Thursday, 27 July 2017

Africa’s New Cities: The Contested Future of Urbanization

Femke van Noorloos and Marjan Kloosterboer

The future of urbanization is in Africa; high urban population growth numbers imply a steep increase in demand for urban housing, infrastructure and services (UN DESA, 2014). New private investments in housing and urban development are increasingly reaching Africa and are presented as a rational response to these projections. This often takes a particular form: entirely new cities are built from scratch as comprehensive self-contained enclaves. The construction of new cities by itself is not new, but the scale, extent and the drivers behind such constructions are different from before, as is the current interest by international property companies.

Considering the novelty of current types of ‘new city making’ in Africa, empirical research on its implications is inevitably largely lacking. With this paper we try to contribute to this niche by making a first attempt at a typology of new cities in Africa, which clearly demonstrates the heterogeneous character of the phenomenon. New cities in Africa are diverse in their spatial forms, locations, purposes/aims and marketing aims, amongst others. In addition, we can observe parallels between new cities and related phenomena such as gated communities or Special Economic Zones, and learn from their examples. Particularly we can learn from existing research in Latin America and Asia on such similar phenomena.

Research on new cities so far indicates that their promise to solve the pressing issue of sustainable urbanization contrasts sharply with their realities as residential and commercial enclaves for the rich. One risk is that the establishment of new cities often occurs in complex ‘rurban’ spaces with even more complex land governance arrangements, so that displacement of existing populations is deemed an inevitable necessity. Second, new cities are likely to exacerbate social-spatial segregation in different ways, for instance between different population groups or between the new city and existing urban areas. Their private sector-driven governance (but with public funding as a back-up) is also often criticized. Finally, we argue that many new cities are bound to be consumptive and supply-driven opportunities for speculation (thus resembling gated communities for the middle and higher classes), and unlikely to provide much productivity or innovation.

From this first systematic typology and analysis of Africa’s new cities, we emphasize their diversity of forms, purposes and possible implications. Also, in reality new cities are often still dreams in the heads of their planners, or in an early stage of development. Yet from experiences so far and comparisons with similar phenomena, we argue that these ‘new’ urban forms are unsuitable for solving the main problems Africa’s cities are facing.


United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) (2014) World Urbanization Prospects. The 2014 revision, highlights. New York: UN DESA.

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