Re-thinking the future of African cities | Christian Benimana

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The future of African cities. Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing globally unprecedented rates of urbanization: By 2030, more than 50% of the African population will be urban residents. African cities are growing exponentially, adding an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people every day. The continent’s urban population will rise from 400 million today to 1.2 billion by 2050. What will African cities of today look like then and most importantly, why should we care? Originally published in TAP ISSUE 6 – To be continued in the next issue

It is expected that the African population is going to surpass any other in the world soon. The continent’s population is estimated that it will surpass that of Chinese and Indian populations combined. By the end of this century 40% of the world’s population will reside in Africa.

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 Why should we start thinking differently about our cities?

The increased pressure on cities demand immediate and exuberated action, we need to have a clear vision and start acting today to ensure that this is not a calamity in the making. We need to plan: where will these new urban centers be? What sort of housing, healthcare facilities, and schools are the population going to have access to? By anticipating this growth we can plan ahead so when the population boom occurs the above questions are answered and these cities are ready to host and accommodate the density that will be required to house this population.

Regrettably, despite Africa’s current explosive human and economic development – innovations in technology, commerce, industry and healthcare Africa hasn’t invested in building the infrastructure to support design. Despite its rich cultural heritage, Africa’s share of the global creative economy—meaning the worldwide market share of 15 creative industries— stands at less than 1%. For instance, one striking example is related to architecture. The entire continent of Africa has a quarter the number of architects as Italy.

With the expected population growth, omitting design from this movement will lead to significant social, economic, and environmental consequences due to massive land exploitation for development, resource misallocation and deforestation.

What will happen if we don’t?

Most if not all, Africa’s cities cannot safely and equitably absorb this massive human migration because of a lack of thoughtful and sustainable planning and design. Currently, the majority of the urban population is forced to settle in informal settlements— in unplanned sites on the outskirts of cities or in environmentally vulnerable regions where no public infrastructure or social services exist. Today, 62% of the African urban population currently lives in these informal settlements. Without the resources and opportunities to pursue education, without access to health care, sanitation, and clean water, or to financial planning, these populations are at serious risks for disease, social inequity, agitation, and even violent extremism.

African cities

It is expected that the African population is going to surpass any other in the world soon. The continent’s population is estimated that it will surpass that of Chinese and Indian populations combined. By the end of this century 40% of the world’s population will reside in Africa. If there is no urban planning set in place, then we will be faced with a world crisis: people will be forced to seek their rights or what they are due elsewhere; it will become a global problem. For example, due to the Syrian refugee crises, developed countries had a difficulty coping with the level of migrants seeking refuge; over 1 million migrants risked their lives in hopes of a better life. Now imagine a hundred twenty times that! A population that size with nowhere else to go because of dreadful conditions where they live – there’s no way that this is going to be contained just in Africa. So the consequences are tremendous on the world stage and for Africa, it is our survival.

What can we do?

In order to interrupt this trajectory of exclusionary growth and ensure every Africans’ health, well being and prosperity – we need more impact creation oriented designers. We need designers creating new models of African cities, new technologies, and new public services that will reflect and serve the realities of the future.

How can we get this done? What are some of the key challenges to getting this done?

We need to redefine the professional practice influencing the planning and design of African cities. Innovative and updated teaching methods in academia, and human centered professional practices all need to change for us to start seeing this change. The biggest key challenge is the mindset and current status quo of the minimum standards allowable for creating equity. The current living and quality of life standard in most African countries and within African cities is set very low. With the population growth, we are going to see pressure for this standard to be even lower to meet the meager financial needs/resources that will be available. If nothing is done to define what is the bare minimum (living standard/quality of life) that is allowable, then we will see big developments forcing people to accept an even lower living standards.

African cities

Part of planning is to define the average residence’s needs in regards to the minimum basic facilities/infrastructures required to ensure that they live a decent life in these cities. The structural violence created by the widening gap in the lack of this equity is of course amplified in a linear proportion with the density that comes with urban settlements. This is the root cause of other challenges such as the lack of funding, intellectual capacity and logistics to plan and implement appropriate measures to sustain cities.

Who will be key stakeholders in this shift? Is there a role for the average African?

Every level of administration and governance, policy makers, urban planners, researchers, academia, professional bodies, cities administration, civil society, has a role in defining the future cities of Africa. The average African has the moral responsibility of creating and sustaining the equitable city of the future.

Participation and collaboration from everyone is ultimately the only way to go. Above all, governments have the responsibility to create a political space that allows for change to happen.

Originally published in TAP ISSUE 6 – To be continued in the next issue

 By Christian Benimana, Questions by Moses Mutabaruka

Christian Benimana is the Rwanda Programs Manager at MASS Design Group and is currently leading the implementation of the African Design Center, a field-based apprenticeship that aims to become the Bauhaus of Africa. He is also the chairman of both the educational board of the Rwanda Institute of Architects and the Education Board of the East African Institute of Architects. Christian was a 2011 Global Health Corps fellow with MASS on Partners In Health projects; he holds a Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree from the School of Architecture and Urban Planning (CAUP) at Tongji University in Shanghai, China (2008). He is particularly interested in the innovative use of materials and technologies for sustainable design.

Reference:

  1. UNDP and UNESCO. 2013. Creative Economy Report 2013 Special Edition:
  2. Widening Local Development Pathways.
  3. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2014.
  4. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights.
  5. African Development Bank Group, 2014, Tracking Africa’s Progress in Figures
  6. Harvardadc
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About Author

Moses is the Founder of The African Perspective Magazine. TAP is an online Pan-African magazine he started while studying in Canada after being frustrated with seeing how Africa and Africans were often portrayed in the media.

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