Video: Edgar Pieterse on Housing and the Democracy Deficit in African Cities

Edgar Pieterse, an urban scholar and founding director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, says there are two major challenges facing African cities today. First, the majority of urban residents don’t have access to decent housing or basic services, and second, there are few ways people can democratically shape the future of their cities.

Pieterse spoke with WRI during a workshop for the latest World Resources Report (WRR), on achieving more prosperous, sustainable and equitable cities for all. Research from the WRR shows that as much as 70 percent of residents in cities of the global south lack reliable access to core urban services like housing, clean energy and transport.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa face some of the highest rates of urbanization as more and more people – many of them young and low-income – move from rural areas looking for economic opportunity. Up from the lowest ratio of urban dwellers in the world today, it’s estimated that more than half of Africa’s population will live in cities by 2040. Many urban areas are facing an overwhelming number of new residents.

Tangible and Intangible Benefits

The good news is that some African cities are pushing forward with innovative solutions and finding success.

Take transit, a core service that can link residents to economic opportunities . “In Lagos, we’ve seen the emergence of a really important and significant integrated public transport system,” Pieterse says, “and we’ve also seen similar patterns emerge in cities like Addis and Johannesburg.” Four African cities now have bus rapid transit systems in operation, serving more than 460,000 passengers a day.

“Other examples of innovation,” Pieterse points out, “have been areas of community-driven housing and informal settlement upgrading.” Rather than removing residents from their homes, slum upgrading typically involves formalizing services and infrastructure for neighborhoods so that people can stay in place. In parts of Nairobi, for example, community groups and NGOs have successfully challenged slum clearance efforts and negotiated improvements with landlords.

These kinds of technical solutions provide tangible benefits to cities and communities, but Pieterse believes there’s intangible value too.

“They are finally getting an opportunity to be included in the resource allocation and the governance of these cities,” he says. “Public transport and investment in basic services and public housing all represent an opportunity for the excluded to now have a stake and a say in the future of their cities.”

A Citizen-Driven Vision

Given the significant benefits of investing in infrastructure and services, Pieterse suggests three priorities for decision-makers to get Africa’s urban transition right.

“I would argue that, one, they need to get the evidence base right,” he says. Reliable data about demand for local transport options,  or the gap in affordable housing  in the city, for example, can help leaders understand critical challenges and opportunities.

Second, community engagement is important so the public has buy-in and can help shape solutions that are truly sustainable. “They’ve got to invest in participatory development processes so that they can get the citizens of the city to determine for themselves what the critical issues are and how they should be addressed,” Pieterse says.

Lastly, he says decision-makers should make sure they are encouraging healthy private sector investment that’s balanced with a resident-driven public agenda. “Make sure the investors who have an interest in making these cities work and in establishing a long-term base, that they themselves buy into this vision that has been driven by the citizens.”

“In thinking through how cities can gain confidence and capacity in dealing with urban challenges,” Pieterse says, “it is obvious that they will have to both invest their own resources in building the capacity of their leaders and their staff, but they also need to participate actively in various African and global networks…drawing on international networks and resources such as the World Resources Institute, Cities Alliance, and the African Urban Research Initiative.”

Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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