Re-imagining Africa's cities (2)

A 2015 Deloitte Africa report (A 21st Century View) highlights urbanisation along with a rising middle class, exponential population growth, youth dominance and fast adoption of digital technologies as five key trends.

Written by Kim Gurney

Images by Kim Gurney - Getty/AFP

A 2015 Deloitte Africa report (A 21st Century View) highlights urbanisation along with a rising middle class, exponential population growth, youth dominance and fast adoption of digital technologies as five key trends.

Between 2015 and 2050, according to the UN, 90% of all urban growth in the world will be in Asia and Africa, with Africa’s the fastest urbanisation rate, albeit slowing down, says ACC’s Pieterse. The population is also set to double within 30 years, increasing the scale and complexity of the challenges.

A very specific burden on African cities is the sprawled urban form, he says. Here Pieterse evokes the largely Anglophone and Lusophone colonial context that led to more privileged urban cores serviced by dormitory-style accommodation for predominantly male workers. In the postcolonial period, this sets a template for the formal development of suburban elites and relative precarity for the less-privileged, who self-build on typically peripheral land that continues to sprawl outwards.

“Even though cities are still growing and expanding, they have a very inefficient urban form. This is, of course, in part a legacy of the colonial planning system that has endured in the postcolonial period but, most importantly, is a consequence of the absence of effective planning. One of the starkest manifestations of that is the mobility systems,” he adds.

The majority of urban dwellers rely on non-motorised transport – mostly walking. “Really thinking about mobility systems with non-motorised imperatives at the apex is a planning requirement that has to define African transport planning. That will fundamentally recalibrate the public policy discussion and the investment priorities,” Pieterse says.

In the absence of planning, legislation and investment, however, semi-formal mobility systems have become the dominant mode of motorised transport for most people. Examples include minibus taxis in South Africa, minibuses called matatus in Kenya or motorbikes called okadas in Lagos, Nigeria. This sector is partially regulated but not funded by the state; such modes form the backbone of cities and serve urban trading and movement patterns, Pieterse says.

They also pose a challenge to policymakers:

“How to retain the energy and entrepreneurship of that organic growth, but also subject it to the right kind of regulatory framework and incentives to grow that system; but at the same time not snuff out the innovation and ingenuity that underpins it”.

Those modes also have problematic economic structures that result in mechanisms of exploitation, and imperatives for growth that ignore issues of safety, Pieterse adds. “Figuring out that balance is a conversation that has to happen across African cities.”

It also needs to be struck alongside more formal improvements to urban public transport systems, in a context where technology can now create efficiency – smart ticketing, smoother mobility flows, the tracking  of vehicles, goods or services. “This is coming to the forefront of a lot of agendas, because the private sector and state are realising these inefficient mobility systems are hampering growth,” he adds.

An interesting lens to look at this issue is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), an innovative public bus system modelled on the successful Latin American prototype and adopted in various African cities.

Rehana Moosajee, a consultant and the former councillor responsible for transport in Johannesburg, had a ringside seat when the city implemented the BRT system in time for the Football World Cup in 2010. Johannesburg went the high-end route, with enclosed stations and exclusive rights of way in a phased rollout that is still continuing.

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