The quest for greener cities


In the last decade, Africa witnessed unprecedented development of urbanization which created a real challenge of the countries environment and sustainability of economic growth. Different demographic research studies assertively forecasted that by 2050, 60pct of Africa’s population will be living in cities, up from currently 40pct. If this situation continues as it is, over the next few decades, it will be a key development issue for countries.
They will be forced to figure out how to handle rapid urban expansion and much-needed economic growth, while creating more environmentally-friendly cities and reducing their carbon footprint at the same time. As it is a fact on the ground, cities are responsible for more than 75 percent of greenhouse gases, because they are the places where most people live. As indicated above, by 2050, 60 percent of Africa’s population will be living in cities, up from currently 40 percent. That is a fact in which people cannot change. Addis Ababa is a case in point.
Some 125 years ago, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city was a pre-urban settlement with no or properly functioning infrastructure and city social services. The city’s history book indicated that the provision of its hot springs and strategic location were the two most important considerations to take note by its founder Empress Taytu and her husband Emperor Menelik when they first found it. In its formative years as well as in the preceding decades, the city didn’t have any well defined city plan or anything which resembled it. For many decades, the positive merit Addis Ababa has was its greenness.
Currently, Addis Ababa is a bustling capital of Africa residing more than three million people and hosting a stray headquarters of continental and international organizations. Addis is the political and economic nerve center of the country. It is also the third diplomatic hub of the world next to New York and Brussels, hosting a long list of diplomatic representations.
Ethiopia’s internationally acclaimed fast economic development in the last eight years resulted unprecedented construction boom in Addis Ababa which unfortunately denied its well-known greenness and polluted in an alarming rate.
The real challenge for African countries is how to embrace this unprecedented urbanization. Noted experts suggested that this could be done by integrating climate change with development and economic policies, so that poverty, employment creation and environmental issues can be tackled at the same time rather than in isolation.
Climate change is highly interconnected with the environment, economy, politics, poverty, food security, access to water and the built environment, among other factors. If Africans want to create greener cities, they will need to consider all of them. According to the leading urbanization experts, one major hurdle to creating greener cities is, however, that African nations will need to double their infrastructure by 2050 to service their rapidly growing urban centres. This will mean major construction in which the construction industry being one of the biggest polluters.
According to a recent environmental assessment study, the current global construction sector consumes 30 to 45 percent of global energy production. It uses six to eight percent of global fossil fuel demand to build. Those costs are very high and very unsustainable and African countries need to find different and more environmentally-friendly ways of building their cities.
It is obvious that this will not be an easy plan to realize, however, since economic development continues to take precedence over the environment on a continent where poverty alleviation and employment creation are the top priorities of every government. So, as experts clearly noted that building parking garages has the highest commercial value in African cities rather than creating communal spaces or parks.
Due to the fact that spatial planning practices and market forces in most cases favor the wealthy, Africa’s urban poor which is the majority of households are increasingly vulnerable to the potential effects of climate change. This threatens the resilience of urban communities to climate change all over the continent. According to the experts of urbanization, city planners would therefore be in an ideal position to contribute to the fight against climate change, but in Africa, they have been slow to get involved. Few municipal strategies analyze and monitor hazard and vulnerability factors or contain risk assessments of the present and future effects of climate change on urban areas.
Some experts consistently argued that bringing down a city’s carbon footprint would have many positive spin-offs, such as a healthier population. African cities are spread wide and thin, which means it takes time and money to move goods. They are designed to be carbon heavy. Every calorie that comes into the city requires an ecosystem service to produce that food and transport it. As a result, food transported into expansive urban centres has a high carbon footprint, while generally being less fresh and highly processed. Some sarcastically lamented by saying “Cities make us fat and sick. We have an obesity epidemic inAfrica, combined with severe malnutrition. And at the root of this lie significant climate problems.”
They believe one solution would be to densify African cities to create better scales of economy. They also explained that it would be easier and cheaper to introduce public transport systems, which would mean fewer cars and more people walking. Denser cities would also reduce the cost of healthy food and its carbon footprint, because it would be cheaper to transport it into town. As a result, they encouraged citizens to start demanding greener cities at the municipal level.
Climate change is not an issue for national governments to deal with alone, as its actual effects are particularly felt by people at local government level. Local governments are the closest to where the consequences of climate change will pan out and thus best positioned to build resilient cities, while avoiding major setbacks in hard-won economic and social development.
As well explained and recommended by noted urbanization and environmental experts, every African urbanite can play a role to this effect. They asserted that as an ordinary person, national government policy feels impenetrable, but on a city level, it’s so much easier to mobilize as a community.