Building new cities in Africa: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Rendering of Eko Atlantic Marina. Credit: Eko Atlantic

In September 2020, West African Twitter exploded, a White American Twitter user with the handle @drydenwtbrown constructed what I’m sure he thought was a super relatable thread about how he and his partner and friend decided they wanted to “build a new city in Africa” even though they had zero USD, no connections and had never been on the continent before.

The reactions were swift and brutal. Many West Africans were so incredulous and very angry about the whole thread, as it dripped with a complete lack of understanding of the state of the continent, white privilege and it especially needled people when it turned out he had managed to get a meeting with the Ghanaian minister of finance, something close to impossible for Ghanaians themselves.  Mr @drydenwtbrown was forced to take down the thread. 

The thread, however, exposed something that I think was missed in the middle of the backlash; A certain preoccupation with “building new cities” in developing countries.

The case for new cities in Africa is pretty easy to make, most major cities on the continent are overcrowded, poorly planned, dirty and are barely keeping up with the continuous urban drift which has accelerated in the past few years. 

Lagos has acquired a well-earned reputation for being the HQ for traffic gridlocks on the continent, a situation that has only worsened over the past decade. 

The price of property within Accra is so sky-high that most new homeowners are being pushed to the periphery of the city and Nairobi has severe waste disposal and pollution issues that would take decades to solve.

 

At the same time, there is serious doubt that these problems can be reversed especially since the kind of actions that are required to reverse them in the short term are more suited to dictatorships and would be very unpopular in today’s world, while the current governments on the continent are not interested in implementing the actions that could reverse them since most of them are unable to think or plan past a 4-5 year election cycle. 

 

This has created a unique situation where it might be easier to just build a brand new city rather than try to solve the problems facing older cities. 

Interestingly, “planned cities” are not a new phenomenon in Africa, ancient civilizations especially the Egyptians built more than 10 planned cities and Cairo, the current capital city of Egypt was designed and built in the  10th century CE By the Fatimid Caliph Al Muizz.

 

In his book “Sapiens” Yuval Noah Hariri explains that cities naturally sprung up where the geography was suitable for large scale human settlement due to factors like ;

  • Water bodies
  • Fertile land
  • Easily defensible positions etc

 

A simple look at the map of the world would show that settlements patterns closely follow geographical outlays as humans have historically made use of what has been offered naturally. 

No wonder there is a Persian saying that goes “Geography is history”.

 

Colonialism in Africa cannot be decoupled from the development of modern cities as the colonial masters set up camp and invested heavily in building coastal cities wherever possible and turning them into administrative centres. Naturally, these cities became magnets for all kinds of people from rural areas. However, these cities were never planned with large influxes of people in mind and over time this led to the urban problems mentioned above. 

 

This is the reason why many countries in Africa are oriented towards their coastal cities which now face the issues mentioned above. Some of these cities are;

 

  • Accra, Ghana
  • Lagos, Nigeria
  • Calabar, Nigeria
  • Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania
  • Cape Town, South Africa

Modern Planned Cities in Africa

Aerial view of the CBD of Federal Capital Territory Abuja Nigeria

In modern times,  new city projects have typically been government initiatives, especially in developing countries. 

In the ’70s, a couple of countries decided to design new cities to be their capital to varying degrees of success. Some of these purpose-built capitals are;

  • Abuja, Nigeria
  • Dodoma, Tanzania
  • Yamoussoukro, Cote d’ivoire

Over the last 20 years, there have been multiple planned cities in various stages of development across the continent most notable because most of them have been private sector-led initiatives with little or no Government support. Some of these cities are;

  • Alaro City, Lagos Nigeria
  • Eko Atlantic City, Lagos Nigeria
  • Wedian City, (NAC)Egypt
  • Appolonia City, Accra Ghana
  • Akon City, Senegal
  • Modderfontein, South Africa
  • Kigali City, Rwanda
  • Konza Techno City, Kenya.

But is it enough to just design and build a new city? Are new planned cities the silver bullet that can solve all the urban problems facing African countries? 

Like everything, it depends.

The Good

It is objectively a good thing to develop new urban communities in Africa, better still when they are carefully planned. 

As the middle-class continues to grow and solidify, the demand for better living conditions has begun to intensify. 

