Africa’s cities face unique risks. How can governments manage them?

Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa's largest city. Image: Getty.

Cities in sub-Saharan Africa are growing fast. Nigeria alone is projected to add 212m urban dwellers by 2050, equivalent to the current population of Germany, France and the UK.

But focusing on population growth leads many to overlook the other unusual features of African cities. Urban economies across the region are markedly different from those of other cities around the world: they are more expensive to live in, more informal and less industrial.

In a paper published earlier this year, we explored how these distinctive traits are increasing vulnerability.

Environmental risks range from everyday hazards such as waterborne diseases (cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery) to larger, less frequent disasters (tropical storms, flooding, fires). Their impact is much greater where people and governments can’t afford to invest in basic infrastructure.

In our research we demonstrate that African cities are too often developing in ways that perpetuate poverty and marginalisation. The amount of money that people have to spend on basic necessities, the precarious nature of their employment and their exclusion from the formal economy mean that they have limited resources to cope with environmental risk.

There are ways around these problems, but they need governments to work much more collaboratively with people living in informal settlements and working in the informal economy.

African cities are expensive

For many, African cities are inextricably linked with poverty. It therefore seems counter-intuitive that the cost of living is higher in urban Africa than in other cities in the global South.

One estimate suggests that food and drink cost 35 per cent more in real terms in sub-Saharan African cities than in other countries, while housing is 55 per cent more expensive.

This means that urban dwellers have to spend more of their income to enjoy the same quality of life. The average urban household in sub-Saharan Africa spends 39 per cent to 59 per cent of its budget on food alone.

Of course, there is considerable variation across the continent. Cities in The Gambia, Mauritania, Madagascar and Tanzania remain relatively affordable. Those in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Mozambique are the most expensive.

The high price of basic goods and services means that people living in African cities have little money to spend on reducing risk, such as upgrading their homes, preventative health care or buying insurance.

African cities are not industrialising

Urbanisation has historically been closely linked to industrialisation. From Detroit to Manchester to Shenzhen, the rise of a vibrant manufacturing sector fuelled rapid population and economic growth in cities. But in sub-Saharan Africa, urbanisation is taking place without industrialisation.

One explanation for this unusual trend is that higher living costs mean that the labour force requires higher wages than competing cities in Asia. This makes it difficult for African cities to attract international capital.

In other cases, the export of commodities such as oil and diamonds have generated high income for a small share of people in countries such as Angola, Nigeria and Libya. The wealthy beneficiaries then create urban employment through demand for non-tradeable services such as retail, transport and construction.

Whatever the driver, urbanisation without industrialisation means that jobs and livelihoods too often remain low-skilled and poorly paid. Without the opportunity to develop skills and organise collectively, workers exert little influence over working conditions.

Instead, urban residents continue to depend on precarious livelihoods in the agricultural and services sectors. This means that they are susceptible to environmental shocks, such as extreme weather that can make it impossible for street vendors, waste pickers and other informal workers to ply their trade.

By comparison, manufacturing jobs have a number of spin offs. They offer income security and skill development. Local employers in the public and private sector benefit from new knowledge and skills, while workers can accumulate capital. This offers a path out of poverty. Few African cities are enjoying these positive spillovers.

The lack of industrialisation also means that there’s little political incentive for governments to invest in risk reducing infrastructure like sewers, drains and all weather roads.


African cities have a large informal economy

In many cities in sub-Saharan Africa, the informal economy is larger and more dynamic than the formal economy. The informal economy responds to demand when commercial banks are not willing to offer loans or when there isn’t enough housing. When formal jobs in industry or services are scarce, the informal economy absorbs much of the labour force. In Cotonou (Benin), Lomé (Togo) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), for example, the informal sector accounts for over 80 per cent of non-agricultural employment.

And yet, in many African cities, government policies discriminate against these workers. For example, street vendors and waste collectors are often banned from using public spaces. They may even suffer harassment from government officials.

Yet they play a central role in increasing the resilience of the city.

Waste pickers recycle large amount of material, reducing pollution and maintain city cleanliness. This helps prevent diseases, particularly those spread by bacteria, insects and vermin that might otherwise feed or breed on garbage.

Street vendors play a critical role in providing and producing food, particularly to poor people living in urban areas.

The informal economy is not perfect. Informality creates risks for consumers and workers. A lack of state oversight makes it difficult to enforce regulation, such as water treatment standards or minimum wages. Waste pickers in particular face severe health risks due to their work. Informal housing is often in hazard prone parts of the city.

But there can be little doubt that informal service provision or informal livelihoods are better than none at all.

Successful strategies to reduce risk therefore need to be developed in collaboration with informal workers in sectors such as food, water, housing and solid waste management. Similarly, partnerships with communities living in informal settlements can ensure that the voices of vulnerable urban residents are heard, and their needs are addressed.

The ConversationOnly through a more flexible and inclusive approach will African cities be able to manage the risks associated with their unique economic development path.

Sarah Colenbrander, Researcher, IIED, University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.