"Mallification" in Africa - Reflections from January 2016 Visit

Faith Taylor's picture

This was my second trip to sub-Saharan Africa as part of the Urban ARK project, and quite a different experience to the first. This trip was mainly to attend the Urban ARK open science conference and meetings with various stakeholders.


As a result, I spent much of my time flitting between hotels, restaurants and offices, and generally living a very modern life quite far removed from the dirt roads and shanty buildings I had initially envisaged work in Kenya and Malawi might be like (at one point in Nairobi, I even uttered the words “shall we get an Uber to our AirBnB?”!). Yet, there was a lot to be learned from experiencing life in modern, middle-class Eastern Africa. 

One thing that repeatedly was mentioned in the Urban ARK open science meetings, and something we experienced first-hand was the rapid growth of Western-style shopping malls, and what this might mean for risk. This was something that crossed my mind at several points on the trip: as I tucked into a “Marylane Chicken” in a shiny new shopping mall in Lilongwe, as we got stuck in traffic on a highway due to flooding in our shiny new 4×4 in Nairobi and as I sat in a shiny new hotel room on the 7th floor of a tower block and thought about what might happen if an earthquake occurred while I was there. 

Until now, I had thought of most of the risk of natural and technological hazards being concentrated in informal settlements – where the dangers such as building on river banks, access to water and sanitation, and illegal electricity connections are very visible. But, as the Urban ARK ARUP team illustrated from their research, there are large numbers of new developments across East African cities (be those malls, apartments, highways or other), and often the thinking of how these individual developments contribute to the urban fabric of a city is not always joined-up. For instance, for each new shopping mall or residential tower block built, there may not necessarily be a proportional increase in the capacity of the sewer systems or municipal waste collection, which might have knock-on implications for flooding in the immediate vicinity, and solid waste contamination at the city scale. With rates of urbanisation around the 3-4% mark across much of Africa, many towns and cities have the potential to approximately double in population over the next 25 years. So, thinking about this patchwork of new developments, established areas and informal settlements at the city scale, and how these might grow, change and interact is important for developing healthy, resilient cities in the coming decades.

Perhaps the most obvious candidates for thinking of cities as a patchwork of areas and systems is the urban planner. Yet, as Sue Parnell from UCT emphasised during the Urban ARK conference, a recent UN Habitat Report found that there are 0.97 accredited planners per 100,000 people in Africa, compared to 37.63 planners per 100,000 in the UK. In a worst case scenario, a planning office in an African city may be under-staffed, challenged by rapid rates of urbanisation, limited access to data and technology to inform and limited in capacity to regulate and enforce. Certainly not all planning offices in Africa are like this, and we as Urban ARK are particularly keen to celebrate and share stories of success, but I think it a useful starting point when thinking about developing tools and methodologies for addressing urban risk.

One way we are trying to approach this problem is by developing the concept of “urban textures” as a way to roughly delineate different areas of a city by their different types of built environment. From this point, we can then think about how each “urban texture” might receive hazards differently (e.g., a flood would have different impacts on a shopping mall compared to an informal settlement) and also how these textures might change over time and interact (e.g., an informal settlement neighbouring a shopping mall might experience a flood differently as opposed to an informal settlement that neighbours a forest). We are trying to do this in a way that capitalises on the growing body of free and open source datasets and software available, with the idea of developing a tool that could be generally applied across many towns and cities in Africa, and help various stakeholders to think about risk of single and multiple hazards across a city.

Certainly, there is a lot of work to be done over the next two years, but a great team of African and European scientists to work towards those goals with!