.e. such as corrupt and failed institutions, poverty, inequality, informality, conflict and segregation. These local pressures may sometimes outweigh global pressures that result from climate change and instability in the global economy and its production systems because they restrict adaptive capacity and negate diversity, and socio-economic improvements are made at grassroots levels in spite of state and government institutions rather than because of them.

Ultimately, the stability - and hence sustainability - of African cities in the long term will depend upon the extent to which political constituency is engendered over time, and to what extent it is cultivated and improved by development strategies, planning and agendas in Africa cities. That is, the extent to which development is implemented for the benefit of societies and communities that live in African cities, and the extent to which development is inclusive of the urban poor and socially marginalised. At the same time, the future basic costs to households, as well as industry, trade and other sectors, will rely on the infrastructure decisions that are made today. The more resource efficiency these infrastructures introduce, the lower the future costs of households are likely to be in respect of food, water, energy and transport costs. These costs currently dominate poor urban African household expenditures, and they often pay far more for services than their wealthy counterparts. For example, in some slums and informal settlements where water is bought from private vendors the poor have been known to pay many times more for water than their wealthy counterparts. 

Moreover, as the processes of urbanisation intensifies, so too does contestation, conflict and negotiation; firstly as a result of the greater population pressures and corresponding demand for goods, services, employment and opportunities for establishing personal livelihoods and growth, and secondly as a consequence of the pluralism and diversity of urban environments. Lastly, the transition to urban sustainability will rely critically on the ability of urban development plans to engage across both the formal and informal sectors in African cities, and enhance their integration. African urban environments are largely characterised by higher levels of informal than formal systems of governance, land and housing acquisition, trade, employment and political action. Transitioning to sustainability requires that these informal systems are adequately and appropriately accommodated in future policy and governance frameworks.

Given this worrying backdrop of seemingly intractable developmental challenges, how should the notion of sustainable development be taken up in African cities? Venturing a description of the ‘sustainable African city of the future’ is difficult. However, it is clear that socio-political sustainability will lie at the heart of continued, uninterrupted growth and stability. Long term sustainability requires that socio-political stability is engendered at diverse scales, and across different sectors of the African urban citizenry. This in turn, is not a logical outcome of industrial transformation, although structural changes in African economies may be necessary. It is an outcome of concerted political leadership that acts effectively across all sectors, and at all scales in society, engendering the greater participation of communities in their own developmental agendas and plans.

This negotiation is itself a subject for long-term consideration, and the strategic frameworks that may appropriately accommodate this dual transition are yet to be formulated and tested. What is required now, is a commitment to achieving sustainable growth, and sets of actions that will set the processes of transitioning to sustainability in motion - as well as mechanisms for learning, adaptation and continuous improvement of these mechanisms within a developmental framework that itself remains open to change and adaptation through bottom-up feedback processes. Development agendas, if intelligently conceptualised, can play a strong role in building local capacity for inclusive, participatory governance and locality-specific reform strategies and plans. Urban material sustainability alone will not bring about the socio-economic and political stability that lies at the heart of the challenge to transform the African continent and bring about the much touted ‘African Renaissance’ of the 21st Century. Until political stability accompanies economic growth in Africa, long-term stable growth on the continent will remain questionable.

There are no one-size fits all solutions to the challenges of sustainable African urban growth and development, as Africa is characterised by heterogeneity and unique continental and local scale features and characteristics that defy ‘blueprint’ solutions. Exclusively top-down master planning systems and processes may fit the needs of cities of the developed, industrial cities, but in the case of African cities, development agenda’s and planning will have to be co-constructed with the people who are most affected by them. Hence, the question of voice and agency lies at the heart of the development challenge that characterises African cities and their rapidly evolving human and spatial change effects. The need to establish material and physical sustainability, although critical to the sustainability agenda of African cities, only deals with ‘half the problem’. African societies will remain vulnerable to socio-political instability should the critical socio-cultural and political factors that govern African socio-political systems remain unaddressed.

***Note: This piece was originally written in December 2012, was lost, and has consequently been recovered. Some factors may have changed since then but the piece remains instructive in many ways.

[i] World Urbanisation Prospects (2011). “World urbanisation prospects: the 2011 revision”, United Nations Departments of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, April 2011.
[ii] McKinsey (2010). “Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of African Economies”, McKinsey Global Institute.
[iii] Pieterse, E. (2011). “Recasting Urban Sustainability in the South”, Development, 54, 3, 309-316.
[iv] Where “physical” refers to material, spatial, infrastructural and technological sustainability, and could include ecological infrastructures such as ecosystems.
[v] Pieterse, E. (2011). “Recasting Urban Sustainability in the South”, Development, 54, 3, 309-316.
[vi] Pieterse, E. (2011). “Recasting Urban Sustainability in the South”, Development, 54, 3, 309-316.

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