Likely to be the fastest urbanising continent in the world by 2020, Africa is currently the most rural, with only 40% of the population in its sub-Saharan countries living in cities. Yet problems such as pollution, traffic congestion and inadequate housing, which have all held their development in check, could be resolved thanks to the new technologies of the so-called “smart cities”.
Having sprouted up all over the world in recent years, smart cities are also making their appearance in Africa, among them Eko Atlantic in Lagos, Nigeria. Built on land reclaimed from the sea, it will house 250,000 people once completed. Another example is Hope City in Ghana, a project expected to feature the continent's tallest skyscraper.
Yet as Chris Giles of CNN asks, will these ambitious projects be of benefit to a fortunate few or can smart cities provide a genuine solution to Africa’s fast-paced urbanisation?
Who are Africa’s smart cities for?
The aim of smart city projects such as Vision City in Rwanda – the country’s largest housing project – is to improve the quality of life of their inhabitants and promote sustainable development in economic, social and environmental terms.
Offering public spaces with free Wi-Fi, solar-powered street lights, and – as is the case in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – automated-lift car parks that reduce the space needed for cars, smart cities are aimed mainly at the continent’s young, tech-savvy population.
Upgrading existing cities and building new ones from scratch
Many of Africa’s smart cities – both existing ones and those still on the drawing board – are funded by both private and public organisations and built from nothing on the outskirts of overpopulated cities. Aside from Vision City, other projects include King City in Ghana and Kenya’s new high-tech hub, Konza. These luxury satellite towns are out of reach for the many residents of African cities, with an estimated 60% of the population living in slums. By way of example, the cheapest property in Vision City costs $172,000.
Criticising their exclusiveness, Mira Slavov, a fellow at the LSE, argues that smart city projects should be based in existing urban centres and that the aim should be to improve them with the aid of new technologies, particularly in small and medium sized urban areas, which she believes represent the future of Africa’s urban growth.
A hypothetical solution to housing shortages
Smart cities are first and foremost designed to provide a solution to a critical lack of housing, offering space through the use of innovative technologies, such as automated-lift car parks. Tim Beighton at Rendeavour, which describes itself as “Africa's largest urban developer”, says his company offers accommodation to large mixed-use, mixed-income communities and improves infrastructure on the edge of existing conurbations.
It remains to be seen if these new African satellite cities, the development of which is being funded by governments and big business, can truly deliver for the wider public.
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