“Africa’s time for urbanisation is now. Let us get it right”

The executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority on the urbanisation of Africa.

No country in the world has ever developed without urbanising. This has been the case in Europe and North America, and in recent decades, cities provided the foundation of the so-called “East Asian Miracle”.

This week, the 9th World Urban Forum, the biggest global conference on cities, will take place in Kuala Lumpur. I will be there discussing why now is the moment for African cities to seize the opportunity to get urbanisation right.

Urbanisation is a positive force for growth – having people and firms located close to each other connects producers to consumers as well as their markets. It also provides firms their labour and the ability to source for inputs. The resulting connectivity makes people and therefore firms more productive. This is why urbanisation can provide the backbone of growth for national economies.

Density in a city, however, also comes with its downsides. In Kampala, we feel the effects of this on a daily basis with congestion. There are estimates that approximately 24,000 hours of labour per day are lost just by people sitting in traffic jams.

Density, if it is unmanaged, can take its toll on liveability in the city as well. This is particularly evident in densely packed slums that sprawl through our city. To help manage these downsides, prioritising urbanisation on the national agenda in order to make investments in sound public policy and adequate infrastructure is key.


The major challenge in this respect are that cities, like Kampala, are urbanising quicker than necessary infrastructure investments can be made. With the urban population growth rate estimated to currently be about 5.2 per cent, Kampala is projected to become a ‘megacity’ of over 10m people by 2040.

Furthermore, unlike in Europe and North America, cities in sub-Saharan Africa are urbanising in low-resource environments, making financing the necessary large infrastructure challenging. This is exacerbated by the fact that some estimates predict that retrofitting infrastructure investments, after the city has already grown, can be up to three times more expensive than at the beginning of a city’s development. 

Despite all these challenges, we have made great strides in managing our city in the last six years. We have improved our own-source revenue collection by 186 per cent. Part of this revenue is reinvested in infrastructure; the rest goes towards providing social services including education, healthcare, sanitation, and workspaces for the growing Kampala population. Through a loan from the World Bank, we have managed to reconstruct over 200km of roads in the city. Furthermore, garbage collection has increased from 16,000 to 31,000 metric tonnes.

We are also improving liveability in our city through other ways. In particular, through improving and increasing the number of green spaces as well as undertaking a number of beautification efforts, communities will increasingly be able to enjoy public space in the cities.

All these efforts have reinstated confidence amongst a variety of stakeholders in the direction that Kampala is taking. Most importantly, it has restored hope and provided a sense of direction for residents in the city and firms looking to invest in Kampala.

As countries in sub-Saharan Africa strive to become middle-income, cities like Kampala still have a major opportunity to provide the backbone for economic growth. This is because we are still at the beginning of our urbanisation journey, with nearly two-thirds of our cities still to be built.

Now is the opportunity to get urbanisation right and make it a force for productivity and change. As our urbanisation paths are very different from those taken by other cities in the world, we also need to build up our own evidence base and learn from each other.

This is why, together with leaders from other African cities and distinguished academics on urbanisation Edward Glaeser at Harvard University and Sir Paul Collier and Tony Venables, both at Oxford University, I am spearheading a new initiative Cities that Work through the International Growth Centre.

With this initiative, we aim to provide the evidence-based support for urban policymaking in cities like Kampala. This policy support is, most importantly, based on our priorities. Given different policies are needed in varying contexts, the initiative also presents a menu of different policy options for people like myself who face tough decisions on a daily basis. We are growing our network of policymakers, practitioners, and academics because harnessing the opportunities of urbanisation requires the finest minds working together to provide innovative solutions to the challenges we face.

Uganda aims to become a middle-income country within the next decade. As history has shown us, this will not be possible without our cities. Now is the time to get urbanisation right.

Dr Jennifer Semakula Musisi is executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority, and a member of the “Cities that Work” council at the International Growth Centre. She is giving a keynote talk at this week’s UN’s World Urban Forum.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.