Opportunity to build truly adaptive cities amidst growing informal settlements in Africa

In this discussion, Blaise Dobson and Jean-Pierre Roux argue that African urbanization and rapidly increasing informal settlements present an opportunity to build truly adaptive cities.

African cities are characterized by high levels of slums and informal settlements, largely informal economies, high levels of unemployment, majority youthful populations and low levels of industrialization. They have the highest growth rates in the world despite the fact that sub-Saharan Africa is still only approximately 40% urbanized.

 The urban poor, who largely reside in informal settlements and slums, are vulnerable to a range of global change effects, including global economic and climate change impacts. These can combine to have devastating effects on the poor, who generally survive on less than US$ 2 per day, but also on the ‘floating middle class’, who are defined as living on between US$ 2 – 4 per day, and constitute 60% of the African middle class.

The African Centre for Cities (ACC) and Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) hosted a three-day workshop in Cape Town in July aimed at developing a framework for understanding the intersection between climate resilience and urban informality, and promoting integrated urban development and management within African cities. ‘Champion groups’ from Accra (Ghana), Kampala (Uganda) and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) included local authorities, academia and civil society attended.

The African city: Four future scenarios:

Prof Edgar Pie terse from the ACC opened the discussion by outlining four future scenarios for African cities:

·         The status quo: Small middle-class gated enclaves and neglected slums

·         The green status quo: Gated enclaves, new towns, pockets of greening and slum upgrading

·         The smart African city: Smart grids, mobility, improvement of spatial form (compaction) and slum upgrading

·         The adaptive city: Smart grids, full access, low-tech, localized renewal of slum economies and ecosystems

Pieterse’s four pathways challenged a few of our pre-conceptions about what an ideal African city should look like. First, it highlighted the real possibility that selective greening (e.g. promotion of a ‘green economy,’ improved building standards and more efficient infrastructure) can fail to address deeper structural issues contributing to informality and vulnerability of marginal communities. This greening is likely to reinforce the status quo of small, gated enclaves and underinvestment in slums while not addressing the spatial issues that exacerbate informality and vulnerability.

Second, it highlighted the ideal of an Adaptive City, which is not necessarily high-tech. A pre-occupation with high-tech solutions for African problems may ignore the most accessible and affordable solutions to urban challenges.

At the workshop, presentations by the city teams from Accra, Kampala and Addis Ababa all confirmed and elaborated on Pieterse’s characterization of the challenges facing African cities. However, the presentations also highlighted the geographic and cultural specificities that make each city unique and generic cookie-cutter solutions a bad idea. On the second day, delegates attempted to develop a framework to approach informality and resilience across African cities in a systematic way; an ambitious and admirable experiment. We believe the potential energy unleashed in the sharing of comparative stories from different cities is a good starting point for further work on a stylized framework to address issues of urban informality and resilience in the African context. It was exciting to be part of a south-south exchange where African solutions were sought by Africans, for African cities.

Cities (urban governments and their constituents) have a critical role to play in addressing the threat of climate change. The theme of African urbanization in the 21st century cannot be ignored. Socio-technological solutions exist that can harness the latent energy of informality. Growing urban informality can be an opportunity to leverage innovative ways to make the Adaptive City a reality.