Opinion: Anna Tibaijuka
By accepting and upgrading informal settlements, Africa could lead the way for the developing world by making use of new planning innovations and green technologies
Nowhere is the failure of urban planning more manifest than in Africa. Africa’s urban population is growing rapidly, currently at 2.3% per year for the whole of Africa and 3.3% per year for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), along with the attendant problems of poverty, informality, slums and poor access to basic infrastructure and services. In SSA, 62% of the urban population were living in slums in 2005 and 40% were living below the poverty line in 2002.
In francophone Africa, 78% of all urban employment is in the informal sector, which currently generates 93% of all new urban jobs. In East, Central and West Africa, less than 45% of the urban population had access to improved sanitation in 2006. Many African cities, including in resource-rich countries such as Nigeria, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have no reliable electricity or water supply, and companies have to purchase generators and sink their own boreholes, making it very costly to conduct business.
The obvious limitation of urban planning has been its failure to recognise and respond to rapidly-growing and largely-poor informal cities. Many African countries still have legislation based on European planning laws from the 1930s and 1940s. Most of Africa’s urban dwellers have simply been left to fend for themselves in their informal or slum settlements, where they face life-threatening environmental conditions, including extreme vulnerability to natural and human-made disasters.
Despite this, there is an emergence of a number of urban planning innovations. Kenya is reviewing its building regulations and many African countries, including South Africa and Tanzania, are moving towards more- decentralised and transparent urban-governance systems. South Africa has implemented an impressive low-income housing programme which has provided more than one million housing units since 1994.
Urban planning must prioritise the issues of rapid urbanisation, urban poverty, slums and access to basic services, the needs of medium-sized cities, large young populations, disaster preparedness (in the context of climate change) and post-disaster and post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation, as well as urban crime and violence. The issue of medium-sized cities is important, as disproportionate attention is paid to large cities, forgetting that 61% of the urban population in developing countries lives in towns of less than one million people.
Outdated regulations and unaffordable development standards are among the main reasons underlying the failure of enforcement in Africa. Experience from all over the world suggests that responsible urban planning entails three main dimensions: first, recognition of the positive role played by the informal sector; second, revision of policies, laws and regulations in order to facilitate informal sector operations; and third, pursuit of alternatives to the forced eviction of slum dwellers and closure of informal enterprises, including slum upgrading.
A particularly innovative approach that should be tried in Africa is ‘guided land development’. This requires cities to assemble land for settlement well in advance, to demarcate the land into large super-blocks, to allow people to put up informal housing in an organised way and, eventually, to upgrade the settlements by installing basic infrastructure and services, and support the improvement of housing by the communities themselves.
There are many solutions already tested in the developed parts of the world from which Africa could benefit, particularly in the area of green technologies. African cities can easily implement more compact urban design, renewable energy, green infrastructure and public transport. In this way, African cities can avoid the kind of environmental squalor that characterised the industrial revolution in Europe and make a significant contribution towards addressing one of today’s most pressing global challenges: climate change.