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Urban growth in Africa and Freetown

Watch video urban growth Africa Freetown challenges opportunities city planning development sierra leone informal settlement independence history
Half of Africa’s population is expected to live in a city by 2035, up from 40% today. This is testament to the fact that a 1/4 of the world’s fastest growing cities are in Africa, and 52 African cities already have more than one million inhabitants. But these cities are only projected to absorb a 1/4 of the growth of urban populations, meaning that small and medium sized cities will host the majority of new urban dwellers. African cities are the most unequal in the world, posing a major challenge to their future. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and the focus of this course, is an example of this rapid, unplanned, growth and the challenges and opportunities associated with it.
The city was founded in 1792 and named Freetown due to it being a safe haven for freed slaves. Sierra Leone became a British colony in 1808, with Freetown becoming known as the ‘Athens of West Africa’ due to Fourah Bay College, the first Western style university in the region. Freetown was originally planned for 300,000, but is now home to between 1.5 and 2 million residents. Previously, a couple of decades down the line, Freetown was a planned community because Freetown used to be not so densely populated as it is now.
But as a result of migration, of course, the rural urban migration because of the search for access to basic facilities, like tertiary education, you only had the tertiary institutions in Freetown, access to the bright light theory as you could see, good job opportunities, good infrastructure, and the like, people migrated. And also all culminated as a result of the 10-year-old or more civil war we had. So this led to people settling in makeshift structures all across the city in a haphazard manner. As the city has expanded unplanned, development has taken place without proper infrastructure and land use considerations.
This has led to many problems, including improper waste disposal, high exposure to risk, poor access to basic services, such as hospitals, education, and transport, unsound structures, and the lack of proper water and sanitation, amongst others.

This video will bring you to the city Freetown and begin to introduce the scale of its urban expansion.

It is important to understand the historical context of the city in order to understand the current situation – including the legacy of colonialism and the planning that was undertaken at that time, which is still visible when looking at maps of the city centre.

This planned area of Freetown is now surrounded on all sides by the unplanned city that has grown around it. Remember, it is key not just to consider and understand the challenges presented by this rapid urban growth, but also the opportunities it provides.


Mansaray, L.R., Huang, J. & Kamara, A.A. Environ Monit Assess “Mapping deforestation and urban expansion in Freetown, Sierra Leone, from pre- to post-war economic recovery” (2016) 188: 470.

Viditz-Ward, Vera. “Photography in Sierra Leone, 1850-1918.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 57, no. 4, 1987, pp. 510–518. JSTOR, JSTOR,

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Development and Planning in African Cities: Exploring theories, policies and practices from Sierra Leone

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