Dar es Salaam, Africa, Urban Planning,

Urban Planning and Density in African Cities

I recently read an interesting paper from the World Bank on the shape of African cities.  As I have lived in Dar es Salaam and I am currently staying in Accra, I’d like to think that I have a practical viewpoint to add to a discussion of the urban planning issues.

The research paper looks at spatial data  from Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kigali, Dar es Salaam, and Dakar and puts it in context with similarly-sized developed country cities (Paris, New York City, Barcelona, etc).  Through a lens of population density  and land use patterns, the paper aims to make general conclusions about challenges for transportation planning in these cities.

The most interesting pieces of data were the the population density figures.  Overall density for nearly all of these African cities was at or around 50 people per hectare, while Barcelona and Paris had population densities of 150 and 200 people per hectare, respectively.    Taking  a more nuanced look at density, graphs were made of density at different distances from the central business district (CBD).  Nearly every African city studied had high population densities closest to the CBD that tailed off in a downward sloping curve.   Paris, Barcelona, London, etc all had much more smoothly/slowly tailing off population densities from the center of the city outwards.  Additionally, the African city density figures in first three to five kilometers from the CBD were nearly double that of the non-African cities.

The lesson here is that, while overall population densities were greater in the non-African cities, the African cities had the greatest densities closest to the city center.

One of the main reasons for this study was not just to understand urban density, but to also get a better sense of what all of this means for urban planning and transportation.  This is where living in an African city comes in handy when thinking about these things.

After years of living in Dar es Salaam and now Accra, I am comfortable making some common general assertions about transportation in a mega African city.  (Please do not be offended by my bluntness in these statements, as they are just general, reasonable assertions.)

  • Main roads are generally paved, secondary roads are compacted dust roads.
  • All roads are riddled with potholes of astounding sizes, often with open sewer channels alongside them.
  • Sidewalks don’t exist.  Everyone who walks, walks around the side edge of each road and cars and pedestrians are constantly in negotiation (with cars winning, of course!)
  • There is an astounding level of economic inequality and segregation of neighborhoods in many African cities.
  • The well-off drive in Range Rovers/Land Cruisers and have few transportation problems (outside of traffic), while just about everyone else walks and takes minibuses (dala dalas, tro tros, etc).

In this context, I imagine that you can see the scale of the problem.

One excellent solution that has been tried in Dar es Salaam, has been a major bus rapid transit (BRT) project.  The jury is still out in terms of effectiveness, but, having lived in the city I would say that it is starting to make some real positive change.  In particular, many of the stops are in the nearby and far flung informal settlements.  I await this evaluation of it.

What are your thoughts?  Have you lived in an African city?  

How do you think knowledge of the nuances of urban population density and land use can affect transportation and city planning in cities like these?

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Urban Africa and Asia Need (Good) Sprawl?

I recently read an article in the Economist that made the argument that, given high rates of current and future urbanization throughout Asia and Africa, what is needed is good and orderly sprawl, in which rights of way are planned out and property rights are upheld and landowners are compensated for development of public ways.

I found this article to be quite simplistic and, to some extent, misleading.  Furthermore, it seems to ignore realities of infrastructure and the populations served by it.

“Sprawl” and any sense of order (“It would be vastly cheaper and better to do sprawl properly from the start.“) are antithetical, since sprawl is seen as unplanned and growth and order is order.  Since comprehensive planning takes too long, the article asserts, the main roads and parks, at minimum, have to be planned.  If the roads are being planned, is the resulting development even considered “sprawl”?

What’s most striking in this article, however, is the implicit focus on the likely (very) small percentage of the new urbanites who would be served by planned communities and the dismissive tone towards doing anything within the existing unplanned areas:

In some unplanned African suburbs as little as 5% of the land is road. Even middle-class districts often lack sewers and mains water. As for amenities like public parks, forget it.”

What I am confused by is the complete giving up on existing unplanned settlements inside or outside the city center. Is it good policy to just ignore both the poor unplanned and the middle-class unplanned districts simply because these areas have poor roads and do not have sewer or water?  I find this to be completely wrongheaded, when regularization of tenure, upgrading or roads, extension of the water utility through relatively low-cost kiosks, and improvement of sanitation options in existing dense areas make a lot more sense than focusing just on new suburban developments for a small fraction of the anticipated urban population.