Why rapid urbanisation in Africa can be good news, after all

Monday May 30 2011


In 1890, Jacob Riis, an American immigrant of Danish descent, published a photo journal titled; How the other half lives. This publication depicted scenes of squalor in the tenement housing of New York city and was meant to shock the wealthier half of the New York population into action .

The images showed a chronically poor population living in unsafe buildings in dark and overcrowded areas lacking even the most basic of water and sanitation services.

More than a century later, the scenes from the New York slums are the reality for close to a billion slum-dwellers in developing countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, close to 60% of the urban population lives in slums.

For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s people live in cities. In 1990 there were only 26 African cities with more than a million residents, and now there are 52. A great proportion of the new entrants to the cities have had no option but to move into slums because of poverty and a lack of affordable housing facilities in the overcrowded cities.

So is the high rate of urbanisation necessarily bad news? It doesn’t have to be as long as it is managed sustainably, with the current slums upgraded and governments preventing the creation of new slums through careful planning. Urban dwellers take up less space, use less energy, and have less impact on natural ecosystems than rural dwellers.

Because urban inhabitants use less land on a per capita basis than rural dwellers, urbanisation actually helps to reduce the encroachment upon environmentally rich or agriculturally fertile land areas. In fact, even though the world’s cities now have more than half of the world’s population in them, they only take up 3% of the world’s land area.


Rural to urban migration will continually increase with time. Trends such as increased mechanisation in agriculture will mean less labour needed to till rural lands and thus a greater influx of rural dwellers into the cities in search of work.

Another trend that is deeply felt, especially in Africa, is inheritance of ancestral land that leads to smaller uncultivable plots of land with each subsequent generation. Urbanisation is therefore an inescapable reality. No country has grown to middle-income status without industrialising and urbanising. Rapid urbanisation need not however be an excuse for the unfettered proliferation of slums.

There have been recent efforts in various African countries to address the issue. The Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) is one such recent attempt, and it aims to improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 20201 — one of the key aims of the Millennium Development Goals. The first phase of this project began in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. The project has six main components: physical infrastructure (sewers, roads), social infrastructure (schools, community centres), shelter improvement (security of tenure, establishment of housing cooperatives), environment and solid waste management (garbage collection, cleaning of rivers), income generation (establishment of markets) and health (HIV education and awareness.) Though such efforts by governments are laudable, more concerted efforts are required to address this growing issue of slums.

According to evidence collected by UN-HABITAT in 44 countries the slum upgrading or slum prevention measures that have worked in other countries incorporated most of the following elements: (1) Slum monitoring systems to collect information and analyse trends, (2) Dissemination of messages on improved living conditions for slum dwellers, (3) Long-term political commitment, (4) Reform of policies on housing, land and infrastructure provision and finance, (5) Sufficient human and technical resources to support slum upgrading or prevention strategies and (6) Scaling up of successful pilot programs. Examples of such programs include one in Mexico, Burkina Faso, Latin America and South Africa that included the training of urban planning and management professionals and involved them in housing and basic service delivery programmes.

Ciku Kimeria is a consultant at Dalberg Global Development Advisors in Nairobi. She holds a BSc in management science and a minor in urban planning from MIT