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Environment: ‘Urban fantasies’ in Africa

Environment expert warns against ‘urban fantasies’ in Africa - Plans to reshape cities across Africa in the style of Dubai and Singapore threaten to deepen social inequalities and could prove costly to both investors and city authorities, according to a paper to be published in the April 2014 edition of 'Environment and Urbanization' journal.


The paper, by Prof. Vanessa Watson of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, released Monday and made available to PANA here by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), reviews plans to renew, extend or replace cities in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Watson has noted that the planned modernist skyscrapers and landscaped freeways have been dreamt up not in Africa but in the offices of international architects and engineers.

“They appear to ignore the fact that the majority of people in African cities have low-incomes, live in informal housing and lack land rights. They also do nothing to address the large deficits in provision for basic services,” she said.

Also, Watson warned that the planned developments could evict or relocate large numbers of the urban poor and leave them without access to vital services and livelihood opportunities.

She suggested that one reason for the recent rash of new city ‘master plans’ was that the global economic crisis of 2008 has led property investment companies, architects and construction firms to seek new markets in Africa.

The plans share a common vision of globally-connected, technologically-advanced cities that provide business opportunities and homes for Africa’s growing middle class.

Yet, Watson noted that the African Development Bank defines the middle class as those spending US$2-20 a day and the upper middle class as those who spend $10-20 a day.

“It is difficult to imagine how households with such minimal spending power can afford the luxury apartments portrayed in the fantasy plans,” Watson has written. “It may be that prospective property developers are seriously misreading the African market.”

The paper concludes that as Africa’s urban poor confront new alliances of international property capital, politicians and emerging urban middle classes all intent on seizing and re-valorising land, they may lose not only land but also political rights.

In his response to Watson’s paper, Dr Gautam Bhan of the Indian Institute of Human Settlements described those plans as in part a yearning for a controlled and orderly city free of the messiness of democratic politics and guided by authoritarian city states.

“If implemented,” he said, “they would further disconnect city plans from the actual citizens of the cities they seek to reshape.”

“Phrases such as ‘smart city’, ‘eco-city’ and ‘sustainable’ appear often in the plans, but it is commercial rather than social or environmental objectives that drive the plans,” said Dr David Satterthwaite, senior fellow in the IIED’s Human Settlements Group, and editor of Environment and Urbanization. “There is nothing smart or sustainable about cities that ignore the needs of most of their citizens, including their poorest.”

Pana 13/01/2014