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Re-thinking African urbanism

Published on: 30-Jan-2015

It is often assumed that African cities follow a path towards ur - banisation that more or less follows a model established in the West, with the Industrial Revolution fuelling migration from the countryside to the cities and demographic expansion. But urban - isation in Africa is not just a matter of delayed history. Apart from all the cultural differences in Africa’s diverse societies, the 19th and 20th century conditions that shaped the form and functions of cit - ies in the world’s industrialised nations are no longer the same in today’s world. Global climate and environmental change, as well as increasing awareness of water, food or energy insecurities, for instance, now make clear the dire need for new visions on what good urban management for the 21st century entails.

Following the oppression of the colonial period, in which urbani - sation was designed to glorify colonial authority and keep the local population in check, independence for African countries brought a complex mix of factors that affected how cities grew. Primary among them were a lack of expertise in many key areas and a thirst among the ruling class for the trappings of status, comfort and wealth so long denied. The result were cities that were poorly planned and barely maintained and an infrastructure that could not absorb the pressure of the massive population growth and ur - ban migration.

Along with wide-spread poverty, these factors continue to pose an overarching challenge and a major environmental threat for Africa, now and in the decades to come. The Kenyan capital, Nairobi, for instance, is home to Kibera, estimated by some to be Africa’s largest informal settlement. One small statistic gives an idea: for a population variously estimated between 350,000 and 1 million, there are approximately 600 toilets and only 115 water points. For comparison, Kenya’s Kwale County had 1,007 water points in 2013, with a population of approximately 650,000.

Effectively tackling the problems of Kibera, with a view to creating a more liveable city environment for Nairobi as a whole, requires a complete re-thinking of urban development planning. At the same time, it can offer real opportunities to enterprises and investors with vision and the drive to make a difference. Dutch organisations and companies are helping in the process, bringing their expertise and ‘polder model’ of integrated involvement.

The NGO CORDAID, for instance, through its programme URBAN MAT - TERS, is taking a multi-stakeholder approach to support micro-, small and medium-sized local enterprises in Kibera and a similar slum in the western city of Kisumu. In Kisumu CORDAID identified two main themes: realisation of affordable housing and improve - ment of sanitation. With a focus on the latter, CORDAID is looking to use its Smart Solution WASH, whereby eco-toilets are installed, human waste is collected and sold to recyclers that turn it into bio - gas, energy or fertilizer. DASUDA, The Dutch Alliance for Sustainable Development in Africa, is currently working with the Nairobi City Planning Department to draw up a socially inclusive and commer - cially viable redevelopment plan for Kaloleni Housing Estate in the Eastlands area of Nairobi.

Urban development is a complex matrix of interlocking areas. Fur - thermore, the number of urban centres in other parts of Kenya is growing. The Kenyan government has recognised that economic development and planning for sustainable urban development must go together. It is actively working to improve the investment climate and to devolve responsibility for integrated planning to local (county) governments so that, in the future, urban growth will be equitable and sustainable. Dutch planners, entrepreneurs, NGOs and investors should seize this opportunity.

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