Urban living in the future
After five days and 90 discussion sessions at Gallagher Estate in Midrand, politicians and technocrats from Africa’s various municipalities this week drew a path towards developing the continent’s future cities. They were careful not to promise a utopia. The Africities Summit, held every three years, seeks to bring local government experts and practitioners from across the continent under one roof to discuss future solutions to rapid urbanisation.
Among those who attended was CEO of SA Cities Network Sithole Mbanga, who said although he could not explain what African cities of the future would look like, they were not about substituting low-rise buildings with skyscrapers and high-rise developments.
Neither would they be free of informal settlements, service-delivery protests or labour disputes. The focus was on improving the living experiences of their residents.
“The danger is that people tend to look for graphics to say there will be skyscrapers. We are looking for a better experience of living in the city, like less travel time between home and work, more [people] experiencing jobs rather than joblessness, and more social infrastructure for health and education,” said Mbanga.
Unlike in developed parts of the world, most African cities face infrastructure backlogs as a result of centuries of colonial and racial spatial development.
Also, rapid urbanisation has over time seen informal settlements sprawling around urban centres as people seek better opportunities.
Mbanga said the vision for future cities does not exclude informal settlements.
“The construction of new houses will never catch up as long as we are experiencing urbanisation,” he said.
“There is always going to be a gap between the ability to lay down human settlement structures and the demand that comes as a result of urbanisation. At a bare minimum, we need to manage informal settlements instead of thinking that we will ever get rid of them.
“There are always going to be disagreements and disputes between labour and employers. When workers are dissatisfied they should be able to express that, and if they resort to strikes, let it be the case.
“Even in a transformed city, you are still going to have those disputes.”
New technological developments are seeing African city dwellers demanding more than just basic services from local government.
“Our communities are no longer just demanding water and houses. Wi-Fi has become something they are demanding as a right. There is nowhere in the prescripts of law where it says we must deliver Wi-Fi, but more municipalities have realised that it is a new demand and they are delivering that,” he said.
Mbanga said the summit provided delegates with “a good sense of exactly the magnitude of the problem”.
A key trend was the change in demographics across cities. “The cities are becoming younger in terms of the population and the average age of residents.
“More than 50% of people living in cities are aged between 24 and 35,” he said.
“This means you have a huge population that is younger, yet facing unemployment. We need to think about how we create jobs because not doing so is a recipe for disaster. They are going to get frustrated.”
Service-delivery protests were, he said, “not just about the lack of services like running water or waste removal, but they are also about unemployment”. Future cities are about experiencing a better life. “We have to manage how these things are happening. We can never overcome them overnight,” said Mbanga.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
The high-rise buildings of Lagos, Nigeria. What are the future solutions to rapid urbanisation?