Africa Needs Sustainable Cities to Foster a Sustainable Future
By admin November 7, 2016

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For the first time in the history of the UN development mandate a specific urban goal has been inserted in the list of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as a priority target to be achieved over the next 15 years.

More specifically, the 11th Sustainable Development Goal refers to making ‘cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. This point reflects the growing recognition that human development depends on how well urbanization is managed. According to the former mayor of Barcelona Dr. Joan Clos, cities don’t have to be seen as ‘containers of problems’ but in fact, have to be considered as what they actually are: ‘accelerators of development’.

This is incredibly important for Africa, a continent which is rapidly expanding in terms of urbanization rates but where development is focused primarily in rural communities. When looking at data for poverty reduction, many urban centers are successfully contributing to reducing poverty in the continent. One World Bank report has in fact highlighted the explicit link between urbanization, productivity and poverty reduction in Ghana.

Ghana, for example, has seen a steep increase in the urban population which has grown from 4 million in 1984 to more than 14 million today. Fifty-one percent of Ghanaians now live in cities, and Ghana’s urban centers such as Accra are seeing an annual GDP growth attesting at an average of 5.7 per cent. The number of industrial and service jobs has increased by 21 per cent in the capital city, which has registered a 20 per cent reduction in poverty at the same time.

Similarly, the Nairobi metropolitan region generates at least 50 per cent of Kenya’s GDP, reflecting an overall global trend towards a predominantly urban future. While Nairobi itself has too many unemployed youth and grappling with significant poverty, the more rural communities in Kenya are often the poorest.

As a consequence of this trend, Africa’s real estate is hot: in Nairobi real estate investment gives a high rate of return – more than almost any other sector, and also in Ghana the urban housing stock is rising incredibly.

However, growth is not well distributed in Africa, and this is reflected also in the urbanization rates. Like many cities across the globe, much of this housing is for the middle and upper classes, and the housing is not growing fast enough; transit services are overstretched and spaces that connect people to work and create a more socially inclusive civic culture need to be supported.

In fact, as slums are growing at the same fast pace and often next to expensive gated communities, the gaps in infrastructure and current services are only worsening the gap between the poorest and the richest in the continent.

Thus, to create ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ urban centers, African politicians should not surrender to policies that grant short-term gains to their constituents in order to get re-elected. In fact, longer-term urban plans such the Nairobi 1973 Master Plan are needed to reinvent the old colonial urbanization plans and address the specific needs of African citizens. Most critically, many urban planning problems are the result of power struggles and, in particular, the capture of “public goods” such as land or transit routes for certain interests. Land registration, relocation or development of new neighborhoods and collaboration with local communities will be fundamental to re-shape incentives and guarantee equity in urban development as people continue to move to urban areas in Africa in search of opportunities.

The importance of this goal was highlighted by the mayors from Johannesburg and Maputo, who came to New York to explicitly signal their support to the Sustainable Development Goals. As it stands today, the future looks urban and so does Africa.

For more information:

Rising through cities? A look at Ghana

Africa can build inclusive, safe and sustainable cities

The Housing Market in Ghana

Nairobi, Kenya’s 1973 Master Plan Receives and Update

The Sustainable Development Goals: the 11th Goal

Local Linchpins: Mayors commit to the SDGs

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