Africa: Urban Planners Skeptical of 'Smart Cities'

Painting finishing touches onto a model city display of Abuja
7 May 2014

Urban planning experts are anxious that what they call “fantasy designs” for new African “smart cities” will serve the interests of African elites and foreign finance and construction companies rather than those of ordinary city dwellers across the continent.

In recent papers, Professor Vanessa Watson, a planning expert from the University of Cape Town, and Professor Babatunde Agbola of the University of Ibadan, examine plans for urban renewal in countries including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania.

In a recent paper for the Africa Research Institute, Watson and Agbola warn against “a new genre of urban plan... usually created by international architectural and engineering companies” which “inappropriately” promise Africa cities such as Dubai, Singapore or Shanghai.

“The fantasy designs for African cities win awards,” say the two. “Typically, they nod in the direction of the needs of shack-dwellers and purport to embrace other laudable aims. But the implementation of plans that are unsustainable in the extreme and inappropriate in terms of climate, available infrastructure – particularly power – and affordability, exposes their shortcomings.”

In a separate paper, Dr. Watson lists among these projects Tatu City and Konza Techno City near Nairobi, Kigamboni City on the edge of Dar es Salaam, a range of Chinese-built “satellite cities” outside Luanda, Cite le Fleuve on reclaimed land from the Congo River in Kinshasa, Hope City outside Accra and Eko Atlantic City.

Dr. Watson and Dr. Agbola are especially scathing about plans for Kigali, which envisage a makeover for the whole city – unlike other plans which are aimed at developing new areas, usually outside existing cities.

They say: “The master plan for Kigali, where 80 percent of the inhabitants live in informal settlements, is one of the most far-fetched examples – complete with glass-box towers, landscaped lawns and freeways. It even features a replica of 'The Gherkin', a skyscraper in the financial district of London.”

They add: “Master plans in sub-Saharan Africa – old and new – are almost always drawn up by central governments. They are usually 'top-down' impositions informed by an anti-urban, anti-poor stance among political leaders.

“Political and economic elites typically consider removal to rural areas as being the best way of dealing with the urban poor and unemployed – a point of view that overlooks the fact that a majority of the poor inhabitants of African cities today were born there... This is symptomatic of a widespread denial of the realities of contemporary urbanisation in Africa, not evidence of the constructive management of urban transformation.”

In another paper, in the journal, Environment and Urbanization,Watson says the plans could see large numbers of poor people evicted or relocated. She writes that the developments are aimed at Africa’s growing middle class but says the African Development Bank defines as “middle class” those who spend U.S.$2 to $20 a day and as “upper middle class” those who spend $10 to $20 a day.

“It is difficult to imagine,” she adds, “how households with such minimal spending power can afford the luxury apartments portrayed in the fantasy plans. It may be that prospective property developers are seriously misreading the African market.”

Reporting on 'Making African Cities Resilient' is assisted by AllAfrica's Development Reporting Fund, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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