A 21st century vision for urbanisation

By Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director, UN-Habitat

UrbanRuralWorldIf urbanisation is one of the most important global trends of the 21st century, with some 70% of the world’s population forecasted to live in cities by 2050, then urbanisation in Africa – and the ways in which that growth occurs – marks one of the most significant opportunities for achieving global sustainable development.

By 2050, cities in the developing world will absorb more than two billion new urban residents, representing 95% of global urban growth. African cities will take the lion’s share, in some cases increasing twice as fast as any other urban population worldwide. By mid-century, the urban population in sub-Saharan Africa alone is expected to quadruple, ushering in 1.15 billion new urban residents. How Africa prepares for its urban future will have far-reaching social, economic and environmental impacts – not only for the continent, but also for the world. 

Today, up to 80% of global GDP is generated in cities. This poses enormous potential for wealth creation at all levels of government and society. When well planned and managed, and supported by sound and enforceable legal frameworks and municipal revenue instruments, urbanisation can be a powerful tool for sustainable development.

However, realising this opportunity – at scale – will require an evolution in how we approach urbanisation. An important feature of 21st century cities is that the vast majority of today’s urban growth is occurring in developing countries. The rapid pace of urban expansion in regions such as Africa is already exhausting national and local-level capacities to adequately plan for and design a sustainable model of urbanisation.

In many African countries, the current pattern of urban growth is, regrettably, following the outmoded model of the last century, characterised by an over-reliance on industrialised forms of transport, limited public space and sprawl. In Accra, for example, according to UN-Habitat’s research, only 17% of built-up space is dedicated to streets and boulevards; in Arusha, it is just 15%. This trend is contributing to fragility and conflict, environmental degradation, and socio-economic exclusion. Today, 60% to 70% of people residing in Africa’s large metropolises live in slums. Overall, the region represents a fifth of the world’s one billion slum population, many of whom lack access to clean water, sanitation and other essential services.

Another concern is the rate at which land in the region is being consumed to accommodate population growth. Even if consumption per capita increases by only 1% per annum through 2050 (a significantly lower rate than that of 2.5% during the 1990s), the land area of cities in sub-Saharan Africa will still increase almost six-fold.

Left unaddressed, these negative growth patterns will have profound implications for the safety, stability and prosperity of the continent’s cities as well as its rural areas. While the region’s rural population growth rate will continue to decline in the coming decades, the absolute number of people living in rural areas will keep rising to over one billion by 2050. Therefore, achieving sustainable development in Africa largely depends on the success of ensuring positive connectivity between urban and rural settlements.

Realising the region’s full potential will have a lot to do with addressing the widening infrastructure gap. Without ways to connect people to markets, jobs, schools and basic services, it will be impossible to harness the economic opportunities of urbanisation. Although the current trend towards devolution has given cities the legal authority to undertake and manage large infrastructure schemes, too many lack the human resources or large-scale capital and technical capabilities to keep up with demand.

Municipal finance and urban design can play a central role in Africa’s urban transformation. This includes providing local governments with the financial resources and frameworks required to design and invest in local infrastructure and basic services, and ensure that growth is distributed equitably amongst the urban population.

The New Urban Agenda set for adoption at the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), taking place this October in Quito, Ecuador, represents a paradigm shift that follows from a realisation that urbanisation is not a threat or a process to be curtailed. Instead, well-managed urbanisation is a necessary driver of sustainable, equitable and prosperous societies. Habitat III will mark a generational opportunity to define the transformative role of our cities and secure a new vision of the urban environment for the 21st century.