Our Burning Planet


Turning Africa’s cities from decaying dead-end wastelands into a source of optimism and sustainable development

Turning Africa’s cities from decaying dead-end wastelands into a source of optimism and sustainable development
(Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The busy cities we live in have momentum of their own. But if we do not put them on to a more sustainable footing, this key source of human connectivity and innovation may well contribute to our demise.

Professor Edgar Pieterse is founding director of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town and holds the South African Research Chair in Urban Policy. 

Have you ever wandered around a city and marvelled at the hustle and bustle? Cars and buses whiz by, buildings tower above you, and advertising screams for your attention. It can be an assault on the senses, but the constant hum of activity is a sign of the importance of these nodes of connectivity. 

Cities are concentrated physical spaces that integrate the way we live, work and interact. About 80% of global GDP is produced in urban areas, and as of 2020, cities are home to an estimated 56% of the global populace. They lace together our diverse talents and interests, and by doing so are a major source of innovation driving economic development.  

Cities also function as hubs to ensure the most cost-effective means of dealing with interconnected development imperatives. With so many people living and working side by side, infrastructure can coalesce around a structured system, providing a more efficient means of supplying water, energy and sanitation. Therefore, even though cities sometimes look and feel like the villains of a sustainability story, they can also be heroes harbouring our growing populations.  

But much of the script is still to be written, and how the story of cities turns out depends, to a large extent, on how well we understand them and what we choose to do now.  

Africa’s cities are trapped in the last century 

The upcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa Summit — hosted by the University of Cape Town — has the sustainable shaping of Africa’s future cities as one of its focal points. This is because the role of Africa’s cities sits at the heart of the sustainable development debate. They are the anchor points that will determine the continent’s future one way or another, and it’s only by understanding their current limitations, and future possibilities, that we can hope to build the future we want. 

The combination of the legacy of a colonial-era footprint, and a post-colonial reality of long-term underinvestment in extending and maintaining infrastructure, has meant Africa’s cities are trapped in the last century. Urban areas have entrenched inequality and limited access to basic services. Moreover, their inherent inefficiencies mean they are a significant risk to the sustainability of the environment in which they operate. 

Africa’s median age is 19 — the youngest in the world — which means the labour force is expected to triple over the next 20-30 years. Add this to the fact that, according to the UN, Africa is urbanising faster than any other continent as young Africans gravitate towards cities in search of work. To meet the demands that this shift will put on them, cities must transition to a more sustainable footing.  

The twin threats of climate change and inequality 

Currently, cities and the people that live in them face two monumental threats, each with its own momentum: climate change and economic inequality. To counteract them we’ll have to swap out old colonial structures and systems with new ones; transforming city structures that are material-intensive and fossil-fuel dependent, to ones that are resource-efficient and regenerative. It means integrating smarter public transport connections, linking technologies that talk to each other to manage energy more effectively, altering our patterns of consumption and establishing a web of water catchments to save every drop of what is, and always will be, our lifeblood. 

Transitioning from old to new is never easy. However, the law of inertia means once something has its own momentum, it’s difficult to redirect to a different path. Now imagine the inertia of an entire city, founded on rigid structures designed to endure decades. As new challenges and opportunities arise, city planners and municipalities prefer to tack on to what’s already there, rather than break down the existing edifice and rebuild — that’s costly and requires foresight and imagination. To imagine new possibilities, all stakeholders will need a radical change of perspective. 

A four-step plan to reimagine urban governance 

So how can cities rethink their role for the future? There are four critical areas to focus on. 

First, we need to move away from master planning to strategic planning. No more big 50-year plans scripted in stone. Planning needs to be more dynamic, in line with the complex and rapidly changing nature of the world in which we live. This means governments need to have their finger on the pulse of the big strategic forces reshaping our world, which are likely to have the biggest impact on the environment. These variables should be factored into how we structure our cities. 

Second, we need to be real with the fact that government cannot control everything. Central planning has its role, but to think everything can be organised from one central source with an all-seeing eye for every challenge and potential innovation is foolhardy. City governance structures need to engage with all stakeholders; they need to invite and include the private sector — big and small, formal and informal — as well as civil society organisations, and citizens themselves.  

Building on this, governments need to co-produce policies with societal stakeholders. It is archaic to think the state can formulate policies that will shape the external environment without meaningful accountability — incorporating the knowledge and perspectives of those who the policies will affect. The process should be transparent and leverage the potential for crowdsourcing intelligence and innovation from society itself.

Societal leadership doesn’t only stem from those who are elected to be the political representatives; it stems from a diverse group of actors across different sectors in society. We should be harnessing the power of distributive leadership to stimulate difficult conversations, and then prioritise actions for change, and help manage the inevitable conflict that comes with transitioning. 

Finally, we need a societal commitment to education and learning. A culture of expression is critically important to surface the full breadth of opinion and perspective in society. It is only in an atmosphere of intense pluralism and diversity that the best ideas have a chance to bubble to the top.  

These recommendations form the groundwork of an adaptive urban governance approach — one not stymied by a view of “what worked in the past will work in the future”. Instead, this more dynamic approach is in tune with the dynamic nature of the world we live in, and the future that confronts us. 

If we get it right, Africans of the future will be able to wander around their cities, and marvel at the hustle and bustle, secure in the belief the constant hum will endure for many centuries to come. DM

Absa OBP

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