The African continent is rapidly urbanizing, which means that more and more people are moving to cities. The population of African cities expanded eightfold in the second half of the twentieth century, starting from 27 million in 1950 and reaching 567 million in 2015.
The way these cities are built — specifically, where buildings and roads are built, how close schools and shops are to housing, and where people live — has long-term ramifications for their ability to cope with shocks such as climate change (i.e., resiliency) and future sustainability. Importantly, infrastructure decisions (e.g., buildings, roads, and power plants) would last for years, if not decades, thus tying cities to increased vulnerability to climatic catastrophes and future emissions.
Cities in Africa are already vulnerable to climate change.
So far, Africa’s urbanization has resulted in low-resiliency cities and unsustainable urban patterns. Most African cities are fragmented, expansive, studded with gated communities and informal settlements, or dominated by residential land use. There is significant variability amongst towns, although there are a few commonalities. The repercussions of this have been brought to light in the last few years in a pretty brusque manner:
Due to an ever-increasing volume of sealed impervious surfaces (e.g., paved roads that stop rain from passing through), mixed with a changing climate, African cities are intensifying flood danger. Heavy rains, floods, and winds hit 669 000 people in West and Central Africa between January and August this year, killing 192 people, injuring 300, displacing 70 350 people, and destroying 77 000 homes.
Loss of green space contributes to urban heat islands, which have a high cost of heat-related deaths and illnesses. The center of Lagos (Nigeria), Nairobi (Kenya), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and Lusaka (Zambia) have surface temperatures that are nearly 3 to 4 degrees Celsius higher than the remainder of the city. By the 2090s, harmful heat levels might affect anywhere from 86 to 217 billion person-days per year, depending on future climate scenarios.
More air pollution results from car dependency in more fragmented urban forms (mainly since Africa imports many habituated cars from the rest of the world, which are often the most polluting). Since the 1970s, particulate matter (PM) pollution levels in Kampala, Nairobi, and Addis Ababa have increased by 182 percent, 162 percent, and 62 percent, respectively.
Because of higher density, poverty and poor infrastructure often amplify these dangers for persons living in informal settlements. Patricia Espinosa reminded the world at the beginning of the UN Climate Change Conference; these trends could be catalyzed in the coming decades, given that the world is on track for a global temperature gradient of 2.7 degrees Celsius (COP26). Climate change is a worldwide issue. Heavy emitters will likely need to enhance mitigation ambition at COP26 to avoid such temperature rises, mainly because the world has less than a decade to keep far below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Similarly, the fate of African cities, particularly in terms of how they develop, is heavily reliant on local and provincial measures that remember and adapt to local realities.
We are increasing the robustness and sustainability of Africa’s cities.
On November 2, 2021, the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC/OECD) Secretariat organized a working session of urbanization specialists to explore the fundamental reasons driving cities with low resiliency and unsustainable urban patterns in Africa.  Many people were named as perpetrators during the discussion. Antiquated post-colonial planning systems are failing to reflect today’s circumstances. Because of the over-centralization of planning, local governments cannot make decisions and adapt to local situations to guide the built environment properly. Cities find it impossible to oversee land development due to the municipal level’s incapacity — and a lack of resources. Others pointed to a lack of leadership, noting that national governments frequently disregard cities’ contributions. Furthermore, cities often fail to harness the benefits of private land development and cannot convert urbanization into economic growth. In addition, coordination between the multiple land tenure arrangements is required, such as what is under customary land tenure and local jurisdiction.
After then, we enquired of specialists on the future of African cities. What can cities do to help Africa’s built environment to become more resilient and sustainable? Experts unanimously agreed that African cities should not simply copy a Western spatial development model found in Europe or North America. Policy actions used in Western towns may not effectively steer the built environment in Africa. Updating urban planning systems, for example, may appear ideal, but it takes time. However, due to the rapid pace and magnitude of urbanization in Africa, whatever is built now may become obsolete in the following years. Instead, participants pushed for more agile, flexible, and inclusive planning systems developed with the general public. For example, in Nairobi (Kenya), the Mukuru Special Planning Area (SPA) spearheaded a community-wide engagement process that included all inhabitants in the planning process for one of the largest ever informal settlement upgrading projects. Others emphasized the importance of financing and increasing access to climate finance to improve or construct the required infrastructure. Important initiatives such as renovating informal settlements could help communities come closer to inclusivity in planning and resiliency, with the long-term goal of providing quality and affordable housing.
Despite the importance of cities for climate change resilience and long-term sustainability in Africa, national governments frequently underestimate their role. Only 11 of 54 African nations expressly address cities in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement to enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization for participative, integrated, and planning (the nonbinding climate action plans). Senegal’s NDCs, for example, involve “urban ecosystem planning incorporating watersheds… [and]… upgrading city stormwater systems.” However, this is not the same as appreciating the magnitude of cities’ choices. National governments have a strong incentive to support cities, mainly because creating cities correctly the first time is much less expensive than fixing mistakes made in the past.
National governments must assist cities in meeting the problems and seizing the opportunities presented by urbanization, and they can begin at COP26.
Video Courtesy: World Bank