Africa’s cities are growing very rapidly. By 2050, 1.2 billion people, or 60 percent of all Africans, will live in urban areas. For the UN’s human settlements programme – known as UN-Habitat – the challenges are to help Africans to better harness the productive potential of their cities and to cope with the increased demands for municipal services and decent housing.
Joan Clos, a former mayor of Barcelona, Spain, and since 2010 the executive director of UN-Habitat, spoke to Africa Renewal’s managing editor, Ernest Harsch, at UN-Habitat’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.
Q: How has the exceptionally rapid growth of Africa’s cities affected general approaches to urban development?
Clos: We are seeing an unprecedented pace of urbanisation in Africa. We have seen similar movements in other continents before.
But what is different in Africa is the speed of the process. The response to that is to improve urban planning, to plan for city growth. It is necessary to introduce as soon as possible urban planning on a massive scale in Africa.
Q: In some countries in Africa, where urban planning is being attempted, it often seems slow and bureaucratic, and by the time it reaches implementation, growth has outstripped the plans. Can planning efforts really keep up?
Clos: The first step is the limitation of public space in relation to private space. This is something that has to be done by the government, because there is no other entity. The problem is that if the government is unco-ordinated, or it doesn’t have the instruments, the speed of planning is much slower than the speed of city growth.
The only solution is to speed up the planning process, because you cannot stop in-migration. If it’s complex because it involves different ministries, it needs to be simplified. And if it’s too dependent on central government, then it should be delegated to the local authorities.
When you see economies, like the African ones, growing at 6 percent to 7 percent, there’s no excuse. You cannot have such a rate of growth without at the same time putting in place urban planning instruments.
Q: In some cities in Africa, particularly major ones, there have been efforts to revitalise centre cities, to attract foreign investors and businesses. Sometimes, when this has been done in a top-down fashion, local communities have resisted. How can this be avoided?
Clos: It is a question of the maturity of the political system. In a weak system, sometimes the way they do planning is by authoritarian means, without taking into account the rights of the people. There’s no need for practices that don’t take care of the affected people.
Urban planning can help generate wealth. And when you generate wealth, there’s always the possibility of distributing it. But if someone tries to develop the city and capture all the wealth for himself, then conflict is sure to arise.
There are many examples (of good planning) in Africa, but mostly at the small scale. They are not perfect, but are advancing in a good direction, in Morocco, Mauritius, Rwanda. What we still don’t see is a pro-active approach, of national governments developing national urban policies to cope with the challenging future of African cities.
Urban planning is not something for tomorrow. It should be there today, this afternoon.
Q: How does climate change affect urban development?
Clos: The typical unplanned city, which has no streets, no drainage system, or is built on slopes, is very susceptible to climate change. It’s very prone to huge catastrophes.
The solution to the risk of climate change, again, is urban planning. This is one additional reason why governments will be pushed to do something in favour of urban planning, to protect the population against climate change disasters.
These are now typically considered to be natural disasters. But in the future they will be seen as a failure of government. In a lot of countries in the world, people at first saw them as natural disasters, but they later… looked at the government and said: “No, no. It’s wrongdoing. It’s a lack of planning, a lack of foresight by the government.”
We have seen earthquakes with very high tolls of victims, and similar… stronger, earthquakes elsewhere, with very few victims. The natural disaster, the quake, is the same. What is different is the outcome.
Q: Many urban Africans currently are obliged to live in slums. Could you talk about UN-Habitat’s approach to participatory slum upgrading?
Clos: In a sense, the slum is a failure of the state. In most slums the state doesn’t intervene. Legitimacy inside of the slum rests with the community. If you want to improve the conditions of the slum, you need to establish a dialogue with the community. They are the ones who will understand it, the ones who have the legitimacy to perform it.
When you introduce streets and latrines, and put lights in the streets, immediately you have shops that emerge, you have more economic activities. There’s a virtuous circle of self-improvement.
Q: Do upgrading slums and urban planning also involve land tenure reform?
Clos: Yes. Security of tenure is very related to urban planning. First you need to identify the plots. We are advising governments, regional authorities and local governments, through different legislation and land tools, to have a proper census of urban plots. The next step is introducing urban planning. This includes introducing public space, mainly streets. This sometimes affects existing plots, so you need to readjust land ownership. And that requires a legal instrument – which is lacking in most of Africa – by which a pool of owners can readjust their share of the property in a way that they don’t lose value.
Q: In many African countries there have been moves toward the decentralisation of government institutions. How does that relate to urban development?
Clos: I don’t like the word “decentralisation”. It doesn’t explain well what is happening. I prefer to say “local government empowerment”. The weight of central government is so weak that you cannot really talk about decentralisation.
What is new is that national constitutions and national political agreements now allow for the empowerment of local authorities. This allows more forces in society to develop. It empowers local governments to have local taxes, to create local fiscal systems. That requires some kind of inventory of businesses.
Q: What about urban governance?
Clos: This process will also bring an improvement of governance. Of course, there are going to be scandals, problems. But in general the tendency that I foresee is toward an increased complexity and completeness of institutional relationships and capacities in a more modern state. The only way to fight corruption is to improve your institutions. This is something that will be demanded by the population.
Municipal services, as any other good, also need to be financed. I would expect that with the growth of African economies, room will be created for financing urban services.
This piece was produced by the UN’s Africa Renewal Features Service.