Women are at the heart of African cities. The continent needs urban policies that empower them

Women in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: Getty.

An International Women’s Day Special, from Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Jennifer S. Musisi and Astrid R.N. Haas.

Women have always been essential to the urban fabric of African cities. Their economic, social, and political engagements have been key to driving both productivity and liveability for our cities. As researchers, policymakers, and above all, African women, we are paying tribute to the role that women have in shaping our cities on this International Women’s Day.

Women’s centrality to African cities is not only anecdotal: there is growing evidence to support it. Collectively, we need to target our urban policies so they empower women to continue to be agents of positive change, creating more inclusive African cities in the process.

The economic woman

As the sun rises over Kampala, Nakato, carries her two youngest girls and unlocks her small shop in Naguru Go-Down, one of Kampala’s informal settlements. Her shop is small, but every space is filled with everything from small packets of washing powder to popcorn and stock cubes. She is not alone, all around her many other women are opening their small shops too.

This predominance of women in the informal service sector of the city economy dates back to colonial times. While men were able to find work in the mining and construction sectors, women were excluded from these jobs. They were compelled to earn livelihoods in other ways, many congregating in cities and towns to commercialise their domestic skills.

This feature of African cities still remains today, with women making up the majority of the informal economy. In Kampala, 70 per cent of single-person businesses, like Nakato’s shop, are led by women. Despite this predominance, men are still more likely to have larger business operations, which hire more employees and engage in trade. Our challenge is to harness the dynamism of women-owned businesses and bring them into the formal economy so they can grow and benefit from scale, specialisation, and innovation.

Policies that can be targeted to support these firms include skills training and provision of seed capital. This has been one of the focuses of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA): since 2011, over 10,000 youth and 65,000 community members have received business skills training and benefitted from start-up capital in the form of loans and agricultural inputs for urban farming projects. KCCA also has targeted programmes for women. For example, they have female adult literacy programmes, as the illiteracy rate for women in Kampala is significantly higher than for men (49 per cent compared to 23 per cent), as well as leadership skills training.


The social woman

Part of building more inclusive cities means addressing social norms that often push women into more traditional roles. This may both confine them to the non-tradeable services sector and increase their time spent on household activities, diverting time and capital away from their businesses. In addition, many women are the primary caregivers within the home, leaving them less time to work in formal jobs, which can result in gender gaps in productivity.

There is growing recognition that women are able to push back against these social norms as they gain bargaining power. Cities themselves can intrinsically support this transition: evidence has shown living in dense, vibrant, and dynamic urban spaces can significantly impact gender inclusion. There are various reasons for this: for one, cities simply expose women and men to alternatives to what may be prevailing norms, and can thus empower them to challenge the status quo. Cities also offer women a more diverse set of opportunities in employment and public services, including, for example, child care options that allow them to work.

The political woman

For cities to play an empowering role, policymakers need to design them to adequately take into account women’s roles and needs, to actively encourage women’s agency and progression. However, to date most cities across the globe have been designed and shaped primarily by and for men. In part this stems from the lack of female political representation: currently, fewer than 5 per cent of city leadership roles globally are actually held by women

In Africa, Sierra Leone is one country that has been progressive on political representation, with a long legacy of having women in leadership positions. For example, Madam Ella Kobolo Gulama, a Paramount Chief in Sierra Leone until her passing in 2006, led the way for female political representation across the continent: she was the first elected female Member of Parliament in all of sub-Saharan Africa. This legacy of female leadership has also been mirrored at the city level with Constance Cummings-John becoming the first female mayor of Freetown in 1966. Cummings-John, who also co-founded Sierra Leone’s Women’s Movement, was instrumental in the country’s struggle for independence. Since then, Freetown has been led by three more female mayors.

Growing evidence suggests that when women serve as political leaders, governments are not only more inclusive but also better at delivering public services. When women are represented in local government, they are also more likely to ensure topics important to women are actively considered. For example, Florence Dillsworth, a previous mayor of Freetown, launched a number of projects both around education and income generation specifically for women.

African cities, like Kampala and Freetown, are currently undergoing immense changes in their economic, social, and political fabric. The positive role women play in Africa’s urbanisation process is clear and evidenced. We need to continue fighting for women’s voices to be heard and ensure that they can reach their fullest potential within our cities.

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Jennifer S. Musisi is city leader in residence at the Bloomberg Harvard City Initiative. Astrid R.N. Haas is manager of Cities that Work at the International Growth Centre.

 
 
 
 

How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.