Projections suggest cities will swell at an astonishing pace – but whether that means our salvation or an eco-disaster is by no means certain
Mon 19 Mar 2018
Pierre Sass moved to Kinshasa in the 1990s. Like thousands of young men, he came looking for work, rented an overcrowded room from a “brother” on the edge of the city and, four years later, bought his own plot of land. Today, the edge of the city is 3 miles (five kilometres) away and he has built his own two-room house for himself, his wife and three children. He has electricity but no water or drainage.
Kinshasa had just 20,000 people in 1920. By 1940 it was home to about 450,000 people. Today it has possibly 12 million and is predicted to be Africa’s second largest city with 75 million people inside 50 years. By western standards it is a dysfunctional, sprawling megalopolis, ringed by vast shantytowns of informal settlements, their infrastructure nonexistent or collapsing.
“When you go to there today you see disarray and congestion,” says Somik Lall, the World Bank’s lead economist for Africa. “Yes, it will be one of the biggest cities in Africa by 2050, but I do not think it is the model for future Africa, nor do I think it will have a population of 70 million.” He argues that Kinshasa’s current condition is not necessarily indicative of its future status. “There’s no way to say what cities will look like in 2100. Seoul in 1980 could never have predicted how it is today. It was grimy, dirty, industrial city. Africa has a young labour force. Places like Kinshasa are some of the most dynamic places in the world.”
He worries, however, that economic growth will not keep up with population growth, as it did in industrialising Asia, Europe and the US. “What seems to be happening in Africa is that it is triggering only small-scale informal trading [as opposed to global commerce]. People coming to cities like Kinshasa are not adding economic benefit. Not enough investment is being made in the infrastructure of African cities.”
By 2100, about 40% of all humans and nearly half of all children in the world will be African – one of the fastest and most radical demographic changes in history. It is bound to be a messy transition, Lall says. “But I am not worried about the grime and dirt so much. That comes later. We mix up wanting a city to be be productive and be pretty; I want to make sure people get a good job.”
Population in 2015: 4.3 million
Projected in 2050: 7 million