In 1950, roughly half the world’s urban population lived in Europe and North America. A few decades on, Asia has eclipsed Europe and is today home to half the world’s city dwellers. As Europe enters deeper into an ageing society, Africa will soon overtake it for second position behind Asia. The United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) recently claimed that 42 per cent of Africans are urban dwellers, about 500 million people. In the next few decades this number is set to swell over 1.4 billion, with twelve million young people entering the labour market every year. This incredible growth puts Africa and her cities on the global agenda in a way that hasn’t been the case before.   

The rapidly growing urban areas in Africa and Asia may soon set the global urban agenda on everything from climate change and social inclusion to productivity and transport innovation, given the relatively larger populations and significant need for constructing spaces, connecting people and supporting livelihoods. Nigeria’s cities alone, of which Lagos is Africa’s largest, will accommodate 189 million more people by 2050. Ethiopia, one of the world’s least urban nations, is fast moving from being a predominantly rural economy to an urban one, with Addis Ababa growing at an annual rate of about 4 per cent – twice the rate of Beijing or Jakarta. In the rush to deliver cities, critical infrastructure needs may be overwhelming. Two-thirds of the investments in urban infrastructure needed between now and 2050 have yet to be made, and extensive informal housing will require some form of upgrading. The housing requirements are so large that demolishing, and rebuilding will simply take too long. But can the grace of an incremental growth narrative be afforded to African cities? 

It took London over 150 years to grow its metro rail network, which it is still tinkering with, whilst Shanghai built the world’s longest metro in little over fifteen years. In a more technologically advanced world than Victorian England, the question of how to design and plan cities may never have been so important. The pressure is also on Africa’s leaders, with global expectations to deliver ‘sustainable’, ‘liveable’ and ‘productive’ cities more quickly than in countries that urbanised in previous centuries or risk being cast as a failure. And yet the infrastructure (and governance) challenges African cities face are not necessarily unique. In the Paradoxes of African Urbanism, Edward Glaeser reminds us that since ‘many of the wealthy cities of the Global North dealt with these by-products of urban crowding so long ago, they may have forgotten how difficult it was to make Paris or New York liveable.’ 

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