The complex present and future of urban centres

By Tazviona Richman Gambe and Betty AdochNew Rhythms of Development blog series

As urbanisation continues to surge, especially in the Global South, it is essential to address the myriad issues that contemporary cities face. The recent EADI/CEsA Lisbon Conference provided a platform to consider urban challenges and possible solutions. We attended three panels, each with thought-provoking discussions on different urban issues. Three main themes emerged from these panels:

City growth processes and outcomes

African cities are struggling with political and governance challenges emanating from the scale and nature of urbanisation they are experiencing. Urbanisation in most cities has been rapid and unproductive.  The local municipalities are not able to provide adequate municipal services. On the other hand, the urban poor cannot afford the municipal services. In their desperate efforts to generate livelihoods and become self-reliant, the urban poor adopt solutions that mostly violate the rules and regulations governing cities. This has resulted in widespread contestations for accessing and using urban services, resources and spaces. The emergence and growth of unplanned settlements have become a common feature of African cities. The access to and use of residential or commercial spaces has become a negotiated and fraught process involving various state and non-state actors. An attempt to enforce order in unplanned settlements or business places is met with protests and political battles involving the informal settlers/traders, their unions and state authorities. Owing to this, militaristic policing has become one of the common modes of governance adopted in cities to deal with urban poverty, migration and crime. The ‘attack and retreat’ form of policing adopted to enforce order and harmony in cities has become the normal rhythm of city life and everyday contestations that residents must endure.

The migration-urbanisation-conflict nexus

Political and economic crises are increasing, especially in countries in the Global South. The massive displacements of people caused by these phenomena have mainly shaped the scale of urbanisation unfolding in some cities. Conflicts usually occur between the displaced people and the residents of the receiving urban centres as the two groups fight for access to and use of urban land and other services. For example, armed conflicts are associated with massive displacements of civilians from their villages into urban centres, triggering rapid urbanisation driven by the establishment of numerous internally displaced camps. The displacements, coupled with the influx of international migrants, intensify land ownership disputes in various cities. Besides land disputes, the battle for the control of economic resources is also widespread in cities receiving many migrants. Residents usually dominate their cities’ economic, social and political life but feel threatened when migrants become equally involved. This results in competition for economic resources and opportunities that, in most cases, cause resentment among residents. In some cities, the competition for economic opportunities and resources has led to xenophobic violence, with the residents targeting mainly foreigners. This created divisions based on nationality, undermining the spirit of unity in diversity.

Climate change & urban resilience

Another salient theme focused on how climate change increasingly threatens cities in both the Global North and South, with a rising incidence of heat waves whetting the need for urban resilience and improved responses from citizens, governments and the private sector. Discussions stressed the need to seek interventions for reducing the adverse effects of heat waves, especially among vulnerable urban populations like the elderly, sick and refugees. Although there is still little preparation for extremely hot events in some cities, vulnerable urban groups benefit from bottom-up integrated approaches to improve the understanding of heat waves and adaptation strategies. Some strategies adopted include public cooling centres, green roofing and sunscreen use, although not everyone can access these due to cost or institutional barriers. Experiences have shown that real and speculative possibilities should inform urban resilience strategies. This enables various actors, including citizens, governments, and private sectors, to better prepare for future extreme heat waves. The spatial distribution of cooling centres and accessibility to transport and mobility are vital determinants of citizens’ resilience to excessive heat. However, inequalities (income, race and age) must be addressed to improve citizens’ adaptive capacities.

Urban futures: can cities offer solutions to global challenges?

The future of cities is a complex and evolving landscape shaped by numerous factors, including technological advancements, demographic shifts, environmental concerns, and social changes. To thrive in the coming decades, cities must address many challenges by improving service provision, enabling resource sharing, and improving local infrastructures. For example, cities will need to prioritise green spaces, urban forests, and sustainable transportation systems to mitigate the effects of climate change and improve air quality. Transitioning to renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency will be crucial for reducing carbon emissions and, ultimately, the cities’ environmental footprint. The Internet of Things will enable cities to optimise traffic management, reduce energy consumption, and enhance public services through real-time data and connectivity. High-speed, reliable connectivity will be essential for smart city initiatives, enabling autonomous vehicles, telemedicine, and improved communication. Apart from that, advanced energy distribution systems will enhance grid reliability and support the integration of renewable energy sources. Addressing housing affordability through policies and innovative construction techniques is necessary to ensure diverse populations thrive in cities. Equally important are entrepreneurship and innovation hubs that can attract talent and drive economic growth, especially in the Global South. Cities need to plan for resilience against natural disasters through investing in flood protection, early warning systems, and disaster recovery plans. However, all these initiatives will not be easily achieved. There is a need for careful planning and improvement of urban governance through an approach that integrates diverse urban stakeholders to achieve liveable, resilient and sustainable cities.

Tazviona Richman Gambe is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Development Support in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of the Free State, South Africa. He is an emerging researcher working under the NRF Chair on City-Region Economies. His research interests include Africa’s urbanisation trajectories, regional economic resilience and urban planning and development.

Betty Adoch is a doctoral student at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Climatic Sciences (DGGCS), Makerere University, Uganda. She is an Assistant Lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Humanities, Department of Geography, Gulu University. She is also a researcher at the Urban Action Lab-Kampala Makerere University. Her research interest include Conflicts, Migration, Urbanisation trajectories, Natural resource management and Climate change in the global South.

Image: Baron Reznik under a creative commons licence on Flickr

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.