Informal development, planning and sustainable urbanisation

lagos-21The newly published third report on The State of African Cities  shows how informal development is a key force in the continent’s urbanisation, yet also poses major dilemmas. The report’s sub-title “Re-imagining sustainable urban transitions” suggests both the need to come up with new answers, but also the elusiveness of solutions. Anybody interested in Africa, sustainable development or planning should read it and ponder what can be done.

Urban challenges

The report has been prepared by UN-Habitat in co-operation with ICLEI Africa and United Cities and Local Governments Africa, so is able to draw on expertise and first hand experiences in urban management. However, the report also looks forward in a way that too few policy makers do in the developed world. It recognises that climate and environmental change, along with food, water and energy insecurities mean that the mindsets which shaped 20th century planning – and continue to underpin practice across most of the world – are no longer fit for purpose. We need radically different ways of managing our spreading cities.
African cities are high on a cocktail of massive population growth and widespread poverty. Given that cities need infrastructure (water, sewerage, roads, rail, electricity) to function, and that such infrastructure is expensive, long-lasting, requires maintenance and confers economic benefits there are great risks and vulnerabilities in Africa’s urban trajectory. With many governments unable or unwilling to invest in the infrastructure required to match urban growth and deliver equitable living conditions, the seeds of long term change with global significance are being sown.

We are witnessing the emergence within a generation of cities created by a global elite detached from the lives and places of a poverty population at a time of increasing resource shortages and environmental threats. This global phenomenon is cast in sharpest relief and will be most enduring in Africa, where urbanisation levels currently remain well below the global 50% average, and urban institutions such as local government and planning are chronically weak, especially in the secondary and smaller cities that are growing most rapidly. By 2050 Africa’s urban dwellers are expected to have increased in number from 400M to 1.2 billion.
The call to “re-imagine” African urbanism is thus not purely a post-colonial cultural assertion (valuable as that is). The hope is that this huge urban growth can be undertaken in a sustainable manner. It is a project of trans-continental urgency, but also a recognition of how far we seem to be from implementation of agreed alternative models of urban development. “Re-imagining” may understate the constraints.

Satellite cities

The report shows how two related models of settlement form are being adopted in some African cities. These are satellite cities and development corridors. The latter reflects the logic of economic geography and a welcome grasp of the need for transitional action such as we have also seen in the European Union. However, satellite cities are often promoted, as the report notes, as an escape from “the urban informality of the metropolitan core”. So they are – until their service jobs attract their own informally housed low-income populations.


Informality has been the way that the majority of the urban population has negotiated the essentials of everyday life. Back in the 1960s John Turner famously grasped that slums would continue for as long as the poor remained poor, underserviced habitats for people who cannot afford legally provided and regulated levels of services. Some have been attracted to the bottom-up nature of informal settlements, but as the State of the African Cities report notes, there are “powerful political and economic entrepreneurs who profit from urban underdevelopment and hence seek to perpetuate the status quo. Poorly governed cities have increasingly also been ‘colonized’ by criminal networks that exploit the services and infrastructure of weakly regulated urban settlements to further their own financial objectives” (p.30).

While informal housing attracts a lot of attention, as does to a lesser extent informal employment, informal transport is less often commented upon, but is a key sector in the urban economies of Africa. As with informal supply of housing or water or electricity, informal transport provides an essential service for the poor, but is also an important wealth generator and providers wield political influential, as well as causing extensive congestion and air pollution. As the report notes, “informality and inadequate infrastructures allow powerful groups to benefit from the status quo” (p.37).

Their “unofficial” status means that many informal settlements are simply ignored by local authorities. This means that, to put it in positive terms, power over security and law enforcement is devolved to the community. In other words, many become “no go” areas, and in the worst cases are controlled by criminals / paramilitaries.

However, the realities of poverty and of states shredded of capacity by their own failings and by structural adjustment policies enforced by the global financial institutions mean that informality is not going to go away any time soon. In trying to “re-imagine” a way forward the report points to the work of Cities Alliance, Slum/Shack Dwellers International and the Urban Poor Fund International.

There is also a reference to the Kigali Declaration which recognises “the transformative potential of well-planned and managed urbanisation as a driver for sustainable development” and calls for economic development to be placed at the centre of the urbanisation process and to create jobs which particularly target the urban youth. It calls on countries to develop national urban policies and for effective urban planning for slum upgrading and city extension. Of course such matters are easier to record in international declarations than they are to deliver in practice.


Despite its many problems, Lagos is seen as having made real progress over the past decade. In an attempt to tackle the crippling congestion (it once took me 4 hours to get from the centre to the airport) a bus rapid transit system has been introduced and there are extensive areas of urban greening along the routes. Light rail systems are also being looked at, but even though Nigeria is an oil rich state, under present conditions there must be questions about the affordability of such a system for many of the residents. The rich are unlikely to be drawn to the bus, and the evidence so far from Lagos is that the poor do not use the rapid transit system either – the main users are middle income groups.
Rwanda’s capital, Kigali is also seen as offering examples of good practice. Measures have been taken to improve the conditions of slum dwellers, and there have also been improvements in waste management. Urban agriculture has a prominent place in the development planning, and contributes around 25 per cent of the city’s food supply and employs an estimated 37 per cent of the city’s workforce in small-scale agricultural activities. The plan seeks to give equal attention to urban upgrading as to new development, and to protect the natural environment while also protecting the interests of marginal populations and promoting economic development opportunities for all. Crucially it takes a holistic approach to the development challenges of the city. It is a message planners everywhere could take to heart.