Africa is the only continent where the rural population is still the majority (around 56%), despite this, the run to the cities is faster and faster: the average urban growth rate in 2018 was 3.6%, the highest in the world.
A considerable percentage: in 2020 the cities of the continent will host over 21 million new residents.
Three megacities exceed ten million inhabitants: Cairo, Kinshasa and Lagos.
Lagos, in particular, seems destined to become the largest conurbation on the planet within twenty years.
Seven other metropolises exceed five million inhabitants while 29 have between two and five million residents.
These impressive numbers monopolized the attention on African megacities: endless agglomerations with serious problems of social exclusion, offer of basic services and environmental sustainability.
Their seemingly impossible management is certainly one of the greatest challenges in this era.
Facts about secondary cities
Practically all the African cities that you usually hear about are included among these forty huge and chaotic conurbations, yet the data reserve some surprises.
The ten large megacities between 5 and 18 million residents, in fact, represent only a small percentage of the urban population of the African continent: 12%.
If we add to thise number the 29 cities that exceed two million inhabitants, it does not even reach 30%.
Almost half of the continent’s urban population, on the other hand, 48% to be exact, live in one of the 7500 medium or small cities.
These are the so-called secondary cities: urban centers with a population of between 10,000 and 300,000 inhabitants.
The map of these settlements is suggestive and allows to read the most inhospitable areas and the major communication routes that cross Africa.
The challenges of secondary cities
Even if megacities face enormous management problems, they are still part of a global network that determines investments, flows of goods and information, new infrastructures and opportunities.
Many small and medium-sized cities, on the other hand, are excluded from incentives for the development of rural areas and suffer from ineffective national urban policies, as they are designed for metropolises.
The absence of land planning, for example, is a serious environmental hazard, less evident than in metropolises but more subtle as it is widespread, even in areas to be protected.
Equally serious is the lack of access to basic services such as water and energy but also road and communication infrastructures.
Infrastructure networks are growing and spreading across the continent but much slower than urbanization rates and the consequent new demand for services.
This means that many medium-small cities, potentially more livable than African mega-cities, are unattractive.
The consequence of this isolation is the most serious problem facing secondary cities: the difficulty in attracting investments, both public and private.
Secondary cities, problem or opportunity?
Poorly connected, rarely at the center of national policies and often excluded from international programs and agendas, secondary cities can be seen as a simple source of problems.
However, their exponential growth, both in population and in numbers, inevitably makes them protagonists of the transformations taking place in the continent.
The role of many of these urban centers is fundamental, for example, for the sustainability and survival of large megacities.
First of all, they act as an important “safety net” to reduce population pressure in larger cities.
In fact, the first destination of urban rural migration is usually a nearby secondary center instead of a big metropolis.
Secondly, many of these settlements play a strategic role in the production and distribution of agricultural products destined to feed the residents of the millionaire cities, whose peri-urban areas are degraded due to soil consumption or pollution.
Finally, while the metropolises of the continent seem to cancel the local peculiarities dividing their cityscape between boring skyscrapers or tawdry villas and endless informal neighborhoods, small cities are still important centers of preservation of traditions.
Not only architectural or artistic traditions, but above all linguistic, cultural, religious and folkloric ones; an extraordinary heritage to be safeguarded and enhanced.
If African cities are driving the continent towards modernity, secondary cities can therefore play the fundamental role of preserving the environment, traditions and diversity.
Africa addicted architect and PhD in Urban Planning. Founder of Taxibrousse studio, expert in Urban Development, low-tech and low-cost building techniques.
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TaxiBrousse is a design and consultancy studio for international development, we works in the fields of engineering, architecture, urban planning and environmental protection.