“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.

 
 
 
 

On boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.