23 Sep 2022

Urbanizing to survive: How African cities can enhance climate resilience

Carlo Palleschi

When analysing megatrends affecting Africa, it is clear that the future of the continent will be urban: there are expected to be 824 million urban dwellers in 2030, and 1.5 billion in 2050, in comparison to 548 million in 2018.[1] The rural population will also grow but this will be outpaced by the rate of urban population growth: in 2050 people living in rural areas will represent only 41 percent of the total African population. These figures clearly show that the rate and scale of the urbanization process in Africa has the potential to deeply change not only the demographic and geographic distribution of people within (and between) countries, but also the underlying structure of African economies, producing long-lasting social and environmental outcomes. To fully capture and assess the impact – as well as the opportunities – of African urbanization, this phenomenon needs to be assessed in combination with another key megatrend: climate change. In fact, although African countries make little contribution to the root causes of this phenomenon, they are extremely exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well as natural hazards – such as droughts, floods, storms or landslides – particularly in already fragile drylands and along exposed coastlines. According to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index,[2] Mozambique was the country most affected by climate change in 2019, followed by Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Sudan and Niger, which ranked 2nd, 5th, 8th, and 9th, respectively. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating poverty and food insecurity, thus hampering inclusive and resilient socio-economic development perspectives for the continent, especially given that agriculture, which is almost all rainfed, accounts for a large share of employment.

Urbanization of climate vulnerability in Africa

When it comes to the climate-urbanization nexus in Africa, the debate tends to revolve around how urban growth leaves more and more people exposed and vulnerable to climate-related hazards in urban areas. African cities are often unable to meet the needs and expectations of new urban dwellers, as they are not equipped with the required infrastructures and financial resources to keep up with the growing population. The inability of African cities to properly accommodate their residents leads to the chaotic and dysfunctional growth of urban centres, pushing more people to locate to places with high climate risk, such as coastlines or floodplains, and thus triggering the ‘urbanization of climate vulnerability’.

Due to lack of opportunities and low capital investment, new city dwellers – especially young people[3] – have ended up in the informal job market, forced to live in high climate risk informal settlements with very limited or even no access to basic needs such as drinking water, electricity, sanitation, and healthcare. The share of Africans living in slums is still very high: The Central African Republic, South Sudan and Sudan are the top three African countries with the largest percentage of urban population living in slums – 95 percent, 91 percent and 88 percent, respectively.[4] The urban sprawl, which is the result of inadequate spatial planning, increases the number of people potentially exposed to weather-related disasters, often those who live in vulnerable housing with poor infrastructure and little resilience to impacts. It is estimated that almost all of Africa’s cities with one million inhabitants or more are located in areas exposed to one or more natural hazards (cyclones, droughts, floods, landslides), with only 10 percent of these African urban areas not exposed to any of these phenomena.[5] East African cities are particularly vulnerable to climate-related risks, especially flooding.[6] A case in point is Dar es Salaam, the second-fastest growing city in Africa, with a population of more than 6 million as of 2018. Dar es Salaam is indeed characterised by urban sprawl and large informal settlements in the Msimbazi Valley, which covers an area of 271 square kilometres in the heart of the city, housing nearly a third of the city’s population, despite the river causing  significant, life-threatening floods during the rainy season. In Western Africa, the situation is not that different. For instance, losses due to flooding in Accra are estimated to exceed US$6 million per year,[7] especially for low-income communities living in flood-prone areas due to poor physical and socio-economic conditions and lack of access to basic infrastructure and services.

Urbanization is not the problem, but (part of) the solution

These are a just some examples of a consolidated phenomenon across Africa: due to rapid and unmanaged urbanization, African cities have become more and more vulnerable and exposed to climate change and natural hazards, amplifying the impacts of climate-induced losses and damages to both infrastructures and livelihoods. Nevertheless, urbanization is not per se the problem, but it becomes so when, as in the majority of African cities, it is not properly upheld and guided by sound spatial planning and forward-looking urban policies. On the contrary, if properly managed, urbanization could be part of the solution. Although potentially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, urban ecosystems could indeed be associated with economic growth and improved wellbeing, and therefore could have the potential to enhance climate resilience.

