Cape Town — Developing viable, livable and resilient cities is increasingly seen as being of critical importance to giving opportunities to Africans to improve their lives.
While rural development has long been a priority for governments and development agencies – with particular emphasis placed in recent years on Africa growing enough food to feed all her people – recent research is making a case for more attention to be given to urban areas.
Already, more than half the world's people live in cities – as opposed to a tenth a century ago – according to United Nations statistics quoted by The Rockefeller Foundation's "resilient cities" initiative. And UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs figures quoted by Hannah Gibson of the Africa Research Institute in London suggest that Africa will be 50 per cent urban by the early 2030s and 60 per cent urban by 2050.
The South African development think tank, the Centre for Development and Enterprise, says even these figures understate the significance of cities, since about 80 percent of the world's output is produced and consumed there. "Cities have never been more important for human well-being and economic prosperity," the centre says.
But both in Africa and across the world, the growth of cities is outpacing the capacity of city governments to provide basic services to their people.
According to Neal R. Peirce and Curtis W. Johnson, writing for the Rockefeller initiative, "unplanned urban expansion is multiplying slums, overburdening housing, transportation and infrastructure systems, stifling economic growth, and leaving millions vulnerable to new environmental and health threats."
The initiative names Lagos as the world's fastest growing "megacity" with a projected annual growth rate of 3.71 percent to 2025.
Rockefeller's Michael Berkowitz, who heads up the foundation's initiative, notes that water management is "a major environmental problem" for Lagos, citing the floods which hit the city in 2012, and describes how the "Eko Atlantic City" project, a development built on reclaimed land on the edge of the ocean, aims to prevent further encroachment by the sea.
"Eko Atlantic City," Berkowitz writes, "hopes to mitigate both the problem of flooding, with debatable protective barriers like a 35-foot tall seawall, and the problem of growth, by using the extension as a site for new apartments. However, considering that the recent floods occurred after most of the project had been completed, the ultimate effectiveness of the project remains to be seen."
(The project is one of a number across the continent which is also criticized by urban planners for failing to take the needs of the poor into account.)
In a first step aimed at providing cities with technical expertise and resources to strengthen their resilience, the Rockefeller initiative identified an initial 33 "Resilient Cities" last year. Lagos is not among them, but Dakar in Senegal and Durban in South Africa are.
Dakar, says the initiative, needs better management and policies to deal with the negative effect of urban growth, as well as new plans to cope with climate change and its power shortages.
Durban is lauded as "a global leader in climate change adaptation, biodiversity, planning and management, and water security" but needs to consolidate its efforts into "a single harmonized plan for urban resilience."
The Rockefeller initiative describes building resilience as about "making people, communities and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and man-made – and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger...
"And building resilience is critical to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable among us, those who typically live in the most easily impacted areas and who are least likely to have savings stashed away or insurance to protect them in case of disaster."
In our series on how Africans are building resilient cities, read about how people are improving their lives in ways ranging from recycling waste, saving electricity and growing their own food to using containers as toilets and cutting carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.
Reporting on 'Making African Cities Resilient' is assisted by AllAfrica's Development Reporting Fund, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.