Africa’s Cityscape – The Moot point of Urbanization

As world population continues to grow, an increasing number of people are moving to cities in hope of securing better living conditions, higher quality educations and greater economic opportunities. For the first time in human history, half of the world’s population lived in towns and cities in 2008. Africa, a continent exceptionally rich in biodiversity, is rapidly urbanising. Africa’s urbanisation is manifest in the growth of its megacities as well as that of its smaller towns and cities. Despite high rates of urban population growth, many African countries still have a high degree of urban primacy. That is, one city, usually the capital has the population, economic activity, and political power that are several times greater than the next largest city. In the context of conservation, because governance and institutions are also concentrated in a single city, there is often disproportionately less attention given to, and resources available for, governing other urban centers, towns, and villages throughout the country.

The flow of people to urban areas has caused a number of “megacities” urban areas that have populations of 10 million people or more to emerge around the world. The United Nations projects that there will be 37 megacities by 2025, most of them in developing countries. Today, there are only three megacities in Africa: Lagos, Nigeria, Cairo, Egypt and Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While urbanisation can be a boost to national economies, it can also present many infrastructure and humanitarian challenges. The emergence of slums is a common consequence of rapid urban growth. According to the World Health Organisation, sub-Saharan Africa’s urban slum population will double to 400 million by 2020 unless governments take decisive action. In sub-Saharan Africa, where only 32.8 percent of the population resides in cities, 72 percent of urban residents live in slums.

Although Africa’s high urbanisation rates make it similar to other rapidly urbanising places, it is important to underscore that the underlying processes that shape urbanisation in Africa are vastly different from those experienced elsewhere. Much of urban expansion in Africa is characterized by unplanned and unregulated growth, exacerbated by the legacy of colonialism, structural adjustment, and neo liberalism that spawned weak urban planning institutions. In African urban areas, unemployment rates are high and about 60 percent of jobs are in the informal or grey economy, neither taxed nor monitored by the government. There are also informal modes of social protection and unregulated land markets, infrastructure and service provision. Complicated settlement–governance arrangements, with weak local authorities and poor land-use management capacity mean that, even while there are examples of extreme density in ‘slums’ and informal settlements, the overall African urban form is low density.

It is often assumed that migration from rural to urban areas and the resulting concentration of populations in cities would ease the pressure on natural habitats. In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, the migration and subsequent concentration of people in urban areas has indeed reduced rural populations, thus leading to reduced rates of deforestation. In Western Africa, the increased demand for food in the cities has incentivized farmers to convert forests to agricultural fields to meet this demand. These examples suggest that any relief from pressure on habitats from rural–urban migration may be overtaken by the increased demand for food and other natural resources from rapidly growing African cities. Furthermore, there are many instances of increasing deforestation in spite of a rise in a country’s urbanisation level. The conservation planning and practice will increasingly need to account for direct and indirect impacts of the continent’s urbanisation.

The burgeoning urban populations, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, increase the strain on already insufficient infrastructure and bring new governance challenges. Yet, Africa’s ecosystems can serve as foundations for green infrastructure to serve the needs of its urban populations while safeguarding fragile biodiversity. Overall, while worsening social problems overshadow the concerns for biodiversity there are also promising initiatives to bring these concerns into the fold to address social, institutional, and ecological challenges that emerge with the continued urbanisation of the continent.

The negative impacts of urbanisation are evidenced in the expanding haloes of deforestation around cities and transportation routes. Such exploitation of natural resources in expanding waves, progressively from the most highly valued to less, is observed both in large cities and around smaller settlements. Peri-urban agriculture, though important for food security in many Sub-Saharan African countries, can also contribute to loss and degradation of habitats around cities. Environmental degradation spreading out from an urban center can be significantly enhanced in both speed and intensity depending on the state of the transportation network. In the near future, the regions that may experience such degradation most rapidly and extensively are eastern and southern Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Cameroon, due to their high rural population densities and high foreign demand for their agricultural lands.

Ethnic conflicts and civil wars, some of which have been going on for decades, also influence urbanisation in several parts of the continent. Such conflicts, as an underlying driver of urbanisation, have arguably the most prominent influence on the biodiversity in central African countries. The challenges faced by habitats in peri-urban areas around major cities can be intensified to the extent that refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) settle in informal settlements around the peripheries of these cities. In particular, in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, an increasing number of refugees and IDP are living in cities. All these add to the challenges faced by the governments of these cities. Furthermore, what has started as a temporary camp for refugees and IDP may morph into urban areas over time whose demand for natural resources such as fuelwood, building materials, fresh water, and wild foods can be immense and result in significant local environmental degradation.

Demand for animal parts as food, as ornament, or medicine has also been on the rise with the increasing levels of income and integration with global markets in those countries where such demand originates. These influences interact with those internal to the continent to shape patterns of, not only urbanisation, but also, habitat degradation, loss, and fragmentation.

Although, when urban populations grow rapidly, it may be difficult or even impossible for governments and private enterprises to create an adequate number of jobs and this force many people to work in the informal sector, which generally pays much less. Still, urbanisation in Africa, if well managed, can act as a catalyst to move the local, regional, national, and international governance mechanisms in the continent towards more effective conservation of biodiversity.

The continent, having several regions with exceptional biodiversity, has much to offer to its urban populations in terms of recreation, a legacy of natural history, and a source of national pride. Its biodiversity and ecosystems can also serve as foundations for green infrastructure that can meet the needs of burgeoning urban populations while not ravaging these very ecosystems on which both rural and urban livelihoods ultimately depend.

Image: Pixabay

Source: African Progressive Economist

This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.