As underlined above, poor Africans are those who bear the greatest costs from the unfolding climate crisis, as they live in high climate risk areas with limited access to basic services while being heavily reliant for their livelihoods on natural resources that have been increasingly affected by the growing intensity and frequency of droughts and floods.[8] Furthermore, due to liquidity constraints, reduction in assets and low access to finance, the poor often do not have the required tools and resources to implement effective adaptation and coping strategies to rebuild their livelihoods in response to climate shocks. Against this backdrop, it is thus clear that enhancing climate resilience strictly depends on the success of poverty reduction and economic development. As a major factor for economic growth, urban agglomerations – which are characterized by the spatial concentration of people, economic activities and markets – present an opportunity to increase climate resilience, as they tend to pull people from less productive activities, such as substance agriculture, to more productive and climate-resilient economic activities, such as industries and services. When firms and workers are clustered in cities, costs of production may decline due to positive spillover effects, economies of scale and a higher degree of connectivity between workers and firms, with positive effects on trade, productivity, growth and thus poverty alleviation. This is extremely important in light of the newly established African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), as African cities have the potential to play a key role in increasing intra-industry and intra-sector trade, boosting value addition, enhancing industrial competitiveness and fostering regional value chains. Contributing to generating economies of scale, urban agglomerations can lead to a reduction in operational costs and thus to increased access to basic infrastructure and services – such as piped water, sanitation and solid waste management – which are key to enhancing the climate resilience of the poor as they offer better conditions to adapt to the impacts of extreme events.

At the same time, the link between urbanization and climate resilience is not limited to urban centres; rural areas can also benefit. Urbanization has indeed the potential to reduce rural-urban wage differentials and generate backward links to agriculture, mainly because rising urban incomes create demand for agricultural products. This is turn generates new income opportunities for rural households, thus providing them with the resources to implement adaptation and coping strategies in face of climate shocks.

Building cities to build climate resilience: An agenda for change

Overall, African cities have failed to reap the benefits of urbanization in terms of climate resilience building. Although poverty is substantially lower in urban than in rural areas, and is declining fastest in large cities, the rising urban share of the population has played only a small role in overall poverty reduction.[9] In fact, unlike what  happened in other areas, urbanization in Africa has occurred without a corresponding industrialisation process, resulting in lost opportunities for job creation and improved well-being. To turn urbanization into an opportunity, it is crucial to adopt a forward-looking approach based on three main components: (i) improving urban planning through a participatory bottom-up approach; (ii) enhancing financial cooperation and fostering the role of the private sector; and (iii) strengthening the institutional and regulatory framework.

Although urban planning has gained more and more attention in Africa, for decades the main focus in terms of economic development and climate policies has been on rural areas, thus hindering the establishment of a deep-rooted urban perspective in public policies.[10] Furthermore, the lack of political willingness has hampered the development of endogenous specific urban capacities while preventing many urban centres from overcoming the legacies of colonial rule. This has led to an expansion of many African cities along the same patterns of colonial times, further fuelling the dysfunctional outward growth of urban centres.[11] Acknowledging this gap, many African states and municipalities have started attaching greater importance to the urban dimension,[12] as demonstrated by the focus of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 on urbanization. However, urban planning should not be considered as a standalone sector and instead be regarded as pro-poor tool while factoring climate resilience into the design and construction of urban spaces. In this regard, spatial planning is fundamental for African cities to counteract the urban sprawl, which is a key contributor to urban climate vulnerability.

Urban sprawl management strategies, such as urban growth boundaries or downzoning, are instrumental in reducing the intensity of development in flood plains, preventing the expansion of cities in high climate risk areas and triggering economies of scale, which in turn reduce the cost of municipal basic infrastructure investments and mitigate the impact of extreme weather events for poor and marginalized households. Strategies that encourage city densification and direct the physical growth of cities have proven effective in containing urban sprawl in Africa, as evidenced in Accra, Tema, Kumasi and Cape Coast.[13] Furthermore, urban planning needs a strong focus on climate resilient infrastructures: informal urbanization exacerbates housing vulnerability to climate events, especially for those who live in houses built with non-durable materials that are not climate resilient. For instance, Mozambique, where around 60 percent of the urban population build their own houses using cheap non-durable materials,[14] was severely hit by cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which together partially or totally destroyed nearly 300,000 houses.[15]

Although the challenge is daunting, the mission is not impossible. The aforementioned Msimbazi Valley is a good example of how urban planning can turn a flood risk into an economic opportunity: more than 200 people from 59 institutions and communities came together to chart a resilient path forward for this key area, delivering the Msimbazi Opportunity Plan, a comprehensive blueprint which is expected to transform the Basin into a beacon of urban resilience.[16]

As highlighted above, urban planning is instrumental in not only enhancing urban climate resilience but also promoting pro-growth and welfare-improving urbanization, which in turn would enable the poor to be more adaptive to and recover more quickly from climate shocks. Sound spatial planning policies can improve the connection between people, and between workers and firms, while fostering productivity and facilitating a smooth ‘search and match’ process in the labour market, thus increasing income opportunity for the most vulnerable. Against this backdrop, the AfCFTA represents a huge opportunity for African cities to move towards a new urban paradigm: continental integration can increase urban employment in tradable sectors, pulling workers away from rural climate-vulnerable areas to productive sectors, thus laying the foundations for the rise of the so-called “production cities”,[17] characterised by tradable production, gains in wellbeing and more climate-resilient households.

