Africa's Cities of the Future: Urbanisation for Better or for Worse

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Any discussion of the world's biggest cities tends to revolve around Tokyo, Mexico City and the mushrooming centres of China's industrialised southeast. Yet recent forecasts suggest that many sub - Saharan cities will join this list as Africans continue to migrate from rural areas to centres of employment on a wave of hope that all too often ends in disappointment.

But it is in the cities that wealth is created, new ideas circulate, fashions and trends created and the good life can be lived - at least for some. Africa's transformation into a continent of urban dwellers is presenting an increasing challenge for governments and developers, but Africa's cities of the future also provide an extraordinary canvas for innovation, the application of modern design concepts and novel systems of providing services. We examine where our cities are at present and peer forward into the future of our urban landscape.

The question of global population growth and urbanisation took centre stage when the UN claimed that the world's population had reached 7bn on or around 31st October this year. It is, of course, impossible to identify the seven - billionth person and even the UN itself admits a wide degree of error over the date on which the historic barrier was broken. Population forecasts are notoriously difficult to make. A slight change in infant mortality life expectancy or economic growth can have profound implications for long - term estimates.

However, there is no doubt that the global population is growing; and nowhere more rapidly than in Africa. In the midst of such demographic projections it is easy to forget what we are actually talking about here. As UN Secretary - General Ban Ki - moon said: "This is not a story about numbers. This is a story about people. Seven billion people who need enough food, enough energy, good opportunities in life for jobs and education, rights and freedoms: the freedom to speak, the freedom to raise their own children in peace and security."

The population of Africa is believed to have first topped lbn in November 2009, just 27 years after it reached 500m. There were an estimated 395m people in African cities in 2009, close to 40% of the continent's population, which is a greater proportion than in India but smaller than in China. The African continent's urban population growth rate currently stands at 3.4% a year, which may not sound much on paper but is equivalent to 13.5m more people needing housing, food and water in African urban environments every year.

All forecasts suggest that the rate of global population increase will slow down over the next 20 years, followed soon after by a decline in the rate of African population growth. The rate of growth tends to fall as socio - economic conditions improve and women have better access to education and more scope to plan their families. Nevertheless, reproduction by the current huge population of young Africans is likely to take the continent's population above the 2bn mark sometime after 2050.

Perhaps the most startling national population forecasts relate to Nigeria. The UN's projection for Africa's most populous country is 730m by 2100, more than the projected population of the whole of Europe at 675m, at that date. A report published by UN Habitat - The State of African Cities 2010: Governance, Inequalities and Urban Land Markets - found that the population of Lagos is already growing by 6% a year, while the country's total urban population is expected to rise by 140m by 2050.

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The figures are staggering. Over the next 40 years, the number of people living in Africa's cities is expected to triple, so that 60% of all Africans, or 1.23bn people, will live in urban environments by 2050. The UN forecasts that more Africans will live in cities and towns than rural areas by 2030, a full 180 years after this first occurred, in Victorian Britain. At least 14 African countries are expected to be at least 80% urbanised by 2050. …