Building it “right” in African cities — not back better

By Brilé Anderson, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club

Image credit: ©Ricci Shryock

The African continent is urbanising quickly — in other words, more and more people are living in cities. In the second half of the twentieth century, the population in African cities grew eightfold, from 27 million in 1950 to 567 million in 2015. A trend that will carry on for the foreseeable future — albeit at a slower rate. African cities are expected to add 950 million people between now and 2050, and assuming densities levels remain the same, cities will cover four times more land in 2050 than in 2000.

How these cities take shape — meaning where buildings and roads are constructed, how close schools and shops are to housing, along with where people live  — has lasting implications for their ability to cope with shocks like climate change (i.e., their resiliency) and future sustainability. Importantly, these choices like infrastructure (e.g., buildings, roads, power plants) will last, for years or even decades, potentially locking in cities to increasing vulnerabilities to climatic events and future emissions.

African cities are already vulnerable to climate

So far, Africa’s urbanisation is culminating in cities with low resiliency and unsustainable urban forms. Substantial heterogeneity between cities exist, but a few commonalities can be found. African cities are frequently fragmented, sprawling, dotted with gated communities and informal settlements, or dominated by residential land use. The last few years have been a rather crude awakening of the consequences of this: 

These risks are often compounded for those in informal settlements due to higher densities, poverty, and poor infrastructure. These trends could be catalysed in the forthcoming decades, since the world is on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7C, as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Chairwoman, Patricia Espinosa, reminded the world at the start of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Climate change is a worldwide challenge — and heavy emitters undoubtedly need to step up mitigation ambition at COP26 to avoid such temperature increases, especially since the world has less than a decade to stay well below 1.5C. In the same breath, the fate of African cities — especially concerning how cities take shape — depends significantly on local and regional actions that reflect and respond to local conditions.

Accelerating Africa’s cities towards resiliency and sustainability

The Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD) convened a working session of urbanisation experts on 2 November 2021 to identify the key drivers behind cities with low resiliency and unsustainable urban forms in Africa.[1] The discussion pointed to many culprits. Antiquated planning systems from the post-colonial era are failing to reflect today’s realities. Overly centralised planning means local governments are not empowered enough to make decisions and respond to local conditions to better guide the built environment. Incapacity — and insufficient resources — at the local level make it difficult for cities to even monitor land development. Others noted an absence of leadership, where national governments frequently overlook the role of cities. Moreover, cities struggle to capture the gains from private land development and often are not able to translate urbanisation into economic growth. In addition to a need for better coordination between the dual land tenure structures — e.g., what is under customary land tenure and under local jurisdiction.

We then asked experts where African cities go from here. How can cities accelerate Africa’s trajectory towards a resilient and sustainable built environment? There was an overwhelming consensus amongst experts that African cities should not simply replicate a Western model of spatial development as found in Europe or North America — and that the policy actions applicable in Western cities may not actually work to steer the built environment in Africa. For example, updating urban planning systems may sound ideal, but takes time. The sheer pace and scale of cities’ growth in Africa, however, means that whatever is created today could be obsolete in the forthcoming years. Instead, participants advocated for more agile, flexible and inclusive planning systems designed with the population. For example, as was done in Mukuru Special Planning Area (SPA) in Nairobi (Kenya), which led a community-wide consultation process for all residents to participate in the planning process for one of the largest ever informal settlement upgrading projects. Others noted the need for financing and accelerating access to climate finance as a means of upgrading or building needed infrastructure. Basic steps like upgrading informal settlements could help cities move closer towards inclusivity in planning and building resiliency, whilst providing decent and affordable housing would be the long-term goal.

Despite cities’ importance for resiliency to climate change and future sustainability, national governments in Africa often overlook their role. Only 11 out of 54  African countries explicitly mention the role of cities and aim to enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation for participatory, integrated and planning in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement (which are the nonbinding climate action plans). For example, Senegal includes “the planning of urban ecosystems integrating watersheds … [and] … strengthening city storm water systems,” in its NDCs. However, this is very different from recognising the sheer impact of the choices cities make. It greatly behooves national governments to support cities, especially since building cities right the first time is significantly cheaper than undoing past mistakes.

African cities stand on the precipice of substantial opportunities to envision an urban future that could be entirely different from North America, Europe, and the rest of the world. National governments need to support cities as they confront the challenges and embrace opportunities of urbanisation — and they can start at COP26.

From 25 October to 12 November, the OECD Virtual Pavilion for COP26 will host a series of online events to discuss policy solutions to accelerate climate action and reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. Browse our content and register to join sessions: https://oecd-events.org/cop26/.


[1] External participants included: Patrick Brandful Cobbinah, PhD; Phanuel B. Joshua, PhD; Prosper Issahaku Korah, PhD; Honourable Luc Gnacadja; Professor Ismalia Rimi Abubakar; Dr. Lindsay Sawyer; Director Enrique Silva; Dr. Mathias Spaliviero; Dr. Cecilia Tacoli, Dr. Esther Oromidayo Thontteh; Professor Ivan Turok

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