Urban Policy, Environment and Development: the challenges of urban policy makers

Urban Policy, Environment and Development: the challenges of urban policy makers

In Dakar, the capital of Senegal, as well as in other major Senegalese cities, torrential rains have caused important human deaths and severe financial and material losses over the last week (http://www.afrik.com/article26806.html).  According to the Ministry spokesperson Adjutant Mbaye Sady Diop, this situation is due to the defective “city’s drainage system”. At the same time as well in Nigeria “hundreds of homes and farmlands were destroyed in floods in Katsina State, while roadways and bridges were submerged in Nasarawa state” (http://www.hewsweb.org/floods/). Other West African countries, namely, Burkina, Niger, Cameroon, and Cote d’Ivoire are also experiencing similar cyclic floods, and for many years the annual rain season constitutes a jigsaw puzzle for both the government and the population of these countries. Although global environment change might be accountable for the recrudescence of rainfall and sea levels occasioning these floods, inadequate urban policy plays a pivotal role in explaining their poor management.

Indeed, most African cities are poorly equipped to sustain intensive external and internal metamorphoses. Generally speaking, the contemporary urban structure barely resembles that of century ago as cities have become more and more sophisticated social structures. As Comhaire and Cahnman (1971) brilliantly put it: “the city once was like a cloud, not larger than a man’s hand; it is now the tree that overshadows the world” (p.1). Simply put, as a living organism, a city births, grows, expands, transforms, and dies. Not only does the built environment evolve over time and space, but also the urban population exponential dynamics entangle cities’ management task.

Today, for the first time in human history, there are now more populations living in cities than in the rural areas.  In Africa, the rate of urbanization is the highest in the world and its urban population is expected to reach about 58 per cent by 2050 (AbdouMaliq, 2004). This increase in urban population is explained by a high fertility rate, an improvement in health services access, but also by a sustained rural-urban migration since the economic crisis in the 1980’s and the severe consequences of SAPs on agriculture related activities in the 1990’s.  The vacuum left by disempowered states has given birth to a system of informality portraying the despair of deprived urban dwellers (Harvey, D., 1992). , Indeed, he only issue for disadvantaged people is to create a system of economic organizational and housing informality in order to survive under the harsh realities. in  About 6 in 10 African city dwellers live in slum conditions , meaning, in the “poorest quality housing, the most unsanitary conditions; a refuge for marginal activities including crime, ‘vice’ and drug abuse; a likely source for many epidemics that ravaged urban areas; a place apart from all that was decent and wholesome” (UN-Habitat, 2007).

This therefore means that the poorest are the most affected by the natural catastrophes or damages since they occupy the most hazardous places in the cities. In fact, the post-modern urban space is characterized by a social inequity with unequal access to security, habitable spaces. As Harvey noticed it, cities favored the dispossession of the have-nots for the benefit of the have who benefit from the best urban services. The new social organization of the mainstream urban sphere has deepened the gap between those who seek to buy a protected civilized world at the expense of the poor who are left to fight it out without adequate resources, civil protections and with little formal employment, economic production or political stability” (p.519).  (M. Davis (2006).

In addition to that, the lack of planning and anticipation undermines seriously the welfare of urban populations. For instance, M. Sirayi (2009) argues that in South Africa “Cities and towns were meant only for the white minority. The planners did not foresee the day when all the races in South Africa would be free to move from rural areas to townships and cities and vice versa “(p.340). This situation gives birth to the urban social injustice of the South Africa of today. For most African countries, if not all, this new model of city, at least in the way we know it now, has been historically forged by the colonial heritage (Lazreg, 2009).

The premises of urban cities models have come out as legacy that current governments have to deal with but unfortunately have failed to adjust to current of local realities. This is perceived by the persistence of unfit built material.  In many cases, the built material is not appropriate for a tropical climate but still, little research is done to change the matter. Additionally, most urban policies are mitigation rather than anticipation measures. Despite the alarming data on global warming and environmental change, little is done by urban policy makers to inform and protect the populations. Without appropriate legislations, anarchic and unsustainable building infrastructures will continue to thrive and endanger the lives of populations.

Cities, everywhere on the globe, are also noted to be a niche of unsustainability (Cook, 1988). In fact, in contemporary cities, redundant social inequity, environment disasters, economic disparities, anomie, and energy waste are constant issues to deal with (M. Davis, 2006). Yet, in the African context, ongoing poverty, lack or planning, limitations of urban research, entangle cities ‘management and dangerously threaten populations lives. In the quest of sustainable development, cities should be a top priority since they contain most of the population. As A. Levy (1999) says: “Some have suggested that ecosystems might be more appropriate units upon which sustainability policies should be based; but cities are perhaps best able to give administrative effect to sustainability plans and programmes” (p.2). Legitimately, reshaping African cities appears a matter of emergency in building a sustainable African continent.



AbdouMaliq, S. (2004). For the city yet to come: Changing African life in four cities. London: Duke University Press.

Comhaire & Cahnaman. (1971). How the city grew: The Historical sociology of cities.

Cook, P. (1988). Modernity, Postmodernity and the City. Theory, Culture & Society, 5(2), pp. 475-492. doi: 10.1177/0263276488005002016

Davis, M. (2006). Planet of slums. New York: Verso

Harvey, D. (1992). Social Justice, Postmodernism, and the city. In Fainstein S. and Campbell (Eds.). Urban Theory. Pp415-434.Cambridge, Massachussets.

Lazreg, M. (2009). The colonial in the global: Where does the third world fit in? Journal of Third World Studies, 26(1), 17-30.

Levy, A. (1999). Urban morphology and the problem of modern urban fabric: some questions for research. Urban Morphology, 3 (2). pp.79-85.

Sirayi, M. (2008). Cultural Planning and Urban Renewal in South Africa. Journal of Arts Management. Law and Society, 37(4).333.

Un Habitat (2007). Retrieved from http://www.unhabitat.org/content.asp?cid=2523&catid=5&typeid=6&subMenuId=0


Emmanuelle Adjima

Emmanuelle Adjima Assy is a second year graduate student in International Development Studies at Ohio University. Her focus is on Environment and Sustainability. She hopes to pursue a PhD in Urban Sociology after her master’s degree. Besides the academic world, she likes swimming and outdoor activities.

One Response to Urban Policy, Environment and Development: the challenges of urban policy makers

  1. wonderful article Emmanuelle. Just this past Sunday Fareed Zakaria was asking whether or not African states are prepared for the implications of the present economic growth taking place in many countries in the continent such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and others. He concluded that the lasting effects of this growth will depend on whether or not African states are developing their infrastructure to cope with the new realities, that includes recognising that Africa is urbanising at a very fast pace. This also means that we need to rethink the role of education, health and other sectors when we are re-imagining the urban enviroment to go beyond the traditional rural-urban divide which shapes our thinking regarding who has the right to the city.

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