The upcoming film Afripedia showcases the strengths and chaos of an urbanizing Africa.

Clean, organized, and well-planned: A lot of urbanization of the remaining 21st century won't behave that way. That's because it will be happening in African cities. The continent's urban population will triple by 2050, according to the U.N., inflating at the fastest rate in the world. And it will be chaotic: Slums will grow, city borders will sprawl, and transportation infrastructure projects will still never fully decongest cities with highly mobile populations. But this urban chaos will manifest into a powerful tool for self-identity.

James R. Brennan, a historian at the University of Illinois who specializes in Africa, has characterized African cities as being in the midst of a "post-normative" transition. No blueprint exists for what's to come. The incremental urban planning of New York City can't be applied to a city like Kampala, Uganda, where the annual population growth is nearly 7 percent, and municipal departments fail to meet even a fraction of basic public services. In the post-normative state, "urbanization is something other than what its planners, leaders, or theorists had intended it to be," explains Brennan. Each new migrant to the city, fresh high-school graduate, and poor street hawker is standing before this blank canvas with their very own set of paint.

In Afripedia, an upcoming documentary produced by Stocktown, we see how young urbanites thrive on this idiosyncratic trajectory. The film follows entrepreneurs and artists from five cities—Nairobi, Johannesburg, Abidjan, Accra, and Luanda. And, as you can see in the recently released trailers, a common theme emerges: African cities are exposing the world to a new narrative about a continent long anchored by stereotypes of poverty and provincialism. "Angola is very, very exciting," explains musician Nástio Mosquito in the film. "This is what we're seeing—development," he says, overlooking a skyline dotted with newly built skyscrapers.

The need for the voices of the young urban entrepreneurs and artists in the film can't be understated. Indeed, African cities will require immense urban planning. Dar es Salaam, population 4 million today, will grow to 7.2 million by 2025. Lagos, Nigeria will swell from 13 million to 18 million over the same period. Public officials must prioritize housing, plumbing, and the rest. Still, the significance of bureaucrats and engineers will prove nominal to how a booming urban population comes to define itself. Rather, the region's creative classes will shape the way its cities—Nairobi, Cape Town, and beyond—shape their identities in an increasingly globalized world.

"We've actively pushed the band as this group of people who are from Africa, but not necessarily your cliché idea of Africa," a Kenyan music producer says in Afripedia.

Uncertainty is part of the beauty of Africa's urban future. Rigid ideas of how Africa should develop and antiquated notions of what an "African identity" is are coming to an end. The vibrant new voices of fast-changing cities will usher in a new era.

'Afripedia' will be released as a feature-length documentary later this year. Learn more about the film here.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    Don’t Throw It Away—Take It to the Repair Cafe

    This series of workshops aims to keep broken items out of the landfill, and it might help you save a few bucks, too.

  2. A view of traffic near Los Angeles.
    Transportation

    How Cars Divide America

    Car dependence not only reduces our quality of life, it’s a crucial factor in America’s economic and political divisions.

  3. Equity

    Bike Advocacy’s Blind Spot

    The biking community is overwhelmingly concerned with infrastructure. For urban anthropologist Adonia Lugo, that’s an equity problem.

  4. Transportation

    Hartford Trains Its Hopes for Renewal on Commuter Rail

    Connecticut’s new Hartford Line isn’t just a train: It’s supposed to be an engine for the capital city’s post-industrial transformation.

  5. Equity

    CityLab University: Inclusionary Zoning

    You’ve seen the term. But do you really know what it means? Here’s your essential primer.