The world is becoming steadily more urban. In 2006, the world’s urban population surpassed its rural population, and the African continent is emerging as a focal point in this transformation. While Africa continues to evoke wild spaces in the popular imagination, the demographic and socioeconomic reality is that African cities are experiencing explosive growth rates. Lagos, Nairobi and Kinshasa, for example, have burgeoned into mega-urban centres in just a few decades and have done so at rates paralleling or exceeding those of their Asian counterpart cities. This rapid urbanization presents a complex web of challenges. On the one hand, it is indicative of potential economic dynamism, while on the other infrastructural deficiencies — in housing, sanitation and transportation — strains their socio-political fabric. Makeshift and informal settlements are becoming ubiquitous, creating conflicts around competing questions of legality and rights. The potential implications for health in communities that lack clean water and sanitation and are densely populated are enormous. Moreover, deficiencies in transport systems hinder economic mobility, while limited access to quality employment intensifies socioeconomic disparities. Beyond these infrastructural and economic challenges lie other socio-cultural transformations which also need to be addressed.
DevISSues engages with this phenomenon and the challenges it produces in this issue. Shuaib Lwasa’s article on connecting history to contemporary and possible futures explains that while the historical roots of urbanization in Africa have variances across countries and regions, the challenges are broadly similar. West Africa urbanized earlier, while East Africa is still transitioning from agrarian economies. Nevertheless, megacities on all ends of the continent are struggling with informal settlements and infrastructure deficits in the presence of non-responsive governance institutions. But, with the youthful and innovative demographic that these cities possess, Professor Lwasa stresses that there is also an opportunity for an innovative rethink of city planning, governance and financing.
Meanwhile, furthering this argument, Beatrice Hati and Alice Menya’s article boldly claims urban planning in Africa has failed and proposes a new de-colonial approach that moves the field beyond the standardized planning which leans on western ideologies and adapting governance by merging formal systems with grassroots-led configurations which involve both state and non-state actors, acknowledging even unconventional entities like gangs and cartels. Taken together, these approaches indicate a new, perhaps bright future for African urbanism.
We also take this opportunity to welcome Marijn Faling to the DevISSues editorial board. Marijn is Assistant Professor and teaches in the Governance and Development Policy (GDP) major. Her research focuses on collaborative change processes around food security, inclusive development, and climate change.
Sunil Tankha, DevISSues editorial board