Half of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants now live in cities. Given the dizzying pace of urbanization globally, two-thirds of humanity is likely to live in cities by 2030. Today, about one third of Africa’s 1 billion inhabitants live in towns and cities. By 2030, this proportion will rise to over 50 percent. According to a recent UN-HABITAT report the population of Dar-es-Salaam is projected to grow by over 85% between 2010 and 2025. Here at home in Nairobi, the population will swell by about 78% over the next 25 years.
A recent study in local government areas in Lagos, Nigeria revealed that unemployment, education, avoidance of boredom in agriculture and health reasons are the major factors influencing rural-urban migration. Such studies have provided credence to the myth that that provision of social amenities such as roads, water, electricity, hospitals and schools could keep young men and women in the villages, hence stem rural-urban migration.
The bad news is that this myth that rural development is the antidote for rapid, unplanned urbanization persists in most national development vision statements. Experience from South Korea is instructive. South Korean President Park Chung Hee initiated the New Community Movement in the early 1970s. This was a well-funded programme, which broke up land oligarchies, built great rural infrastructure, and provided excellent support to small farms. Farm household income increased by 83 percent between 1970 and 1979, and rural poverty declined from 27.9 percent to just 10.8 percent over the same period.
But despite rural prosperity, urbanization proceeded at breakneck speed in South Korea with 83 percent of the population living in cities today. Seoul, South Korea’s capital city has the world’s fourth highest GDP, hot on the heels of Tokyo, New York City and Los Angeles. Some scholars have argued that South Korea has used the massive revenue flows from the cities to fund rural prosperity initiatives. Better support for rural development, especially agriculture will spur agricultural productivity but will not stem migration to cities.
In their seminal book, “The Metropolitan Revolution: How cities and metros are fixing our broken politics and fragile economy”, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argue that a city is not defined by the height of its skyscrapers but the quality of the ideas it generates, the innovation it stimulates and the opportunities it creates for its inhabitants. Similarly, Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser argues that spontaneous and serendipitous exchanges of ideas turn cities into vibrant hubs of innovation.
Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington D.C., posit that the vitality of metropolitan regions is upending traditional state power structures. Here is some evidence of the rise of the city. Home to under 10 percent of Kenya’s population the City of Nairobi generates over 45 percent of Kenya’s $42.5 billion GDP. The top 100 American metropolitan areas, home to 65 percent of the population generate 75 percent of the GDP. According to the Cities Special Initiative of McKinsey & Company 600 cities will generate about two-thirds of the world’s GDP by 2025. Cities and metros are the real drivers of national fortunes.
The future will be won or lost in the cities. In our part of the world urbanization has been largely characterized by deprivation and squalor. Poor housing, poor sanitation, unemployment, insecurity, hunger, malnutrition and water shortages are among the most daunting challenges associated with rapid urbanization in Africa.
Progress in meeting the challenges of rapid urbanization would be demonstrated by a fall in the proportion of slum-dwellers, who currently account for 70% of urban inhabitants in sub Saharan Africa. Getting urbanization right is the defining challenge of our civilization. How cities fair will therefor determine the success or failure of every human development priority in Africa. Cities will be especially vital as engines of job creation, social inclusion, innovation, productivity and environmental sustainability.
Opportunity and prosperity in Nairobi and other cities across the country are spread unevenly. For a majority of Kenya’s “cityzens”, wages are too low, food is expensive and rent is too high, even in informal settlements. Life for the “cityzen” is perilous despite new roads and opulent apartments, which have transformed parts of the city into islands of prosperity in a sea of deprivation. Urban residents yearn for dignifying jobs and paychecks they can live on, in safe neighborhoods where children can thrive. But they have no idea how this will happen. Who is in charge of our cities?