The future for sustainable urbanisation

Recently, parts of the African continent have achieved significant economic growth and sub-Saharan economies are forecast to grow at 5.8% for 2013, according to the IMF’s 2012/2013 World Economic Outlook. Many African economies have also experienced increased trade volumes and higher levels of foreign investment.

Yet, in light of this relative economic success, the challenges of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment persist. Much of the recent economic growth has been spurred by improved demand for products in resources and primary sectors of African economies, as well as increases in commodity prices.

Often the opportunity in the current plight of African people and persisting underdevelopment of African cities masks the immense opportunity to apply the latest development thinking to transform urban settlements and the countries. African cities are the future for the continent’s development.

Cities provide a unique platform for tackling socio-economic challenges

African cities are well-suited sites that can be used to test the application of sustainable urbanisation principles because of the challenges of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment. Many African cities are characterised by:

  • historical underinvestment in infrastructure;
  • largely unplanned settlements;
  • rapidly increasing urban populations; and
  • increased demand for the provision of services that will support and enable economic growth.

These challenges provide insurmountable pressure to expedite development in a given country. However, it’s important to note that the existence of these challenges creates a unique opportunity to overcome prevailing development challenges within the framework of a city.

Cities are the building blocks of thriving economies. In Africa’s case, the emergence of cities and other rapidly urbanising settlements represent an important opportunity for developing robust and diversified economies as well. This is because urban settlements serve as centres of service provision and the concentration of people and diverse economic activity in a particular geographic location enables the provision of a wider range of services at lower per capita cost.

A practical focus on sustainability

A review of literature indicates that sustainability theories are centred on providing for the basic needs of people now and into the future, in an integrated and holistic manner. According to the World Commission on Environment and Development in Our Common Future (1987):

Definition of Sustainable Development: Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This holistic and integrated approach to development is a departure from many other approaches that focus on providing a range of separate services such as water, housing, roads and jobs, in order to meet the needs of ever-expanding populations. Our focus on sustainable African cities seeks to cut through the complex debates on the various components and approaches to sustainability.

Simply put, our focus is on enabling cities to function more consistently at a systems level. Cities should be better placed to anticipate, respond and adapt successfully to challenging conditions. By so doing, the aim is to achieve two goals:

  1. To enable the implementation of a long term vision for urban development that creates sustainable African cities; and
  2. To progressively transform African cities into areas for diverse economic activity that contributes to holistic development.

For further reading

1. Owens, S., Land, limits and sustainability: A conceptual framework and some dilemmas for the planning system, 1994

2. Fox, W. and Van Rooyen, E., (eds), The quest for sustainable development, Juta & Co. Ltd, Cape Town, 2004.

David Okwara

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