Redevelopment of Africa’s urban structures in a well-planned fashion

Models of city success from other regions offer useful insights into development paths and citywide gains based on three main criteria: first, functional/formal land markets, transparent land titling and shrewd urban planning. Second, making earlier/coordinated infrastructure investments that enable greater interdependence among sites and physical structures. Third, improving transport and other public amenities – connecting firms to workers and consumers – thereby enhancing the liveability and productivity of the city.

Urban planning, land use and building regulations (policies determining how and where land is used) and ‘zoning’ are important tools for authorities to guide development and enhance urban connectivity. Zoning is the process of dividing land in a municipality into zones (e.g. residential and industrial/commercial) in which certain land uses are allowed or prohibited. The type of zone determines whether planning permission for a given development is granted.

ABL Project design – Maputo, Mozambique


Integrated urban planning increases both population and economic densities.

Clear land and private property rights underpin by enforcement powers are pre-conditions for functional land markets. The World Bank noted: “Strong institutions are needed to clearly define property rights to ensure standardised and objective methods of land valuation; and to support and oversee land management, land sales and tax collection.” Yet many African countries retain ‘multiple’ land rights regimes: formal, customary, informal, collective and even religious. Unclear land titling impedes urban redevelopment, and imposes high costs, as well as preventing capital raising from banks and real estate investors.

In sub-Sahran Africa (SSA), only one-tenth of rural land is registered [1].

Some SSA countries have taken steps to improve land registries, e.g., most of communal lands in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania were surveyed and registered; computerised land records and registration systems helped cut the number of days to transfer property in Ghana from 169 to 34 and Uganda from 227 to 48 [1]. The 2015 Planning Bill in Zambia has extended planning controls across state and customary land whilst designating all local authorities as planning bodies [2]. Kenya provides value added tax exemptions for developments with more than 20 low-cost units.

Planned investments

The costs of developing basic infrastructure (infra) and dense clusters of firms/ industrial premises depend on ‘sequencing’. It means that the erection and installation sequence of project equipment and materials as well as the completion sequence of units, systems or subsystems are based on the plant commissioning sequence. Mega-projects also carry high ‘sunk costs’ (i.e. capital expenditure) that has been incurred and cannot be recovered.

Paul Collier in “Land Use Planning and Spatial Development for Smart Growth in African Cities” (2016) explained making infra investments first; followed by investments in mass housing and then in industrial premises, reduce the cost of all three. This is because vital services like sewerage, drainage, clean water, waste disposal, street lighting and transport network are cheaper to provide at scale (i.e. agglomeration economies) than if they are installed to houses and factories separately and a piecemeal way at future dates.

Furthermore, it is more economical to build public amenities (schools, hospitals/ clinics and roads) in densely populated areas than for a dispersed rural population. Thus, being less costly, the optimal level of provision should be higher in well-planned cities. And social returns on public infra stocks depend on the proximity of housing and workplace. For firms, the productivity of business premises hinges on the proximity of infra, workers and customers. However, empirical evidence [3] suggests that benefits of changes in urban structure, such as investment in transport network, take time to emerge – with firms and households responding to these changes gradually.

Urban connectivity

Efficient transport systems improve intra-city mobility and reduce commuting costs, which, in turn, foster land use changes and economic growth as the city moves to a “new equilibrium of urban land use patterns [4]. The modes of transport systems vary with population and job densities within a city. Upgrading logistics and designing routes and bus stops improve connectivity in places with low densities, whilst higher density requires other options: bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors, light-rail trains (including urban trams) and subways.

Presently, four SSA cities: Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg and Lagos operate BRT systems that run on 104 kilometres of exclusive bus lanes. Evidence shows that commuting time in Lagos fell by an average of 25 minutes along a 22-km corridor and wait time cut from 45-to-10 minutes since the introduction of BRT in 2008 [5]. Tanzania’s BRT is planned as a large-scale system of 137-km of high-frequency corridors being constructed in six sequential stages.

“The BRT is another great example of how strategic government investments can lead to private sector investments and great outcomes for the people,” World Bank’s President Yong Kim said. Other benefits of BRT are reductions in pollution and improved road safety. In Lagos, the BRT project has reduced CO2 emissions and greenhouse gas emissions by 13 and 20-percent, respectively [5].

BRT System – Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

There are tangible citywide benefits of paved road investment according to United Nations-Habitat findings of 30 global cities [6]. It found that paved roads are positively associated with population density growth; vibrant commercial activity (as evidenced by night light radiance); and industrial land use growth. The study ranked African cities low on road investment – Kigali, Addis Ababa and Nairobi were rated 19th, 24th and 27th, respectively.

Road density in cities is reportedly low; the road-to population ratio for all of SSA is estimated at 26-km per 10,000 people. The bulk of road surfaces have depleted over decades, reflecting very little rehabilitation work, with only a quarter of all current roads, totaling more than 2.8mn-km in SSA is paved, according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

Leveraging land values

Huge capital outlays are required to build integrated infra networks and production facilities, which far exceed the budget of any African cities. They rely on grants, government transfers, borrowing from official and private sources or limited internal revenues. Given limited money and rising urbanisation, land-based financing is a viable option for infra development across the region. The World Bank echoed: “Although revenues from the intergovernmental transfer system have been the mainstay of urban public services, there is a need to explore how cities can leverage the value of their assets – mainly land – to finance infrastructure and provide public goods and services.”

Land-based financing was used in the US, Japan and France for large-scale projects during periods of rapid urban expansion. But leveraging land values is not widespread in Africa, according to a study of 28 large property development projects in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe [7]. Such a system can tap badly needed funding, providing certain conditions are met, chiefly a sound regulatory framework with legal powers to enforce land rights; the availability of developable land; a functional real estate market; sustained demand for property; and technical capacity to implement and monitor land-based financial instruments. Very few African cities so far meet such criteria.

In sum, effective public policy/planning are needed to get urban structures ‘right’, thus laying foundations for more economically dense cities. Above all, city and national leaders need tackling structural problems of capital misallocation, ineffectual property rights and fragment development across much of Africa, which strangle investment and limit formal development options. The World Bank said: “Institutional structures must lead, not lag, urban infrastructure. If they do, the region’s cities will become not only better connected and more efficient but also kinder to their inhabitants, whose skills will be critical to economic growth and development.” Better urban services connect African cities to global value chains (GVCs) for goods and services.

1] Byamugisha, F; 2013 “Securing Africa’s Land for Shared Prosperity.”
2] Wesseling, T; 2016 “New Approaches to Physical Planning in Zambia.”
3] African Cities (2017) “Opening Doors to the World”, World Bank.
4] Grover Goswami and S.V. Lall; 2016 “Jobs in the City: Explaining Urban Spatial Structure in Kampala.” Policy Research Working Paper 7655, World Bank.
5] Peltier-Thiberge; 2015 “Lagos Bus Rapid Transit System: Decongesting and Depolluting Mega Cities.” World Bank Transport for Development Blog.
6] UN-Habitat; 2013 “The Relevance of Street Patterns and Public Space in Urban Areas.”
7] African Centre for Cities, 2015.

Article by ABL associate MOIN SIDDIQI, Economist


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