With regard to the financial aspect, most cities in Africa lack sufficient own-source revenues and adequate transfers from the government to cope with rapid urbanization, and investments in urban infrastructure and basic services have lagged significantly behind the rate of urban growth. In Africa, with the exception of South Africa, public expenditures on urban plans are on average between US$1 and US$15 per capita per year.[18] To overcome financial constraints, it would be useful to foster cooperation with international donors and empower municipalities to work directly with multilateral development banks to negotiate financial support to local-led sustainable projects. Acting alone, African governments often struggle to develop high-quality projects that can attract private sector involvement, thus attracting and enhancing public-private partnerships (PPPs) is crucial to delivering sound urban projects and, to some extent, bridging the financial gap. Given the transformative power of African urbanization, there are huge opportunities in urban projects for the private sector, especially in the field of renewable energy, public transport, water security, solid waste management and sanitation infrastructures. For instance, PPPs were successfully carried out in Dakar (Senegal), where a highway connecting the city centre to the airport was built, or in Kabwe (Zambia), where municipal solid waste management has improved thanks to a PPP supported by the International Finance Corporation.[19] Solid waste management is indeed a case in point: it is estimated that 250 million tonnes of municipal solid waste will be generated in 2025, and while the average collection rate is expected to rise from 55 percent in 2012 to 69 percent by 2025, the coverage will vary considerably between cities.[20] This worrisome trend, which is expected to compound flooding and disease burden, requires strong and immediate actions. In order to be effective, such measures would benefit immensely from sound and transparent PPPs, which can provide cost-effective and innovative solutions to improve waste services and infrastructure, thus advancing the development and climate agenda.

Finally, it would be pointless to improve urban planning and increase investment opportunities without a corresponding effort to build a robust institutional and regulatory framework. It is indeed crucial to identify a sound cooperation framework between national and local governments, while properly defining roles and responsibilities in urban planning and in maintaining, delivering and upscaling urban services. A transparent and effective regulatory framework is also required to support private sector involvement in finding and financing bankable urban projects. It is also fundamental to clarify urban land and property rights, update land databases, improve land registries and cadastre records and integrate customary rules for land tenure into the formal system. In fact, due to the risk of eviction, lack of formal land tenure acts as a disincentive for poor households to invest in enhancing the resilience of their houses. In addition, without an adequate land property system, the urban poor do not have the necessary official documentation to prove land ownership and therefore cannot use their properties to access finance, which would be instrumental in increasing housing durability and resilience in the long run. This is clearly an issue in Mozambique, for example, where land – which is a public asset – cannot be used as collateral for credits, while land titles – which in contrast could be used as collateral – are difficult to obtain. Furthermore, it would be extremely beneficial to strengthen capacity building at both the national and local level, improving climate-related knowledge as well as gathering data and mapping African cities and boundaries, so as to have information on informal settlements, which are home to the most fragile and climate-vulnerable urban dwellers.

Capitalising on good urbanization to face climate change

The focus of the debate on urban growth in Africa mainly revolves around the problems linked to and driven by urban growth, neglecting somewhat the potential it has to help African countries survive and navigate through the mounting challenges that the continent faces in the short and long run. Whether urbanization turns out to be an opportunity to trigger growth, reduce poverty, and thus enhance climate resilience, depends mainly on how this megatrend is conceived. It is an unstoppable phenomenon that need not be halted, but rather guided towards a sustainable and climate-resilient path through a sound institutional framework that promotes spatial and urban planning while fostering cooperation between all the stakeholders potentially involved: local and national governments, international organizations, the private sector and, most importantly, the urban dwellers, by whom and for whom cities are built. Urbanization is thus an opportunity to capitalise on, as it generates benefits in terms of climate resilience not only through ad hoc climate measures but also by triggering a structural and deep transformation of the economy. Only through this complementary and holistic approach to urban planning as a pro-poor tool is it possible for Africa to face the double challenge of addressing the consequences of climate change while fully harnessing the benefits arising from safe, inclusive, and resilient urban centres.


[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision (New York: United nations, 2019), https://population.un.org/wup/publications/Files/WUP2018-Report.pdf.

[2] David Eckstein, Vera Künzel, and Laura Schäfer, “Global Climate Risk Index 2021”, Germanwatch, January 25, 2021, https://www.germanwatch.org/en/19777.

[3] The New Urban Agenda and Demographic Dividend: Investments for Africa’s Youth, Brookings Institution, January 31, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-new-urban-agenda-and-demographic-dividend-investments-for-africas-youth/.

[4] The data refer to the percentage of urban population living in slums in 2018. See The World Bank: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.POP.SLUM.UR.ZS?locations=ZG-SS.

[5] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2012), https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/urbanization/WUP2011_Report.pdf.

[6] Valerie Brown, Flooding in East Africa: The Impacts on and Implications for Cities in East Africa, with a Case Study of Dar es Salaam, C40 Cities Finance Facility, November 2020, https://www.c40cff.org/knowledge-library/flooding-in-east-african-megacities.

[7] Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar, Hausner Wendo, Ana Polgar et. al., Ecosystem-based Flood Management: A Comparative Study Report of the Cities of Cape Town and Durban (South Africa), Nairobi and Mombasa (Kenya), (Berlin: PlanAdapt Collaborative, 2021), https://reliefweb.int/report/south-africa/ecosystem-based-flood-management-comparative-study-report-cities-cape-town-and.

[8] Kempe Ronald Hope, “Climate Change and Poverty in Africa,” International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology 16, no. 6 (2009): 451–461, https://doi.org/10.1080/13504500903354424.

[9] Kirsten Hommann and Somik V. Lall. Which Way to Livable and Productive Cities? A Road Map for Sub-Saharan Africa (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2019), https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/31457.

[10] Till Förster and Carole Ammann, “African Cities and the Development Conundrum,” International Development Policy/Revue internationale de politique de développement 10 (2018): 3-25, https://journals.openedition.org/poldev/2621.

[11] For instance, see Cristina Udelsmann Rodrigues, “Angolan Cities: Urban (Re)segregation?” in African Cities: Competing Claims on Urban Spaces, ed. Paul Nugent and Francesca Locatelli (Boston: Brill, 2009), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307213637_Angolan_cities_Urban_Resegregation.

[12] For instance, Dar es Salaam, Kinshasa, Mombasa, Nairobi and Nouakchott have formulated, with the support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, medium and long-term urban master plans.

[13] Owusu Amponsah, Daniel Kwame Blija, Raphael Anammasiya Ayambire et. al., “Global Urban Sprawl Containment Strategies and Their Implications for Rapidly Urbanising Cities in Ghana,” Land Use Policy 114 (2022), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2022.105979.

[14] Instituto Nacional de Estatística, Anuário Estatístico 2019: Moçambique (2020), http://www.ine.gov.mz/estatisticas/publicacoes/anuario/nacionais/anuario-estatistico-2019-web-cpl.pdf.

[15] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Mozambique Cyclone Idai: Post Disaster Needs Assessment, May 2019, https://www.undp.org/publications/mozambique-cyclone-idai-post-disaster-needs-assessment-pdnadna.

[16] Erick Dickson and Leonardo Valente, “Turning Flood Risk into Economic Opportunity in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania,” World Bank Blogs, September 30, 2021, https://blogs.worldbank.org/sustainablecities/turning-flood-risk-economic-opportunity-dar-es-salaam-tanzania.

[17] Evidence on “production” vs. “consumption” cities can be found in: Remi Jedwab, Elena Ianchovichina, and Federico Haslop, “Consumption Cities versus Production Cities: New Considerations and Evidence,” Policy Research Working Paper 10105, World Bank Group (2022), https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/37624.

[18] Roland, White, Jane Turpie, and Gwyneth Letley, Greening Africa’s Cities: Enhancing the Relationship between Urbanization, Environmental Assets, and Ecosystem Services (Washington: World Bank Group, 2017), https://bit.ly/3QLzbxo.

[19] Monika Blaszkiewicz-Schwartzman and Dilek Aykut, Shaping the Future of Africa: Markets And Opportunities for Private Investors (Washington, D.C.: International Finance Corporation, 2018), https://bit.ly/3PywDBx.

[20] United Nations Environment Programme, Africa Waste Management Outlook (2018), https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/25514.

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