ISSN 1973-9702


Why focusing on ‘New Towns’ will not address the African Urban crises

di Seth Asare Okyere

PhD Candidate, Division of Global Architecture, Osaka University


Of the over 7 billion people living on planet earth today, more than half are hosted in urban areas (UN DESA, 2014). We can call them the urban population because that is what they are: geographically situated in and connected to urban spaces in all its dimensions—physical, economic, social, environmental, and even political. We also do know that there is no parity in the distribution of the world’s urban population. It can be as high as 79.5 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean and as low as 23 percent in Oceania (UN Habitat, 2016). Still, the rapidly urbanizing sub-Saharan Africa is largely rural, as the urban population stands at 37.4 percent, according to recent statistics from the World Urban Indicators. Nonetheless, the urban problems on the African continent are prime, and it appears hosting a number of mega projects does not necessarily imply mega urban development.

So then, when we strip away the figures, we are left with real people with real problems. In this urban age, the forces driving urbanization are also shifting the goal posts of poverty. Those moving into the urban areas are simply transferring poverty (Grant, 2010). Urban areas and big cities in Africa and other many parts of the developing world are becoming if not already are, the hotspots of the global poverty. But it is also important to note that rural-urban migration cannot only be conceptualized as the transfer of poverty (Lucci, 2014). Poverty is already present in many urban areas with or without migration because the marginalized and the neglected have long been excluded from the opportunities in the cities, and accessibility has never implied accessibility for all. After all, urban experiences across board suggest that while all citizens are equal; ‘some are more equal than others’. In the case of Africa, colonial rhetoric of planning and urban development and its reinforcement into the post-colonial neo-liberal urban project, have showed that being in the city does not necessarily translate into benefitting from the city—class, race, economic status, education and income all do matter (Obeng-Odoom, 2015, Njoh, 2008).

In many parts of Africa, the urban population started growing significantly following independence. Colonial spatial planning and population controls were discarded and internal migration set in motion (Mabogunje, 1990). While it appeared nationalism and hope beckoned a new era of self-governance and development, the planning apparatus and city government were far behind in meeting urban population demands. As cities and urban areas became overwhelmed, conventional methodologies, which had imprints of colonial ideologies, virtually chased development. For instance, the so-called Master Plans drawn by foreign consultants and city planning officers were as much political as the politicians themselves. As the politicians and their ‘elitist’ technical apparatus watched, the forces of the urbanization were already in action, and they woke up to the unexpected: unplanned, disorganized, and disharmonies in the built environment. Even the magic of zoning and forceful eviction could not fix the challenges. Of course, how could it do so in the context of addressing contemporary problems with archaic solutions: zoning, forced evictions, master planning, and uncontrolled deregulation of urban investment and real estate.

It is against this backdrop that the reality of the African urban crises is brought to fore: 55.9 percent of the urban population in SSA lives in informal settlements. If we include Northern Africa, that comes to 67.8 percent of the entire urban population (UN Habitat, 2016). Unsurprisingly, Davis, in his apocalyptic description of ‘planet of slums’, for example, has noted that the Accra to Benin urban corridor of West Africa is the ‘biggest single footprint of poverty on earth’ (Davis, 2006). This might have been overstretched, but the message is very clear. Rising villas and world-class shopping centers on one-side; ‘informalisation of space’ and poverty on the other. If we couple this with vital urban services such as water, sanitation, effective transport, energy and housing or unemployment, it gets so grim. Indeed, there have been advances in the provision of services and facilities, although sometimes technocrats forget the all-important fact that provision does not necessarily imply access. In the same way, affordable housing may not suggest that it is accessible for the poor. Thus, income, location, surface accessibility, pricing, culture and context do affect service patronage and utilization.

However, what is more troubling is the not problems in the urban areas per se, rather the kind of solutions being sought. I pick the case of Cairo (Ahram, 2016) for example, which have recently attempted to address its urban problems with the noble idea of a new capital city —yet to be named. Funding is, of course, an issue, but Africa’s new development partner, China, is ready to finance the project. Apparently, post-recession has not been bad for all national economies and China serves as an available development partner for massive urban development projects. As it happening elsewhere in many African states, China is providing enormous funds for urban development projects, appearing to fix the urban challenges confronting African cities. For Egypt, China is sourcing $35 billion for the phase 1 of the project (CNN, 2016). The project is aimed at addressing the congestion, pollution and high house prices in the current capital Cairo. Rewind this story to the 1960s, and similar attempts to build new capitals in Tanzania, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria are brought to fore— none of them offering structural solutions to the urban crises (Myers, 2010).

