Warning over race to reshape African cities as "urban fantasies"

News, 13 January 2014
Plans to reshape cities across Africa in the style of Dubai and Singapore threaten to deepen social inequalities and could prove costly to both investors and city authorities, according to a paper in the April 2014 edition of Environment and Urbanization.

The stylish modelling of the Singapore City skyline may not be appropriate for cities in Africa and could deepen social inequalities (Edwin.11: Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

The paper, by Professor Vanessa Watson of the University of Cape Town, reviews plans to renew, extend or replace cities in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Watson notes that the planned modernist skyscrapers and landscaped freeways have been dreamt up not in Africa but in the offices of international architects and engineers. They appear to ignore the fact that the majority of people in African cities have low incomes, live in informal housing and lack land rights. They also do nothing to address the large deficits in provision for basic services.

Watson warns that the planned developments could evict or relocate large numbers of the urban poor and leave them without access to vital services and livelihood opportunities.

She suggests that one reason for the recent rash of new city 'master plans' is that the global economic crisis of 2008 has led property investment companies, architects and construction firms to seek new markets in Africa.

The plans share a common vision of globally-connected, technologically advanced cities that provide business opportunities and homes for Africa's growing middle class. Yet Watson notes that the African Development Bank defines the middle class as those spending US$2-20 a day and the upper middle class as those who spend US$10-20 a day.

"It is difficult to imagine how households with such minimal spending power can afford the luxury apartments portrayed in the fantasy plans," write Watson. "It may be that prospective property developers are seriously misreading the African market."

The paper concludes that as Africa's urban poor confront new alliances of international property capital, politicians and emerging urban middle classes all intent on seizing and re-valorising land, they may lose not only land but also political rights.

In his response to Vanessa Watson's paper,  Dr Gautam Bhan (from the Indian Institute of Human Settlements) sees these plans as in part a yearning for a controlled and orderly city free of the messiness of democratic politics and guided by authoritarian city states. If implemented, he says, they would further disconnect city plans from the actual citizens of the cities they seek to reshape. 

"Phrases such as 'smart city', 'eco-city' and 'sustainable' appear often in the plans, but it is commercial rather than social or environmental objectives that drive the plans," says Dr David Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow in the International Institute for Environment and Development's Human Settlements Group, and editor of Environment and Urbanization. "There is nothing smart nor sustainable about cities that ignore the needs of most of their citizens, including their poorest."

Download the paper by Vanessa Watson

Download the paper by Gautam Bhan

Contacts for interviews

Dr Vanessa Watson (Vanessa.Watson@uct.ac.za)

Gautam Bhan (gbhan@iihs.co.in)

Dr David Satterthwaite (david.satterthwaite@iied.org


Mike Shanahan
Press officer

International Institute for Environment and Development
80-86 Gray’s Inn Road
London WC1X 8NH, UK.
Tel: +44 (0)20 3463 7399
Fax: +44 (0)20 3514 9055

Email: mike.shanahan@iied.org

Notes to editors

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see: www.iied.org).