Don't worry, African cities can cope. AP Photo/Michael Duff

New population figures paint a difficult picture for African cities. But there's more to the story than sheer numbers.

Numbers continue to stack up against the world’s poorest continent.

Global population levels are expected to increase from a current figure of 7.2 billion to nearly 11 billion by 2100, according to figures released Thursday by the U.N. Previously, it was believed the world’s population would peak at around 9.5 billion. Nearly all of this new growth, meanwhile, will occur in Africa, which is expected to quadruple in size.

It’s unknown how many of these three billion additional people will funnel into cities, but the continent’s urbanization rates are among the highest in the world. And many policymakers predicted a strained future for Africa’s urban centers even prior to this new information.

“The ability of African cities to cope with these numbers is questionable since they generally lack the institutional and infrastructural capacity to absorb the additional urban dwellers,” the U.N.’s housing authority reported earlier this year. The 2014 State of African Cities report adds that “massive population growth in a context of wide-spread poverty … generate[s] complex and interrelated threats to the human habitat.”

      Global population growth this century will occur almost exclusively in Africa. (Science)

In many ways, accounts of urban squalor have become the outfacing image of 21st century poverty in Africa. Destitute communities of informal housing and labor cling to the outskirts of underdeveloped cities, some argue, bolstered by the continent’s burgeoning population. These new projections will surely fit into that frame: Africa’s overly burdened, extremely young, comparatively impoverished, and ethnically diverse cities are destined for a new barrage of urban struggle, right?

Maybe not. In fact, the significance of these figures may be hugely overblown.

“Everybody who’s remotely professionally involved in this kind of stuff knows that beyond about 10, 15, 20 years, [population estimates] are basically useless,” says Dr. Sean Fox of the University of Bristol in the U.K. Fox, an urban geographer that specializes in Africa, emphasizes that U.N. population forecasts are highly regarded among demographers around the world. And new calculation methods make these estimates more transparent than previous efforts. Nonetheless, century-long population projections are hampered by two incompatible challenges: Urban planners and social scientists, he says, “demand for the big picture in the long-run,” yet mapping demographic trends of an urbanized and globalized world is an imprecise practice. So using them to foster a singular, often apocalyptic conclusion about Africa’s urban future is the wrong course of action, says Malini Ranganathan, an urbanism expert at American University in Washington, D.C.

“The sort of alarmism around the population numbers alone needs to be substantiated and tempered,” Ranganathan says.

“It’s not as if I’m saying we shouldn’t be number-centric at all,” she says, “but we should really balance that out with a deeper understanding of global consumption patterns and ask, ‘What is the number story missing?’”

Fertility rates, key to estimating population growth, vary tremendously across Africa. (UN)

What’s lost among figures indicating that Africa will mushroom from 1 billion people to 4 billion is the continent’s diversity. Population growth, and ultimately urban growth, will vary tremendously across the continent. Fertility rates, for example, crucial for predicting population trends, are already highly lopsided. As the figure above demonstrates, women living in southern Africa are giving birth to roughly the same number of children as American women. Rates in central Africa, on the other hand, are twice as high as the global average.

The new U.N. report, however, does attempt to case its conclusions in caution. The authors claim their results “[do] not imply unprecedented population density” in Africa come 2100. By then, the continent will likely be as dense as present-day China, a rate of 146 people per square kilometer according to the World Bank. (the U.S. has a density level of 35 people per square kilometer.)

Yet even within this effort to dull the notion that Africa’s cities are destined for catastrophe, a paradox emerges. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, present-day density rates are already larger than China’s. Moreover, the U.N. estimates with 90 percent certainty that Nigeria’s population will increase threefold by 2100. Also, Nigeria will likely boast one of the world’s youngest population bases by the end of the century. Density in Africa overall may not be “unprecedented," eighty years from now, as the U.N. suggests, but it could be in Nigeria.

     Africa's population will grow exponentially by 2100, thanks in large part to Nigeria. (Science)

As one can see, population forecasts can paint the African continent and its countries in confusing and broad-brush generalizations. Certain demographic results may position the continent as inherently doomed. In others, there may be “marginal optimism.”

“The population-centric viewpoint tends to homogenize Africa, and that’s a real problem with the understandings of Africa,” says Ranganathan. Some coastal West African countries like Senegal, Cameroon, and Ghana face severe housing and employment crises in their growing cities. Wealthier countries like Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana, on the other hand, face unique concerns in their urban centers. “Sure, you want to know what are the likely aggregate, ballpark figures that are going to grow. But that only takes you down one road. And that road doesn’t go very far,” Ranganathan adds.

Urban policymakers need to take notice of the hundreds of millions who will one day populate Africa’s cities. Yet urban needs, like future population growth, are best understood on a country-to-country basis. Projecting "Africa" in its entirety can only be so helpful.     

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