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    Urban Africa - The Informal as our Passport to Development

    By hassanykb
    Jan 8, '14 3:03 PM EST

    In 2007, the world chalked a feat, which perhaps went unnoticed in media circles. That year it was recorded that more than half of the world’s population lived in cities according to the UN.
    According to projections from the United Nations, a dip is nowhere near; urbanisation is set to reach about 85% and 65% by 2050 in developed and developing countries respectively. By figures that will mean that, population gain in urban areas is projected at 2.6 billion, absorbing all population growth expected by 2050 whiles drawing in more people from rural areas.
    With such rapid unprecedented urbanisation, cities will be at the centre of the environmental future (Sassen, 2009).
    In developing countries, cities are mostly divided along informal and formal sectors in almost everything. My major concern is with the spatial translation of this phenomenon. In Accra, close to 43% of the urban dwellers live in the informal, considering the projections I wonder the future of the African city.
    Spatially, the formal urban fabric in African cities is characterised by accessible road network, electricity and water. Facilities are present in most quarters, and more significantly is the identifiable remnants of the modernist urban planning paradigm of zoning. The city is divided along functional zones with groupings of housing, markets, schools and so on. The Fordist mantra of standardisation is in full flare. Monotonous blocks of an architect’s and urban planner’s dream habitat.
    The growing middle class in most of these cities is “imprisoned” in the so-called gated communities, housing-service-security combo, cut out from the reality of the African city life. The effects of this kind of spatial polarization are the topic of another article!
    In sharp contrast is the informal. The market does not cater for them, and neither does the government, they fend for themselves! Made up mostly of the urban poor, their quarters are in disrepair perhaps no infrastructure, in cases where that exists; they’ve not seen renovations in decades. These parts are a deep reflection of the organic nature of the human. Walk – ways are not as rectilinear, houses are makeshift and diversity is a major ingredient, density is phenomenal. Current shifts in urban issues call for density, recycling of material, storm water recovery and others. These are strategies, which the informal habitants of the city have been using over the years.
    Recently, I made a visit to a slum in the city of Sale, Morocco. Walking around I was struck with a discernible dichotomy of the informal-formal relation. The slum in question called Souk El Kalb (Dog’s market) sits a few blocks away from a major chain store (Marjane). So in this part of the city we have a strong symbol of post-industrial economy.
    A huge two-storey supermarket, an emblem of Fordist standardised goods. The facades are bare except for some upper glass fenestration, a glass wall entrance and aluminium sheet roofing. A gas station right in front serves as an easy refill point. The interior space is divided among many small shops and the Marjane shopping mall. In a short I could picture, standardised goods, made from resources all procured from all over the globe to satisfy a booming consumerist culture. The goods bought hear will be transformed in no time into waste. The system is so evident, gather resources from around the world, don’t bother the impact it has on the local environment, assemble it to produce some goods, ship it around the globe to the stalls of a shopping mall, advertise to produce demand for consumers, consumers use and dump the waste and the cycle continues.
    From spontaneous beginnings we have a few blocks away a quasi product of the system but somewhat in reverse. From the informal, a market is created. Most of the goods are second-hand stuff bought, in some cases from the same consumers of the nearby “formal market”. The structures of this market however are informal, makeshift and popular. Every thing you can think of can be procured here, from empty medicine cases, pen tops to smart phones. And yes bargaining is high on the agenda! The informality of the market makes it the more diverse. Unlike the formal neighbour, this market is multifunctional providing commercial spaces, workshops for retrofitting and residential spaces. Some of the traders live on site thus creating an interesting mixture of habitat and commerce. Resources are the limits here; they are optimised to the degree they see fit!
    In spite of the unkempt vicinity, I believe the informal market of souk has more to offer spatially. The very multifunctional layout and diversity shows how a certain logic can derive from man’s dealings.
    My take on the African city is that we should begin to acknowledge and embrace the informal. It should be seen as a major stakeholder if we really want to develop.
    The telephony revolution did not reach full market penetration in Africa; it was taken over by the mobile, which has proved to be one of Africa’s main driving technology forces. It is said that we leapfrogged to the mobile age. I should think one main hindrance for the telephony industry was with the infrastructure backbone needed. With a majority of urban dwellers described as informal settlers they were automatically cut off from such services. The mobile industry on the other hand proved successful because the informal/formal barrier did not exist. Anyone can have a mobile phone. The success stories are evident in Kenya’s biggest informal settlement- Kibera, through the mobile money service Mpesa.
    Current growth rates in Africa are the highest in the world; governments are making good use of this to call for investments.
    One of the major points they stress on is the growing middle class. They are described as the engine of growth.
    I believe however in the Bottom Of the Pyramid (BOP) as the real engine. Embracing them and the industries they so easily create will go a long way to improve upon issues for development.
    Spatial-wise, I think cities should begin to embrace the informal by integrating them in a sustainable manner. They can take a cue from the very ways the inhabitant of the informal optimises resources.
    To sum up, from a democratic perspective it will be just to give the silent informal majority a fair hearing and sharing. They could be our passports to development.

    Neindow Hassan Yakubu
    Student & Urban Researcher.

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i discuss issues affecting cities around the world with a specific interest on developing countries.

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