African cities urged to take holistic approach to urban planning

Tangiers, Morocco, leveraged its close proximity to European markets to build a flourishing automotive industry centered in four free-trade zones. (Mikadun/

Africa is the world’s second most rapidly urbanizing continent — topped only by Asia. In less than 20 years, Africa’s urban population will double. More than half of its population will reside in metropolitan areas.

This mass migration into cities already plagued by squalor and congestion requires thoughtful, comprehensive urban planning. Yet the region is falling dangerously short of that goal, a recent report warns.

Urbanization and Industrialization for Africa’s Transformation, published in March by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, characterizes planning efforts across Africa as largely disjointed.

In this post, Citiscope will look at what the report has to say about urban planning and policy prescriptions. Previously, we looked at the report’s overall conclusions and some of the case studies it highlights.

Read the full report from
the U. N. Economic
Commission for Africa

“Policies are often formulated and implemented in silos,” the report says. There’s “little analysis of the impact of urban trends and economic geography on industrialization in national development plan.”

[See: Africa’s urbanization must be linked to industrialization, report says]

The consequences for vulnerable populations are staggering. “Africa’s unguided urban expansion risks perpetuating non-inclusive and unsustainable growth,” the report warns.

The cycle of despair and inertia can be broken, however, through “strategic interventions” that can simultaneously lift both urban ecosystems and business opportunities.

The authors urge city leaders and planners to think broadly about policy goals that directly link industrial expansion with urban development. Here are their key recommendations:

  • Diversify job creation: To improve local economies, cities should avoid betting on one industry. Instead, they should promote a range of manufacturing capabilities, especially labour-intensive options that benefit semi-skilled workers.
  • Consider all of an industry’s needs: Strengthening every step in the “value chain” of targeted industries — from construction skills and business services to spatial planning and infrastructure — generates wider economic prosperity.
  • Bolster secondary cities: Too many African nations are dominated by a single mega-city, the report says. Spreading industrial development across several municipalities allows smaller cities to create jobs and leverage regional strengths. It also makes it easier for goods to reach wider populations and rural areas.

The report highlights other strategies that city leaders can use to expand their economies. The relaxation of zoning restrictions for industries that are not polluters makes it easier to build facilities. Rather than locate affordable housing on the periphery of cities, residential structures can be integrated into industrial areas.

Improved transportation and logistical connections between cities can allow for easier movement of products and supplies. Special economic zones offer advantages to potential employers, such as access to airports, tax breaks and large labour pools.

Transportation also is key, the report says. To enable more citizens to access jobs, cities need to focus more investment in transportation systems that feature mass transit, bicycling and walking.

Secondary cities

A significant challenge that African nations face in achieving economic diversification is the phenomenon of “urban primacy” — a single major city in a country accumulating all of the economic opportunities. That leaves most secondary cities too small to lure the industries and businesses they need to stimulate economic growth.

“A national system of cities of different sizes and complementary functions, along with improved transport, logistics and connectivity, is essential to overcome this structural challenge,” the authors state.

Other obstacles are the dearth of basic infrastructure and public services, along with limited mobility due to congested roads and limited public transit.

These impediments actually make it costlier for businesses and companies to operate in African cities, the report warns. They also underscore how comprehensive urban planning can pay economic dividends.

[See: Report highlights case studies to guide Africa’s urban future]

Finance, insurance, real estate, accounting, information and communications technology and other business services are among the industries African cities are encouraged to nurture. That’s due to their “dual role in linking urbanization and economic growth,” the report says.

But cities also are encouraged to capitalize on geographical advantages to foster niche industries. For example, Tangiers, Morocco, leveraged its close proximity to European markets to build a flourishing automotive industry centered in four free-trade zones.

The report also emphasizes the importance of sound budgetary and financial planning to fund investments needed to improve African cities. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda, a global agreement that underscores the need for tapping subnational actors for financing, offers a pathway.

See related stories:

Africa’s urbanization must be linked to industrialization, report says

Report highlights case studies to guide Africa’s urban future

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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