Building megacities: could Africa lead the way?

Building megacities: could Africa lead the way?

By Mark Hattersley, September 3rd, 2013

Ambitious city plans could transform the African continent but what will the new urban jungle look like?The Eko Atlantic project (© Eko Atlantic)

The city of the future could well be a very interesting place in which to live. Forget the hectic, jam-packed urban decay that marks most modern cities: the metropolis of the future will be a clean, efficient and – above all else – thoroughly pleasant place to inhabit.

That’s the dream at any rate. Futurologist Jacque Fresco has been working for years on the Venus Project, a grand plan that reinvents the very notion of a city, and even our whole society, through a design he calls the ‘resource-based economy’.

What is most striking is that this development may not appear first in the west, but in developing nations. In particular: in Africa.

The new Africa

The stereotype of urban Africa isn’t a pretty one: mention Cairo, Lagos or Nairobi to the average westerner and crime, slums and poverty are what comes to mind. So the news that Africa is in the process of creating multiple, highly advanced urban developments, including brand-new megacities (designed to house over 10 million people) is somewhat at odds with our preconceived ideas about the continent.

Africa has big plans for its future. And these involve moving rapidly towards the urbanisation of its one billion citizens. A UN report published in 2012 predicts that “Africa’s urban population is expected to more than triple from 414 million to 1.26 billion people by the year 2050.”

These people are not expected to live in the slum dwellings that blight current African megacities: Cairo already has 19.5 million citizens, but eight million are estimated to live in slum dwellings (up to one million live live in Manshiet alone).

Fresco is no stranger to poverty. “It was during the Great Depression of 1929,” he says, “I lived in New York then and I was exposed to many different ideas, but none of them seemed comprehensive, so I started working on a plan for a new type of society, that would eliminate most of the problems that exist today.”

The Venus Project

This plan became the Venus Project: a sustainable city based upon energy efficiency, natural resource management and advanced automation. This is combined with a socio-economic system based on social cooperation.

But such a dramatically different vision for the city is harder to create in an already urbanized area: people are resistant to change. It’s far more likely to happen in an area where new developments are desperately wanted. Teo Kermeliotis, writing for CNN describes what is happening in Africa: “From the Konza technopolis outside Nairobi, to King City near the emerging port of Takoradi, Ghana, through the luxurious Eko Atlantic on Victoria Island in Lagos, these urban projects are designed to offer high-quality services and modern infrastructure.”

Lagos is in a similar situation to Cairo, and is already rapidly evolving away from its slum-town image. Professor Johnson Bade Falade, habitat program manager for Nigeria, told CNN that a number of socio-economic factors have led to Lagos experiencing an “astronomical growth”. “At the time Lagos was growing there wasn’t too much importance attached to physical planning,” he explained. “We were left with the kinds of challenges that cities are growing, planning is not complete.”

The Eko Atlantic development in Lagos is a sign of things to come. This impressive residential and business development is being built primarily to protect Victoria Island from coastal erosion and the threat of flooding. This three and a half square miles of land is based on Manhattan, and is expected to provide accommodation for 250,000 people and employment opportunities for a further 150,000.

“This is a city for the 21st century, we are not using an old model,” says David Frame, managing director of Eko Atlantic. “We are finding ways and means to produce a city that will reach international standards.”
The Eco Atlantic project (© Eco Atlantic)

Better infrastructure

To this end Lagos has launched new rapid-transit bus systems, reliable urban railways and a fleet of new rubbish collection lorries to prevent the new area descending into squalor. “We have a lot of opportunity for recreational facilities as well as providing a core business centre and a good place to live right on the coast of Lagos,” says Eko Atlantic’s Frame.

Perhaps more than any other continent on Earth Africa sorely needs these kinds of projects. De Buys Scott, KPMG Africa head of infrastructure, says: “The gap between where Africa is and where we could be is huge…businesses cite road and transport infrastructure challenges as obstacles to functioning properly. Overcoming this will enhance the working environment for business.” In the view of Sue Bannister, a partner at City Insight: “The world today is about cities. Cities are where it is happening these days. Research show that cities make people smarter and more creative.”

Onwards and upwards

‘Hope’ in Ghana is another huge infrastructure development project. Standing for ‘Home, Office, People and Environment’, this $10 billion development is a pilot project for a technology park hosting a cluster of buildings and facilities. Part of it will include Africa’s tallest skyscraper (at 270m high it’ll be just slightly smaller than the Shard in London).

Building cities and developments from scratch offers countless benefits, and this is one area where Africa, with its relatively rural population and large areas of undeveloped land will benefit tremendously. Aside from places such as Cairo and Lagos it does not have the current infrastructure problems: it starts with a clean slate.

And development ideas for futuristic cities offer something pretty special. A completely fresh transport system can integrate the latest public transport developments: monorails, cable cars, self-steering buses, electric bicycles and non-stop metro rails are just some of the ideas floating around.

Eko Atlantic Nigeria (© Eko Atlantic)

Doing things differently

Fresco’s Venus Project completely changes the city design from the grid-plan system (common in the US) to a circular plan. He says, “When you start at one point in a circle and go all around you come back to the same point. When it’s a linear city you have to travel back again over the same territory, in a circular you don’t have that problem. You conserve a great deal of resources.”

Roads can have completely integrated electric charging points alongside, or instead of, traditional petrol stations. Making electric cars a clean and – above all – practical alternative to gas guzzlers: creating less air pollution as they go. Buildings can have integrated wind turbines, pavements built-in energy pads turning movement into energy to power lights. Cambridge University has even suggested a method of creating glow-in-the-dark trees to replace streetlights. Fresco says that “Instead of having parks the whole city is a park. It’s immersed in lovely gardens because people need that.”

There are a lot of pie-in-the-sky ideas, but ideas that seem outlandish today could be commonplace within the next 25 years. The BBC’s Tomorrow’s Cities project highlights upcoming technologies such as delivery drones, robotic taxis and internet-connected sensors throughout the entire city to provide accurate data for town planners and police forces. Super-fast internet connection will be expected no matter where you are in the city.

The Eko Atlantic project (© Eko Atlantic)

Impact on life

All of which sounds amazing, but only for those people lucky enough to live in the city. For those moving to a city there can be problems of homelessness and human congestion, which are less positive. And the process of renewal can be harsh on residents. “The Lagos State government has perpetrated a lot of human-rights abuses in urban slums, forcibly evicting communities without any warning or planning and without any remedy, settlement, or compensation, in their effort to develop the city,” Felix Morka, the director of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center in Lagos, told Alexis Okeowo, a reporter from the New Yorker.

For all this, there is one big concern. The movie Field Of Dreams popularised the saying ‘If you build it; they will come’. But there are increasing developments around the world suggesting that isn’t always the case. China is building the largest megacity in the world and by linking up cities it hopes to connect 42 million people more effectively. But Chinese developers built a new complex in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, to house one million people; today the Kangbashi district remains mostly empty with only 20,000-30,000 inhabitants. The entire population has instead chosen to live down the road in neighbouring Dongsheng. The reasons? Initially the problem was high rental prices, but by the time the market for housing in Kangbashi collapsed it had garnered a reputation as a lost cause. Nobody wants to live there.

But given the choice between the slums of today and the gleaming cities of the future, it’s far better to dream of cities that take the best new ideas and make them a reality. And if that happens anywhere, it’ll happen in Africa first.