So what is the problem with this new capital? If we put the controversies of the recent China-Africa partnership aside, other existential issues remain. Egypt has already constructed several satellite towns in an attempt to address these same problems but reports suggest they have been met with low occupancy, in spite of the heavy investments. New Towns, scholars within the city argue, produce housing that is unaffordable, inaccessible and unobtainable for the majority of Cairo’s inhabitants. Even if residents were willing to move, with majority depending on the informal economy for daily livelihoods, any strategy without an integrated solution for the employment needs of the majority low-income population will hardly succeed. Within the current capital, recent research indicates that half of Cairo’s neighborhoods lack access to sewage services, while public services are failing, and municipal councils were operating with $4 per capita per year (Ibrahim and Singerman, 2014).

The reasoning then is this: if such huge amount of money is available, why not invest it in addressing the current urgent problems in the capital Cairo. This is also true for several attempted solutions in other African countries. These kinds of new towns and massive redevelopment projects—referred to as ‘Urban Fantasy’ projects (Watson, 2013)— are mushrooming on urban and peri-urban urban spaces in many parts of the African city. They are designed with so-called sustainable design technologies yet instead of addressing existing problems through infill, they are clearing vast land and taking available urban spaces of city outskirts—reducing greenspaces while paradoxically asserting sustainable solutions. In Angola, Cain (2014) has reported on massive housing projects in new towns that have turned up to be ghost towns. Primarily because they are not affordable and their lack of integration with other peculiar needs of the urban poor means that they are not only inaccessible but the poor simply do not want them. So, who benefits and what is the actual intention of such projects? The bigger problem with urban fantasy projects is that they provide rhetoric and utopian ideals to the modest aspirations of the urban poor majority. Western styled design, upscale shopping districts, commercial centers, and classy cinemas. Is this what the majority of the urban population living in poverty conditions and without access to critical infrastructure need?

Building new towns and cities, though a noble idea will never address the Africa’s growing challenges in the existing urban areas. But we cannot also expect otherwise when the solution to the critical urban problems are conceptualized, designed and formulated by a consultant who does not know what it means to experience extreme traffic and congestion, threatening pollution, live on less than $2 dollars a day and poor housing conditions. Truly, contemporary planning is limited by its origins and experiences of the West (Harrison, 2006), yet to be reoriented toward the needs of African urbanization. This is one of the reasons why urban government is still the norm in planning and development in Africa. Until we dedicate ourselves to urban governance, to appreciate that addressing the problems in the city is a collaborative, institutional and people-centeredness exercise that studies, engages and gives control to the marginalized majority to initiate, design and implement solutions under technical guidance, cash will flow in, fantasy projects will continue but impoverishment will persist until the urban population finally rebels both politically and spatially.

In the end, it stands to reason, to adapt Demise (2007) proposition, if we are looking for ideas to move past current unrealistic solutions, the places to look are probably not necessarily in government planning offices, posh universities or expatriate donors (and consultants). Rather, we can look at the ‘ingenuity with which African urban residents have developed novel strategies’ to the crises confronting them. A case in point is found in the resident informal collaborative practices in the Abese quarter of La Dadekotopon District of the Greater Accra area of Ghana. Living in an informal settlement with social and economic deprivations, residents have built on bonds and kinship to pool economic and cultural resources together to improve housing conditions (in the form of incremental housing transformations that respond to local way of life and circumstances), provide basic facilities such as water tanks and toilet facilities to assure meaningful urban experience (Okyere and Kita, 2016). Again, under limited government support, residents have institutionalized deliberative mechanisms where family houses are used for weekly meetings to discuss community problems and devise common solutions. Festivals and local cultural practices have also been used to assert local identity and tourism, but also source support from corporate organizations for settlement improvement. Together, these practices, among others, point to improvisation, social collaboration, effective utilization of social and cultural capital and locally embedded participatory interventions that correspond to resident aspirations and peculiarities.

Thus, with an appreciable level of technical guidance, this sort of ingenuity has the prospect of producing community-led planning innovation that can fix the urban crises and contribute to a just, locally sustainable urban development than technocratic solutions with little consideration to the urbanism of Africa’s poor urban majority.


Cover: Amir Daftari, Courtsey CNN (2016)


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