Africa's rapid urbanisation can drive development and growth


Picture of Joan Clos
Joan Clos

Dr. Joan Clos is UN-Habitat Executive Director and United Nations Under-Secretary-General

Urbanisation is the new normal: most of the world’s population is already living in cities and projections suggest the proportion will reach 75% by 2050.

In October 2016 the United Nations adopted the New Urban Agenda in Quito, Ecuador, to address this new reality. The Agenda is a world urbanisation roadmap for the next two decades, based on recognition of urbanisation as an invaluable tool for development, by way of generating employment and prosperity.

Africa – where only four out of ten people live in urban areas – will be one of the most important places were urbanisation can be used as a transformative engine for development and growth. Many African countries are already witnessing rapid levels of development in parallel with a rapid growth in urban population. This makes Africa the second-fastest urbanising continent after Asia, which is growing at an annual rate of 1.47%. Our analysis reveals that Africa’s ‘urban transition’ – when the total urban population will exceed the rural one – will take place around 2025.

Africa’s urbanisation process will therefore be one of the most significant economic and social transformations of the next decades. So it is important to address its role in solving one of the continent’s major problems, namely the struggle to achieve sound sustainable development.

Urbanisation is an invaluable tool for achieving sustainable development by supplying a good share of the new jobs that the growing population will require

By its nature, urbanisation generates value through economies of location and economies of agglomeration: the location of a plot, depending on its connectivity and access, can generate substantial value; and economies of agglomeration can create more value at the local level through proximity of the factors of production and the increased size and specialisation of markets.

Economies of urbanisation acquire special relevance in developing countries, creating new value in the service sector of the economy, which is now the fastest-growing sector. Together with industrialisation, urbanisation is an invaluable tool for achieving sustainable development in Africa, by supplying a good share of the new jobs that the growing population will require.

Urbanisation is an opportunity for Africa. The New Urban Agenda invites us to explore a new urban paradigm addressing the challenges of today’s world. Scientific studies show that current urban dynamics are driven more by spontaneous growth in informal neighbourhoods or by short-term real estate investment rather than the basic principles of good urbanisation – the principles that can deliver jobs and prosperity. To engage in truly productive urbanisation, we need to get back to basics.

First, the fundamental recognition that urbanisation is a process regulated through legislation. Urbanisation should be based on the rule of law, and central governments – which, among other things, establish the legal framework for urbanisation – should invest in national urban policies.

Second, the need for good urban planning and design. The capacity of urbanisation to generate value and prosperity is intimately linked to the quality of the physical design.

Third, an adequate funding mechanism for the sustainability of the city. Sustainable urbanisation requires a financial plan that considers income and expenses, including maintenance costs, and that also takes care of preserving the common assets associated with a city.

Studies demonstrate that there is a systemic problem of insufficient land for a properly designed grid of roads and streets. Satellite images in Africa show that the average provision of public space allocated for the street fabric is in the range of 10-15% of the total urban land. With such a limited provision of street space, it becomes extremely difficult to design a pattern that provides value to all the buildable plots and addresses the problem of congestion.

The capacity of urbanisation to generate value and prosperity is intimately linked to the quality of the physical design

A precautionary standard requirement of street space is in the range of 30-35% of urban land. Transport congestion is a widespread problem, and that problem is only going to deteriorate when increased economic growth leads to more cars while street space remains in such short supply.

Another common problem in African cities is the lack of means to acquire public land for the street frame and open public spaces. Most countries tackle this issue through expropriation, but a lack of financial resources often makes this unfeasible. Countries that have witnessed periods of rapid urbanisation have resorted to other means for the acquisition of public space, mainly using land readjustment methodology (LRM), where the factual currency to acquire public land is the attribution of buildability rights applied to the plots. This demands that the attribution of buildability rights to the plots is regulated in the official urban plan.

Through this process the landowner’s building rights are made clear, public and transparent, as are the corresponding contributions they are obliged to provide for the urbanisation process. It is crucial that this policy is administered in such a way as to make it efficient and transparent, while also avoiding corruption and an excess of litigation. This can result in a win-win situation where a better outcome is achieved for both the public authorities and the land owner.

Cities are, and will increasingly be, the driving force for the Africa’s development. But its rapid urbanisation requires good management if it is to become a major transformative asset for the continent.

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