Africa’s Cities are Crowded and Disconnected
Most Sub-Saharan African cities are crowded with people and dwellings and disconnected by a lack of transport and other infrastructure, which constrains economic development and growth, and renders cities costly for business and households.
Although African cities are densely populated, they are not economically dense or efficient enough to promote scale economies and attract capital investment. Housing, infrastructure, and other capital investments are lacking. Across the region, housing investment lags urbanisation by nine years.
Sub-Saharan Africa is urbanising, but at lower levels of per capita GDP than other regions. One factor in the crowding of Africa’s cities is their lack of capital investment, which for the past four decades has remained relatively low in the region, at around 20 per cent of GDP. In contrast, urbanising countries in East Asia — China, Japan, the Republic of Korea — stepped up capital investment during their periods of rapid urbanisation.
Africa’s cities feel crowded precisely because they are not dense with economic activity, infrastructure, or housing and commercial structures. Without adequate formal housing in reach of jobs, and without transport systems to connect people living farther away, Africans live in cramped unplanned downtown dwellings to be near jobs. Often informal, these downtown districts are likely to lack adequate infrastructure and access to basic services.
Across Africa, 60 per cent of the urban population is packed into slums — much higher than the 34 per cent seen elsewhere, according to the United Nations. Outdated and poorly enforced city plans, along with dysfunctional property markets, create inefficient land use patterns. The downtown lacks structures — despite being crowded.
In African cities, capital investment not only appears low near the urban core but rapidly declines outside it. While the lack of capital by itself might not always pose an obstacle to economic growth, African cities also are disconnected in that they are spatially dispersed. Structures are scattered in small neighbourhoods.
Without adequate roads or transport systems, commuting is slow and costly, denying workers access to jobs throughout the larger urban area. The lack of connections among neighbourhoods means that African cities, compared with developed and developing cities elsewhere, show both lower exposure and higher fragmentation in connections among people living near the city centre.
Low exposure means that people are disconnected from each other, while fragmentation increases infrastructure costs, while it lengthens travel times among homes, job sites, and businesses. The low exposure and high fragmentation of African cities are caused by their relative lack of new development near the centre. New construction is not clustered to make capital more concentrated and increase economic density. Instead, it tends to push the boundaries of the city outward.
According to a new study of 265 cities in 70 countries that controls for total population and per capita GDP, average exposure near the centre is 37 per cent lower in African cities than in Asian and Latin American cities, while African cities are 23 per cent more fragmented.
The spatial fragmentation of Africa’s cities prevents businesses from reaping both scale and agglomeration benefits. The effects of spatial fragmentation are material: It limits urban economies.
Also, spatial fragmentation hinders agglomeration economies by preventing job market pooling and matching and the transfer of skills and knowledge. Urban agglomeration economies thrive on specialised cognitive skills in the labour market. Africa’s cities will need, among other things, to restructure their labour market by attracting and growing more specialised talent.
Fragmented urban forms impose high living costs on workers and households, resulting in indirect costs and other constraints for businesses. It is why African cities are costly both to live in and to do business in.
Overall, the average urban area in Africa is not strikingly less built-up than its counterparts in other regions, except in Asia, where cities are more densely built. However, what is lacking is the economically dense concentration of capital and infrastructure investment that enables households to live decently and affordably near jobs.
Source: World Bank Group