Sustainable African Cities: Inclusivity & Democracy in Town Planning

The city of Kilamba By Santa Martha [via Wikimedia Commons

The city of Kilamba
Photo Credit: Santa Martha (Wikimedia Commons)

For the past five years, sustainability in cities has been the talk of the town. As rapid urbanization has become the status quo in just about every corner of the globe, the pressures on city regions to provide for and protect their populations has intensified, and narratives of urban change, catastrophe and, crisis become commonplace. While this is a global phenomenon, in no place are the tensions of urbanism more pronounced than in sub-Saharan Africa, home to some of the fastest growing and precarious cities on the planet.

Ecology and the City

But what does it mean for a place or space to be sustainable, or unsustainable for that matter? Thinking about the city as an ecological entity is nothing new, having underpinned much of modern urban sociology from the 1920s till now. But the degree to which a city can maintain itself and its inhabitants is a notion that carries increasing political currency. This goes not only for national governments focused on promoting hubs of economic activity, but also for international bodies as a key indicator of regional development, poverty reduction and even human rights protection.  

The sustainability of a city, in a fairly obvious sense, therefore relates to ideas of livability and resilience. Essentially this asks what quality of life and protection can city dwellers continue to expect from their surroundings and systems of urban regulation. In the context of more extreme climatic and environmental changes, political thinking around resilience has become a global concern. Many of the United Nation’s agencies (including UNHABITAT, UNDP and UNEP) have developed a programmatic focus on urban sustainability and resilience as a result. The recent UN Climate Change conference in Paris further spotlighted cities in this regard as centres of both deep concern and huge promise if urban ‘green’ initiatives succeed.

Towards Another Concept of Urban Sustainability

As well as environmental stability, increasingly important is a sustainability premised on the political culture that a city embodies and generates through its urban subjects. In late 2015, preeminent urban sociologist Saskia Sassen delivered a talk to the LSE Cities Programme in which she identified the city as a place where people without power have the ability to claim a kind of ownership on space. For Sassen, the increasing global trend of corporations buying up land and ‘de-urbanising’ city spaces points to an idea of problems of sustainability more associated looking at equality, democracy and the legality of land ownership in urban areas.

Urban sustainability in this more political sense poses major challenges for many capital cities in Africa where opportunities for urban development and international business have never been greater, but where existing development initiatives have had a contentious record regarding slum clearances, evictions and land-grabbing by foreign companies, as has been the case in Ghana, Mozambique and elsewhere.  

The Case of Kilamba

A good illustration of these tensions can be seen in the Angolan capital Luanda. Since Angola gained independence in 1975, Luanda’s population has exploded from 500,000 then to around 6.5 million now. In tandem with this, Angola’s significant oil wealth has made Luanda a top contender on ‘Most Expensive Cities’ lists, despite the country’s persistently low development indicators. Today the city exhibits the kind of cheek-by-jowl living arrangements seen in other countries with a similar history of rapid economic development. Overcrowded musseques (slums) perch precariously on Luanda’s hills and riversides, interspersed by the luxury apartments and hotels that sweep around the artificially palm-fringed bay.

As part of its modernization strategy, Angola’s ruling MPLA party has launched several programs intent upon demolishing informal city settlements and replacing them with social housing in peri-urban areas. A number of these ‘satellite towns’ such as Kilamba and Panguila have been completed, built in partnership with Chinese construction companies and financed by Chinese oil-backed loans. These are no small feats: Kilamba alone has a planned capacity for half a million Angolans, with plots reserved for office and commercial buildings, schools, hospitals and green spaces for its inhabitants.

City Planning as Exclusive and Undemocratic

While such grand urban planning projects might address problems arising from overcrowding and musseque inhabitants’ vulnerability to landslides and flooding, the extent to which they accord with sustainability in terms of equality, democracy and legality is highly questionable. One of the flaws of the Kilamba project, for example, was the clear lack of adaptation to local context, visible in its stark similarity to new cities being built in China. The functionalist bent of Chinese planning, which include practices such as zoning and large-scale ‘vertical’ block development, is also largely foreign both to Angola’s rural settings and to the bottom-up ‘horizontal’ development of the old musseques in Luanda’s city centre.

While the building and design process may not have been the most inclusive, there were hopes that Kilamba would stand as a new model of municipal decentralization, including local elections and direct resident participation in decision making. However, a lack of transparency on the part of the cabinet appointed by the central state to administer the city suggests otherwise. Even more controversial has been the way that the government has managed the selling process in Kilamba. The ideals behind the social housing project were quickly lost when the contracted company, Delta Imobiliaria, set unit prices so high as to exclude the vast majority of Luanda’s poor. Allegations of corruption also surround Delta Imobiliaria, whose major shareholders include the CEO of the national oil company SONANGOL, the public body in charge of the housing project. When the project was completed in 2012 it was described by international media as a ‘ghost town’ for the lack of units sold and absence of proper public services. While the situation has changed somewhat now, this was only due to an intervention to reduce sale prices and the fabrication of a community by residents themselves.

What the case of Kilamba demonstrates is that concepts of sustainability must consider how equitable, democratic, and legal cities are, particularly in the planning process. Disaster mitigation and environmentalism are crucial for to protect the development of African cities, but meaningful sustainability has to have inclusivity and popular power at its heart. Without this, more ghost towns may come back to haunt Africa.

Lucy James (1 Posts)

Lucy James is a recent post-graduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London where she completed an MSc in African Politics. While at SOAS, she focused on the history and politics of Lusophone African countries. Lucy has spent time working in Kenya, where she was associated with research projects run from the British Institute in East Africa. She writes freelance for publications including the Huffington Post on the international politics of African countries, and has a particular interest in the international trade of commodities and urban development. She currently works for local government in the UK.


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