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Why we must look beyond brick and mortar to build the Africa we want

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A couple of years ago, there was a popular hashtag trending on Twitter, #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, where people shared gorgeous photos of African cities with their iconic skylines. It was a moment to celebrate what it means to be African in the 21st century, and like the hashtag showed so strikingly, this increasingly means living in a city.

Africa is urbanising astonishingly quickly. The continent’s urban population is expected to triple over the next four decades, growing from 395 million in 2010 to 1.34 billion in 2050. Currently, the continent has seven megacities, that is, greater urban areas with populations over 10 million: Cairo, Kinshasa, Lagos, Accra, Johannesburg–Pretoria, Khartoum, and Nairobi. In 15 years, Luanda and Dar-es-Salaam will be added to this list.


In the next 35 years, Africa will need to accommodate almost 900 million new urban dwellers, which is equivalent to what Europe, the US and Japan combined have managed over the last 265 years, according to a 2015 report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. It means that the old ways of managing city growth may not work for Africa – there needs to be a new paradigm.

Apart from the usual view of seeing urbanisation as a key driver of economic growth, there’s another, often overlooked angle. It is often assumed that higher concentration of people in cities and towns is expected to ease pressure on natural habitats in rural areas. There’s more land left fallow, reclaimed by wild flora, which can return to rangeland for wild animals.


But this has not been the case. As cities grow, middle-class and wealthy urban residents have seen outlying land as prime for speculation, as a kind of store of value. This has been driving loss and fragmentation of habitats close to cities and towns. In addition, unregulated peri-urban construction has spawned low-rise sprawl in the outskirts of the city. Think of Kitengela, Ngong or Rongai in Nairobi, all of which were rangeland not long ago.

Furthermore, cities drive demand for food, which also makes peri-urban land dwellers convert more of their land into agricultural plots to feed the city, and when that doesn’t bring enough income, the next move is usually to sell family or agricultural land to be converted into real estate.


Urbanisation and economic development also drive expansion of the transportation network, which in turn often fragment habitats. Across Africa, there are 33 major development corridors, either proposed or already under construction. These include upgrades to existing corridors, such as the Mombasa-Kampala-Kigali or Uhuru-Tazara, or brand new proposed ones, such as LAPSSET.

If and when constructed, the road and railroad infrastructure in current plans would cut through over 400 protected areas and could degrade about 2,000 more.

This means that any relief from pressure on habitats from rural–urban migration could be overtaken by the increased demand for food and other natural resources from rapidly growing African cities. Environmental degradation spreading out from a sprawling urban centre is enhanced in both speed and intensity, carried along by shiny new roads and railways.


It doesn’t have to be this way. The great irony of urban sprawl is that cities are spreading out geographically faster than they are growing in population – in other words, they are actually becoming less dense.

This sprawl makes provision of essential services like water and sewerage much more difficult for city authorities, because they now have more ground to cover.

A sprawling city also means that distances between neighbourhoods are long and transport costs are high. Data from the African Development Bank (AfDB) shows that residents of Nairobi, on average, can reach no more than eight per cent of all jobs available in the city within 45 minutes. By contrast, in greater London in 2013, this figure was 21.6 per cent. That makes city life needlessly difficult.

This situation can partly be traced back to colonial urban management policies, which prevented the development of residential areas (for Africans) close to the city centre. Think also of South Africa and the heartlands for Africans during apartheid.


As a result, some African cities have a lot of land near the central business district lying empty. For example, in Harare, Zimbabwe, and Maputo, Mozambique, more than 30 per cent of land within five kilometres of the central business district remains unbuilt, the AfDB data shows.

In other words, African cities are often developing as a collection of small, disconnected neighborhoods, which means city dwellers are actually not reaping most of the benefits of living in a city – instead they are suffering some of its worst effects.

We have to rethink some of these policies, and develop a new understanding of urban-linked management of biodiversity – that cities are part of nature. Africa has recently adopted its own new urban agenda, in which cities are seen as drivers of development and keys to future prosperity of the continent.

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 – the Future We Want for Africa” reflects a vision of an “integrated, people-centred, prosperous Africa, at peace with itself.” This cannot happen without incorporating ecological governance and conservation into urban governance and planning. Providing a better quality of life for urban Africans is in fact linked with clean air and water, green spaces, shorter commutes, and better service provision – all of which are easier to provide if we can slow down urban sprawl.

Kaddu Sebunya is President of the African Wildlife Foundation [email protected]; @AWFPresident