In a discourse on the future of cities, it is possible to overlook the geographical limit reached by innovations in both Europe and the United States and, increasingly, in China and Southeast Asia.
After all, Shenzhen is about to once again host the world's only Biennale dedicated exclusively to urbanization, while smart, responsive architecture is manifest in projections for cities like Toronto and London, and tech giants like Microsoft and Siemens . However, despite our concern about the problems and opportunities of urbanization in the "Global North", and the architectural innovations they herald, it is worth expanding our horizons, and not just to Mars. By the end of the century, none of the world's 20 largest cities will be in China, Europe or America. Meanwhile, Africa will host 13 of the 20, including the first 3.
The World Bank believes that urbanization will be “the most important transformation the African continent will experience this century”, with more than half of the population living in cities by 2040. This will manifest itself when 40,000 people move to cities every day for the next 20 years. The result will be the creation of nine "megacities" of more than 10 million inhabitants each, the largest being Kinshasa (35 million), Lagos (32 million) and Cairo (24 million).
As African cities grow and outpace their global rivals, the architects, urbanists and planners overseeing this development will be forced to confront social and environmental challenges such as urban sprawl, climate change and infrastructure deficits. All this without taking into account that 60% of Africa's urban inhabitants live in slums.
The challenge is already being addressed with studies such as Arup's Future Cities, which details the company's work in nine cities in four countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Uganda. The firm's proposal for the managed growth of these cities differs depending on local circumstances; from Uganda's "Vision 2040", which aims to activate five regional and strategic secondary cities in an act of decentralization, while the Mozambique model focuses on the evolution of "growth corridors" that encompass transport, logistics, trade and economic and human development.
In contrast to Arup's urban-scale interventions, Bauhaus Universitat Weimer's Institute of Experimental Architecture recently worked with the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Construction and Urban Development to build three 1:1 scale residential prototypes for Addis Ababa, addressing the hyperurbanization of the Ethiopian capital in recent years.
Rather than relying on outdated models from Europe and the Global North, the experiments leverage indigenous construction methods, construction technologies and material use to create socially robust, open and flexible spatial structures. Although designed for Addis Ababa, where 80% of the urban population lives in slums, the architectural exercise has a broader story to tell: that of a new architectural ethic, an urban vernacular for African cities facing increasing unprecedented demand for urban growth.
This new urban vernacular will be complemented by the adoption of technology in Africa. The technological revolution has transformed the lives and opportunities of African citizens, with famous examples such as the use of mobile phones as a solution to the continent's poor banking structure. These technologies will continue to facilitate urban activity in the African megacities of tomorrow.
The World Economic Forum highlights key examples, such as Max.ng, a motorcycle taxi service that has made 1,000,000 trips in three Nigerian cities, or Sendy, a parcel service with more than 1,1000 drivers serving 5,000 companies and 50,000 people in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Both companies are built on the same decentralized, user-driven mobile app model that is also transforming Western cities; a model that cannot be ignored when architects and urban planners drive the future development and operation of African megacities of the future.
While it may be tempting to dismiss long-term forecasts for African urbanization as a problem for another day, smart planning and investment is needed today to mitigate the risks of tomorrow.
Africa needs to spend between $130 billion and $170 billion annually to cover its basic infrastructure needs, and two-thirds of the urban infrastructure investments needed by 2050 have yet to be made.
To cope with the unprecedented demands that will be placed on African cities, and to ensure that the 1.3 billion Africans who will live in cities in 2050 can live with dignity, opportunity and security, the continent requires innovative thinking from its political leaders, urban planners and architects.