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OPINION: Shaping the future of African cities — with the people

Charlotte Scott reports back from the 7th Africities Summit, designed to connect the available data on future trends with what needs to be done at the local level to address the immediate needs of service delivery and economic opportunities in African cities and towns.

Driving through Sandton, Johannesburg on the way to the opening ceremony, it becomes clear why this area is known as the ‘Golden Square Mile of Africa’. Even for a Sunday morning, the prosperous business, commercial and residential district is still humming. As some delegates humorously remarked, it seems there are as many construction cranes in Sandton as there are office blocks.

As the financial powerhouse of Southern Africa, the location was a clear reminder of the growth potential for African cities but also of the problematic form this growth will continue to take if left unchecked. While Sandton’s chrome and glass buildings house many of the city’s jobs, the majority of the city’s residents live in the south in under-resourced areas cut off from services and employment opportunities by urban sprawl and poor public transport.

As one of the most important democratic gatherings in Africa, with its iconic location and simultaneous timing with COP21, the Summit was themed around “Shaping the future of Africa with the people: the contribution of African local authorities to the Agenda 2063 of the African Union”. Nearly 2,500 local and regional elected officials, including almost 1,500 mayors from 50 African countries participated in the pan-African gathering. The event intends to be the mouthpiece of 15,000 African local governments.

Agenda 2063, The Africa We Want articulates the aspiration that cities and other settlements should become hubs of cultural and economic activities, with modernised infrastructure, where people have access to all the basic necessities of life including shelter, water, sanitation, energy, public transport and information and communication technology.

Urban poverty was a major focus of almost all discussions, often manifesting in the form of informal settlements in poorly located areas of cities and towns. 62% of the urban Africans live in slums compared with 42% in South Asia and 22% in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Africa urbanEnergy supply and the sustainability of cities was an equally hot topic. The fast rate of urbanisation and the lack of capacity in local governments across Africa is likely to contribute to increasingly inadequate energy provision, inefficient energy use and escalating transport congestion and emissions, with associated economic and social problems. However, the challenges are now better understood, and in some areas successful approaches are being deployed at the local level.

A major challenge faced by local authorities is access to finance, whether from local sources, from national government or from international funds. Ian Palmer and Stephen Berrisford showcased their research on the potential of land-based financing for urban infrastructure projects in sub-Saharan Africa. Their research looked at the nature of urban infrastructure, the institutions involved, an overview of capital financing options and specific opportunities for using land-based finance.

Amadou Oumarou, Director of Transport and Information and Communication Technologies for the African Development Bank (AfDB), said in his closing address to the Summit, “Going forward, the AfDB bank will scale up its financing with more than 50 billion USD planned for the next 5 years in support of Africa’s transformation with greater emphasis on infrastructure, energy, agri-business, industrialisation and private sector development. Cities and municipalities will indeed be the biggest beneficiaries.”

Regarding urban development, the bank is currently putting in place an urban and municipal development fund specifically dedicated to providing technical assistance to support cities and municipalities.  “We need to recognise that contributions from the bank and other development partners will never be enough. The financing needs remain huge and official development assistance alone is not sufficient to fill the gap,” he said. “We need to devise more innovative approaches.”

Speaking at a thematic session on the future urban agenda of Africa, Alexander Carius, co-founder and Managing Director of Adelphi, said “The largest investment that we are going to have in the future that touches on many of the aspects included in the Sustainable Development Goals is around climate, and much of the investment is encouraged, particularly by the private sector, to feed into the Green Climate Fund.”

While many of the presenters stressed the importance of developing inclusive, sustainable cities, expensive technology introduced to improve the sustainability of the city can end up excluding another layer of residents. As Dr. Daniel Irurah of the School of Architecture and Planning, University of Witwatersrand says, “income inequality and market forces can combine to mean socio-spatial exclusion in green urbanism”.

Rose Molokoane, Deputy President of Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) asked delegates, “What does it mean when we talk of inclusive participation? Because most of the time when I listen to our local authorities it seems they are confusing consultation with participation. They will say ‘We are consulting’ and then when they come to the big conferences they say “We are promoting inclusive participation’.”

SDI launched their “Know Your City” campaign to collect and consolidate community-collected citywide data on slums as the basis for inclusive development between the urban poor and local governments. The campaign brings together data and narratives from urban poor communities in 224 cities across the Global South.

Rose explained that this will help communities negotiate with local authorities and “identify priority projects or programmes that need to be implemented. “We need to create the real partnership, the real dialogue, the real mind shift of saying we (residents) want to contribute to service delivery solutions, we just need your support.”

For the first time, UN-Habitat’s General Assembly of Partners (GAP) will include representation from grassroots constituencies, including SDI as a co-chair of the constituency, at Habitat III next year.

As international heads of state gathered in Paris, the significance of the words of the Deputy Mayor of Paris at the opening ceremony of the Africities Summit were not lost on the audience as he said, “How do we create, at city level, the conditions to ensure a safer, healthier, more sustainable and more inclusive life for all citizens?’

These issues, he said, are at the heart of this forum of Africities in shaping the future of the people and the contribution of African local authorities to Agenda 2063 of the African Union. “Paris is probably the most African non-African city.” He said the city of Paris was determined to continue helping African cities build their future.

Hopefully international decision-makers will continue to reflect this outlook of solidarity when negotiating climate actions (and non-actions) that will impact on the development trajectory of African cities and towns for generations to come.

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