Private urban developers have been able to take a different approach to community development than governments would typically take. And some of the best new communities developed in West Africa over the last 20 years have been planned communities like 

  • Lakowe Lakes Golf Resorts, Lagos, Nigeria
  • Lekki County, Lagos, Nigeria
  • Lakeside Estate Accra Ghana
  • Appolonia City, Greater Accra, Ghana

Planned communities when done correctly have the potential to significantly ease pressure on existing communities and help to change the orientation of these cities from having one major centre to creating multiple centres which in turn creates a better living experience for everybody. 

Planned communities also offer a better standard of living for their residents due to purpose-built facilities which are difficult to include in already existing communities.

There’s also the opportunity that planned communities provide for urban planners to test new theories and new ways of organizing communities.

Planned communities are also better able to adapt to natural growth which is something pre-existing communities have typically struggled with. 

They can also serve as model communities where governments and other stakeholders can learn new methodologies for urban planning that can then be replicated on a larger scale. 

When planned communities are built properly, they are a real way to solve urban problems and aid development on the African continent. 

The Bad

Planned or Artificial?

Planned cities/communities used to be called “Artificial cities” in contrast with so-called “Natural cities” that had sprung up seemingly spontaneously. 

In the last few years, however, the preferred term has become  “Planned cities” as this term better accurately describes these communities. 

After all, what does “Planned” even mean objectively? And a lot of cities we would now consider as natural cities started out as very carefully planned cities for example;

  • Washington DC, USA
  • Saint Petersburg, Russia
  • Cairo, Egypt
  • Ottawa, Canada
  • Baghdad, Iraq

The problem with these planned communities however is that they can sometimes be white elephant projects which do nothing to solve the problems that they were initially created to solve.

 

Massive Chinese built Ghost Town in Angola

The urban problems in Africa are being mainly suffered by low to middle-income earners who tend to live in slums where these problems are exacerbated. And indeed, some of these new cities tout themselves as “Middle-income” locations, however by the time they are complete, the median price point for homes are way above what the middle-income earners can afford, so these cities end up becoming another upper-middle-class fortress where they can live without mixing up with the “common people”  which sometimes ends up creating more urban problems than they solve. 

Another problem with planned cities is that they promote shallow thinking within government quarters. 

It’s always going to be hard to solve major urban problems. Some of these issues have been developing for 20-100 years, with the foundations for these problems embedded into the framework of the city itself and would require hard work, creative thinking and a long time to solve. 

The only way to solve existing urban problems is to start solving them. Building a new city in Lagos is not going to ease congestion on the Ejigbo-Isolo road axis, neither is it going to fix the bad roads and drainage that cause flooding when it rains. And developing planned cities can give governments an easy out, allowing them to either posture like they are solving problems or at best allow them to postpone beginning to try to tackle these issues.

Finally, because of how catchy the entire idea and concept sounds, bad actors have used it in the past to run or perpetuate scams against unsuspecting investors or potential homeowners.

The Ugly

Almost every piece of land in the world today belongs to someone, so if you need the large sizes of land required to build a proper community, very often you would have to push some people off their land. This could be in various forms, the national or state government could exercise eminent domain and hand over the property to you, or you could negotiate with the local government or traditional rulers who could then hand over the land, or you could negotiate directly with the different owners, make them offers they can either accept or reject.

The ugly part of it is if the land is forcefully taken from the owners to make way for your new city. 

This is common in countries where land rights are unclear and ownership rests in the hands of a few individuals or institutions like traditional rulers, governments etc. 

This is a grey area because, at the end of the day, only the party with legal ownership of the land can hand it over, however, its also important to take into account the families who may have resided on that land for years either legally or illegally. 

When your new city project creates a situation where you are uprooting hundreds of families, even if you have acquired legal rights to that property, it’s important to think about the ethical implications of this and how to best mitigate this and reduce the amount of suffering caused by your project. 

Finally, the environmental impact of building planned communities could be huge. 

More often than not, these communities are being built on previously pristine land which has not seen human interaction for centuries allowing delicate eco-systems to form.

For the sake of these communities, bulldozers are moved in and necessarily, the land has to be cleared which has adverse and unknown effects on the environment.

So what’s the way forward?

New city projects on the continent can cause as many problems as they solve. So it is important to be very careful about every aspect of it, from planning to execution to management. 

Authorities need to be very careful about the organizations they permit to build planned communities within their territories, making sure that they have answers to the questions raised above. 

Building new planned communities the right way is not easy, but then nothing worth doing is ever easy. 

 

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