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Urban planning in postcolonial Africa

How is the African city being built after the colonial era? In this article, Akuto Akpedze Konou examines postcolonial urban planning schemes.
© University of Basel

​​African politicians have inherited the centralism of the colonisers. Land use planning was an important issue in the spatial planning of African cities.

There were two specific cases, depending on whether the country was under British or French colonisation. Most African countries gained their independence in the second half of the 1950s. After colonisation brought new technologies and ultra-capitalist lifestyles to Africa, the cities which hosted the colonists remained places that attracted rural populations.

These cities were not only sites of industrialisation, but they became and remained hubs of trade between African countries and countries that were subject to them. This rural exodus quickly led to an exponential increase in the urban population.

The planning of primary and secondary cities in British Africa from the 1960s onwards was based on the 1945 Town and Country Planning Act1. However, after this period, the central authorities decided to decentralise the system by creating planning units in the interior of the country. While the objective of this action was to make these units autonomous, they sometimes found themselves financially dependent on the national state. Accra in Ghana is a good example.

Cities in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and North Africa have been able to follow a different pace of development from other sub-Saharan African countries.

Urban expansion in African cities: Population growth driven by high birth rates and rural-urban migration

The World Bank predicts that by 2050, Africa will have the largest urban population2. The main reason for this is high birth rates combined with a gradual decline in infant and elderly mortality rates due to advances in globalised medicine. African urban dwellers are following African cultural patterns of high birth rates.

Technological advances in medicine have reduced the mortality rate in Africa. The result is a broad-based population pyramid, but also a growing topography. This growing urban population needs space to settle.

The second reason for urban population growth is rural-urban migration. Human migration from rural to urban areas reflects the attractiveness of cities, especially in Africa, due to the centralisation of infrastructure funding in primary cities. The “urban dream” pushes people to urban areas, thwarting predictions, and creating excess demand. This leads to the search for affordable living spaces and often to informal settlements in undevelopable areas.

The policies legalising urban planning in these cities, even if they are updated, are copied from the texts of the colonising countries, and are rarely adapted to the realities on the ground. It is therefore common to see these populations creating shanty towns along the waterways or settling in the outskirts in an increasingly alarming land insecurity.

In addition to self-construction methods using non-sustainable materials, other new activities such as urban agriculture are appearing, imported from rural practices. This urban agriculture also has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of health impacts. Urbanisation precedes urbanism causing public health problems. The race seems unbridled, and would require “miracle solutions”.

Perspectives on the making of the African city: international agendas

There is a growing number of international institutions that claim to help countries of the South to develop programmes that focus on urban problems. International agendas are the battleground of these donors, and these agendas such as the Smart Cities concept3 are not so appropriate for these developing or emerging countries. The question arises whether the rescue of the South must necessarily come from the North.

The other decisive topic of the last 40 years is the Internet. Digitisation is now the watchword of African urbanity, and this tool enables socio-economic achievements, especially in the era of WhatsApp and COVID-19. The disruption and information capacity of this growing connected urban population is also to be taken into account in urban planning.

The health of new forms of housing in the post-colonial African city

​​Urban health issues in the postcolonial period are very diverse. There is therefore a great need to develop WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) systems, and to address disadvantaged communities.

Urban agriculture, for example, contributes somewhat to food security, but has implications for other aspects of urban health. Produce can be contaminated with insecticides, heavy metals, micro-organisms, etc.

In the end, are the benefits of urban agriculture more about preserving urban soil or empowering women? Do new technologies bring health to the poorest urban dwellers? In short, there are many opportunities to be seized to make the urban planning of African cities a lever for improving health and global resilience.

Author: Akuto Akpedze Konou

© University of Basel
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