Quick Guide 01 – Urban Africa: Building with Untapped Potential

Africa and Asia are at the epicentre of the second large-scale urban transition in the history of the world. The first transition unfolded between 1750 and 1950 in North America and Europe, which saw the urban share of their total population grow from 10% to 52%. The second urban transition has been unfolding largely in the global South since 1950; by 2030 the urban share of the population in this region will have grown from 18% to 56%.

Africa’s urban population rose from 15% of its total population in 1960 to 35% in 2006, and is expected to be above 60% by 2030.1 Thus, even though Africa is not yet 50% urbanized, it has the fastest rate of urbanization of all regions in the world at 3.3%.2 Currently Africa is 38% urbanized, but this hides the fact that certain African countries and regions have already reached the 50% mark. Moreover, the largest economies on the continent are almost all above the 50% urban mark.

These numerical values hide the deep-going demographic and cultural changes that these rapid shifts imply. Urban life is profoundly different to rural life. People engage in fundamentally dif- ferent livelihood activities; social networks extend well beyond familial, clan and ethnic ties; spiritual and customary norms become contested and fused with multiple outside influenc- es and inflections; generational dynamics shift; and most importantly, people’s expectations and aspirations alter profoundly. For these reasons, urban settlements are marked by intensity, change, uncertainty, surprise, risk, and paradoxically, a sense of possibility.

Because of their myopic mindsets, the leaders and policy managers of many of Africa’s states, cities and towns have by and large failed to come to terms with the reality and implications of rapid urbanization. As a result, we witness across sub-Saharan Africa, poorly managed cities and towns and wasted potential. At its starkest, this failure is manifested in slum living conditions and the high rate of slum growth. The latter is virtually identical to urban growth rates in gen- eral, suggesting that the doubling of the urban population over the next 20 years will involve the creation of more and more slums.

The reasons we have not been able to reverse this trend of slum growth as a consequence of population growth are many and complex. In this Quick Guide we want to explore the most important one: the failure of imagination on the part of all those involved in urban development and management to see urbanization as a resource with great potential to solve the African development crisis, instead of as a cause of the crisis.


Download the rest of the series below, as well as the Facilitator Guide that comes with it: