Five ways to make our African cities places we will all love living in

The continent is projected to be the most rapidly urbanising region on the planet, and could become the next contest frontier.

DEMOGRAPHIC pressures associated with rural urban migration, massive urbanisation on the back of recent economic growth and failure to expand urban facilities in tandem with the increasing population has led to not only the ubiquitous traffic problem, but also a huge strain on other urban facilities - hospitals, housing and schools.

If endless rants in the morning and evening radio shows and persistent social media chatter about traffic jam during the work commute is the barometer, then traffic has become a major problem in most African cities.

According to a new UN report, The State of African Cities (2014)—Re-imagining sustainable urban transitions, “Africa is projected to experience a 16% rise in its urban population by 2050 – making it the most rapidly urbanising region on the planet – as the number of people living in its cities soars to 56%.”

This massive urbanisation, while impressive, unless properly and adequately planned for would make cities the next frontier of sharp social and political contestation. 

To avoid such African cities, we need to do the following:

1. Build walk-able cities

In many African cities, cars have become a demonstrable status symbol that anybody with a steady income can own. Some are purchased through bank loans -never mind the usurious interest rates the banks charge. 

Remarkably, the same groups of people- because of their access to the radio and social media, complain about the traffic hardly realising they are in fact part of the problem. 

For instance according to the Commuter Pain Index by technology firm IBM, Nairobi is the fourth-worst city in the world to be a commuter in. Traffic jams cost $578,000 daily in lost productivity, which translates into $220 million annually in Nairobi. Finding a solution to such a loss should be in anyone’s interest.

But the road traffic in most African cities is a function of a stagnated expansion of the road networks, while the population and cars have been steadily increasing. 

However, governments’ responses have been short-term—building bypasses and multiple lane roads. But this is just a temporary fix. 

But this status- permanent traffic jams- shouldn’t be fait accompli.

One solution to this problem is creating cycling and walk lanes, especially in the central business districts.

For instance, why would one take a car, that will cost more in fuel cost and arrive late, when one can walk? Or even cycle?

Part of the problem is that the ways most cities are administered and governed militate against walking and cycling. In most cities, biking is a billboard for one to be run over by riotous buses and taxis. Therefore, as a self-preservation instinct, people insist on  driving knowing full well they’ll be frustrated, run late, and contribute to traffic; a vicious cycle.

So bad has the traffic situation become that most people will not meet you at certain times in certain cities.

2. Have an efficient public transportation

According to the state of African Cities 2014, “poor transport infrastructures are responsible for 40% of the logistics costs in coastal countries - and 60% in landlocked ones. Road networks are particularly deficient, while rail systems are mostly poorly connected and maintained”. 

According to the African Green City Index, a research project conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, “On average the 15 African Index cities have 2.7 kilometres of public transport (official buslines) per square kilometre. They also have an average of 0.07 kilometres of superior transport networks, defined as metros, trams or bus rapid transit lines. This is shorter than in the Latin American Index, at 0.1 km per square kilometre, and Asia, at 0.2 km”

Until recently most African cities had a fairly reliable public transport. Most of these services - buses or trains - were built during the colonial days. A combination of poor management and large-scale corruption saw most of these companies go under. Private companies quickly filled in the gap to meet the ever-growing demand.

However, these private companies, because they face little competition, offer less-than-optimal services. The majority, because they have no alternative such as private cars, have to put up with terrible service. The result is an exploitative vicious cycle where private companies render terrible service because there is little incentive to improve, and the public continues taking the service because they have few alternatives.

Cities can break this parasitic, almost cartel-like, stranglehold by providing an efficient and unreliable public transport service. The service, if well managed, could see plenty of people using private vehicles switch to the public services. This will in the long term decongest the city, a win -win situation for all. This will also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions.

3. Enhancing eco cities

it is projected that by 2025, Africa’s 10 largest cities will include three megacities: Lagos (18.9 million), Cairo (14.7 million) and Kinshasa (14.5 million). Dar es Salaam, Khartoum and Abidjan are likely to reach megacity status within a generation from now if current growth trends persist. Nairobi and Kano could also be moving in that direction.

Such an outcome has implications at several levels, added to the fact that most the existing buildings are hardly eco friendly. And despite the energy poverty, “port cities require significant infrastructure upgrades, too. Low electrification persists, with 30 countries experiencing regular power shortages”; essentially few of the old and new cities are energy efficient. 

Hardly and use solar energy despite some of the cities receiving sustainable sunlight. 

The easiest place to start in most of these cities and states is the governor’s mansion; if all their residences are energy efficient, using solar as its primary source of energy,  these could be picked up by others. This could make public offices begin to use alternative sources of energy, and this domino effect could stir an energy revolution.

4. Increasing and utilising green spaces

Kenya’s Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. In its citation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted Prof Maathai’s contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace.” 

Because of her relentless effort today, a significant portion of Nairobi, which incidentally hosts the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), is now green. Many public spaces in African cities, especially parks, are underutilised, making them susceptible to corrupt “investors”. 

If African cities were to keep pace with the urbanisation- many families will be moving to the cities, they’ll need to increase these spaces, as well making them functional. The presence of children parks and public gardens could be a huge pull factor for young professionals. This could also increase property prices.

For instance, Central Park in New York and Hyden Park in London are a huge attraction for people to visit and live in New York and London. The availability of clean, and well-maintained city parks would make many families view them as recreational, other that they being settings for fiery political speeches and religious conventions. 

5. Governance 

All the above solutions would be futile if there lacks proper governance and enforcement.

Some of our cities have among some of the best bylaws, but they are either haphazardly implemented, or not implemented at all.

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