In a discourse about the future of cities, one could be forgiven for limiting their geographical scope to innovations in Europe, the United States, and increasingly, China and Southeast Asia. After all, Shenzhen is about to once again host the world’s only Biennale dedicated exclusively to urbanization, while smart, responsive architecture manifests in visions for cities such as Toronto and London, and tech giants such as Microsoft and Siemens. However, despite our preoccupation with the problems and opportunities of urbanization in the ‘Global North’, and the architectural innovations they herald, there is merit in expanding our horizons – and not just towards Mars. By the end of the century, none of the world’s largest 20 cities will be in China, Europe, or the Americas. Africa, meanwhile, will host 13 out of 20, including the top 3.
The World Bank believes that Urbanization will be “the single most important transformation that the African continent will undergo this century”, with over half of the population set to live in cities by 2040. This will manifest as 40,000 people moving to cities every day for the next 20 years. The result will be the creation of nine “megacities” of more than 10 million people each, with the largest being Kinshasa (35 million), Lagos (32 million) and Cairo (24 million).
As African cities grow, and overtake their global rivals, the architects, urban designers, and planners who oversee this development will be forced to confront social and environmental challenges such as urban sprawl, climate change, and infrastructure deficits. This is without considering that 60% of urban dwellers in Africa live in slums. The challenge is already being met by studies such as Arup’s Future Proofing City studies, detailing the firm’s work in nine cities across four countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, and Uganda. The firm’s proposal for the managed growth of these cities differs depending on local circumstances; from the “Uganda Vision 2040” which aims to activate five regional and strategic secondary cities in an act of decentralization, while the Mozambique model centers on the evolution of “growth corridors” encompassing transport, logistics, trade, economy, and human development.
In contrast to Arup’s urban scale interventions, the Institute for Experimental Architecture at Bauhaus Universitat Weimer recently worked with the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture Building Construction and City Development to build three residential prototypes at a 1:1 scale for Addis Ababa, addressing the Ethiopian capital’s hyper-urbanization over recent years. Rather than relying on outdated models from Europe and the Global North, the experiments take advantage of indigenous building methods, construction technologies, and material use to create socially robust, open, and flexible spatial structures. Though engineered for Addis Ababa, where 80% of the urban population lives in slums, the architectural exercise has a broader story to tell; that of a new architectural ethos, an urban vernacular for African cities coping with an unprecedented surge in demand for urban growth.
This new urban vernacular will be complimented by Africa's embrace of technology. The technology revolution has transformed the lives and opportunities of African citizens, including famous examples such as the use of mobile phones as a solution for the continent's poor banking structure. These technologies will continue to serve as facilitators of urban activity in Africa's megacities of tomorrow. The World Economic Forum highlights key examples, such as Max.ng, a motorcycle taxi service which has completed 1,000,000 rides across three Nigerian cities, or Sendy, a parcel delivery service with more than 1,1000 drivers serving 5,000 businesses and 50,000 individuals across Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Both enterprises are founded on the same decentralized, user-orientated, mobile app model that is also transforming Western cities; a model that cannot be ignored as architects and urban planners steer the future development and operation of Africa's megacities of the future.
While it is tempting to dismiss the long-term forecasts for African urbanization as a problem for another day, smart planning and investment is needed today, in order to mitigate against the risks of tomorrow. Africa needs to spend $130 - 170 billion annually to meet its basic infrastructure needs, with two thirds of investments in urban infrastructure needed by 2050 still not made. To cope with the unprecedented demands set to be placed on African cities, and to ensure that the 1.3 billion Africans who will live in cities by 2050 can live with dignity, opportunity, and security, the continent requires innovative thinking from its politicians, urban planners, and its architects.