Mega-cities like Lagos get all the attention, but Africa’s helter-skelter urbanisation is having more effect elsewhere, says Edgar Pieterse
Invoking the idea of the African city as some identifiable object that can be encountered in real life is of course a fiction; a very necessary one, but still a construct. Africa as a continent is simply too vast, too diverse – and still caught up in a violent game of postcolonial boundary resetting – to conjure the idea of a typical African city. The continent has an extremely rapid rate of urbanisation (3.3 percent per year), as seen in an ever-expanding network of urban settlements of various sizes. The key issue is that African urbanity cannot be geographically contained because it resides in a series of dense networks – economic and social imperatives across Africa demand constant connectivity and mobility, even if the financial resources are not always present.
Lagos may be the best known example of a vast conurbation (somewhere between 14 and 18 million people) where the built infrastructure capacity is exceeded at least tenfold, but it is certainly not the only one. In many respects Kinshasa is a much more extreme case, and some analysts suggest it may even grow to be bigger than Lagos, sooner rather than later. However, if you put aside for a moment the megacities of Africa, and consider cities with less than one million inhabitants, the conditions are even more extreme. Sixty-two percent of Africa’s urban population lives in these cities and towns, compared to nine percent that live in cities with more than five million inhabitants. Since those with a population of less than a million are unlikely to be capital cities, they are highly likely to have been starved of investment, political power and support, which in turn means that populations there largely fend for themselves. This relationship between the size of the urban population, rate of urbanisation and the scale of infrastructural deficit is almost unique to Africa.
African cities grow and desperately seek economic opportunities in a context of utter marginalisation in the global economy. Paradoxically, despite the effect of the global commodities boom until the economic crash of 2008, which has been driving much of the improved economic performance of Africa over the past decade, the continent’s total share of global exports and imports has shown a continuous downward slant over the past 50 years, with a relative stagnation over the past 20 years. Africa’s share of global trade remains less that two percent. In fact, it is generally accepted in trade policy circles that the last few rounds of trade negotiations left Africa worse off than before. This means that despite the recent increase in GDP growth rates and the raised levels of Chinese and Indian investment into particular economies on the continent, the overall picture is unlikely to change, which explains in part why Africa has a $50 billion annual shortfall to pay for essential infrastructure. This undermining economic context is not apparent to the same degree in any other region in the world. It results in incessant movement of the population, makeshift urbanism and infrastructural black holes.
A third feature of African cities is informality. According to UN-Habitat (the United Nations agency for human settlements), 75 percent of non-agricultural employment in sub-Saharan Africa is in the informal sector (untaxed and unmonitored by government). Furthermore, 62 percent of African urbanites live in “slums”, with all of the deficiencies this term implies. What I am particularly interested in is the fact that we are now witnessing second and third generation African city-dwellers that have grown up knowing only this reality.
This youthful African urban population is inventing lifestyles and cultural preferences on its own terms; a position that often implies a celebratory embrace of global consumerism and the rejection or remoulding of national and traditional sensibilities. Inside this dynamic is a complex mix of new religions, nihilistic sub-cultures, intensified sexualities, internet obsessions, restless ambitions to travel and move, and preoccupations with surface cultures, especially fashion and mobile social networks. This combination of heightened modernity amid profound infrastructural black holes and the end of formal employment suggest a cultural intensity, or possibly insanity, that we have yet to understand, but is without a doubt unique to urban life in Africa.
It is within this dense complexity that urban design professionals and philosophers in Africa need to address infrastructure, climate resilience, and economic and social inclusion – amid the reality of fragmented and often broken institutions. At the heart of this exploration must be a focus on African innovations. There is little in the current body of architecture, urban planning or design that offers answers for the African urban condition. What we need to work towards are insights, approaches and exchange platforms to examine experiments at the edge of possibility.
This means, firstly, a capacity for rigorous engagement with street dynamics, to find out how these cities function in the absence of the taken-for-granted infrastructural and institutional systems that underpin western urbanism. In this engagement it is vital to leave moralistic arguments at the door, to simply take the time to come to terms with fundamentally different ideas and logics of the everyday.
Secondly, urban practitioners need to understand new modes of city-making that not only reduce carbon footprints but also inject a fresh public vitality into urban life, while finding concrete ways for the bulging youth population to find decent work. There are many fascinating experiments sprouting up around the world, which cannot of course be directly transplanted, but can certainly enrich the African search for new ways of understanding and engaging with cities. These capacities for sensitive and sensible adaptation of new ideas and practices, combined with ethnographic knowledge, are at the heart of innovation.
Finally, we have to crack the problem of institutional power. New insights and ideas will simply run aground – unless we are able to define and construct appropriate political and social institutions. These must be able to hold the diversity of ideas and input necessary to transform the highly improvised and skewed systems of rule and organisation that underpin African cities.