Components of a City

Africa is experiencing a rapid rate of urbanization never seen before in human history (World Bank, 2015). People are migrating to the cities in search of greener pastures (Giddings, 2007). Unlike other parts of the world during times like this, this urbanization is not matched with economic growth (World Bank, 2015). The outcomes are increasingly unlivable cities. Lagos increases by 86 people every hour (Vanguard, 2017). African cities are littered with urban slums and informal settlements. (Wondimu, 2011).

What makes a city great?

And how can African cities catch up with the demands of the rapid urbanization?



The most fundamental element of the city is the people. What makes great cities is the high level of connectedness and shared amenities that bring about a cohesive co-existence. Great cities are designed bearing the flow of the people — their day-to-day activities — in mind. African cities have the highest level of the young population in the world, but the cities are yet to maximize the full potential of the burgeoning young population.



Every great city has something it’s known for. There’s something about Shanghai that sets it apart from Pune for example. Africa has a very rich culture, but the cities are yet to tap into this originality to create really remarkable cities. On the other hand, cultural diversity is very common in African cities; however, the cities are yet to reach a level of cohesiveness where these cultures harmonize into greater economic unifier.



A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. (Greek Proverb). Cities are organic things that can only be defined in time. Many great cities have suffered setbacks and yet come back stronger. Rome has been trashed by barbarians a number of times. Lots of cities — like Chicago — has been burned to the ground, and yet came back stronger. However, many African cities are yet to plan with posterity in mind. A city ought to have a vision it is working towards.


The dynamics of every city is controlled by a set of demand-and-supply.

What are the prevailing activities?

Commerce, Industry, Government?

These, on one hand, determine the lifestyle in the city and the social dynamics playing out. On the other hand, these determine the amount of investment the city is able to attract. A primary determinant here is the governmental policies in place. This affects the risk perception of investment, as well as the confidence undergirding entrepreneurial activities.



Many African cities lack stable policies (Eziyi, 2011). This tends to change as administrations come in and go. Without consistent and supportive policies in place, there will be a lack of perceived stability. Without stability, cities cannot attract capable investors that spur the economic progress and social impact of the city. Therefore a starting point for African cities to catch up with the growing demands is to instill stable policies.



According to McKinsey & Company, Cities Special Initiative (CSI) 2013 Report: “How to Make a City Great”, every city has to identify a competitive cluster thriving in it. Cities are made up of diverse cross-sector activities: Housing, Health, Transport, Telecom etc. African Cities need to support and create an enabling environment for competitive clusters to maximize growth.



Every great city has been able to strategically attract the right investment or business. This starts with the city investing in enablers — be it Supporting Infrastructure, be it the Right Policies, be it Training Programs. Financing can come from foreign investors, local investors/entrepreneurs, government etc. Regardless, without adequate finance, competitive clusters cannot thrive.


While the intangible socio-economic factors set the tone for the demand and supply, every great city is defined by the physical dimension. These control the direction and rate of development.

What is the land ownership structure in the city?

How easy is it to acquire good land at a good location?

What is the existing support infrastructure in place?

Great cities have been able to simplify the process involved in acquiring and making use of these physical elements.



In many African cities, the land is a government property or is owned by a select few individuals in the city. A good example is in Ghana (World Bank, 2015). To add to that, the process of land acquisition — especially in primal locations — in many African cities is enough to discourage developers. Worst of all is the exorbitant cost of land in many African Cities. Without access to a reasonably-priced land in African cities, development will be stalled.



Local materials and natural resources are enablers in every economy. Refining these resources reduces the cost of importation, creates jobs and generates value-added tax for the government. However, in many African Cities, most of the activities are carried out with imported materials; whereas the existing resources are exported in unrefined forms — perhaps from the rural areas, further reducing the potential for industries and intra-city trades.



Similar to reasonably-priced land, support infrastructure boosts development activities (Wondimu, 2011). The availability of good roads, electricity, water supply etc. in an area will attract activities from private developers, unlike when they have to provide them by themselves. Oftentimes, the infrastructures can be found in the central part of African cities, whereas the outskirts and suburbs suffer immensely. Ironically, it is harder to secure land in central areas.


City life is mostly defined by commute to-and-from work, and then spending the better part of the day at work. If there is anything that makes life bearable, it is spending less time in transit, as well as humane workplaces. Great cities have been able to create efficient/diversified shared transportation systems — ranging from the subways to land transport systems.

Great cities have also been planned such that workers are not so much displaced from their place of work, due to unaffordable housing/standard of living.



An efficient transport system is one in which you can commute around the city in a shared transport system, without having to trek long distances. This is far from the case in most African cities. On the other hand, the need for car ownership is gradually being questioned, considering the amount of space parking consumes in cities and the traffic it causes. For African cities to embrace the Uber concept, it will take a more cultural approach than technological.



Many city dwellers spend much more than 40-hour-week at work. In some really congested cities, one has to wake up early in the morning and come back late at night; and the cycle continues. Therefore, it is paramount that workplaces be designed more for employee comfort, than just utilitarian. This is even more necessary because an employee can perform best when happy and comfortable. This is a major challenge in cities…



A common situation in most African cities is a majority of the workers living in outskirts, but working in city centers. Well-planned cities mix both luxury and affordable housing all across the city. This helps to curb the long commute distance — and all the risks and stress involved. For African cities to tackle this, it will take Public-Private Partnerships. At the minimum, the former provides the infrastructure, while the latter provides the mix of houses.


Cities have been known to produce the highest amount of carbon gasses and pollution. This, in turn, poses health risks to the inhabitants and neighboring cities. Great cities have been able to devise great waste management systems.

According to Mckinney 2013 Report, this can sometimes be enforced by Pricing, Information, and Regulation.

Sustainability also entails the use of green elements, horizontal elements and sustainable materials in construction.

Sustainability also has to do with the location of buildings and facilities.



Gas emissions from petrol and diesel have proliferated African cities — be it from vehicles or electricity generators. These create a serious health risk for city dwellers — as well as global warming. Such innovations as the use of electric vehicles, noiseless solar inverters, are sustainable solutions to reduce the rate of carbon emissions in African cities. A steady/stable power supply will also eliminate the need for generators.



A little journey away from many African cities will reveal the number of untapped resources — like wood — that is not being refined for construction. Numerous studies have revealed the adverse effects of concrete — both to the soil and to the building inhabitants. On the other hand, studies have also revealed that wooden finish has a very soothing feeling on inhabitants. In essence, African cities can make better use of wood and other sustainable materials to create more soothing, sustainable, greener cities.



An indirect sustainability factor of every great city is city planning. Locating the right elements in the right places ensures sustainability. Industrial zones are clearly separated from residential zones. Waste disposal system is properly designed and defined. Same with leisure, parking etc. While great cities are connected and cohesive, they also ensure activities don’t affect the livelihood of city dwellers. All these boil down to city planning.


The role of technology in recent times cannot be understated. A very fundamental challenge with developing economies is the lack of enough data to make informed decisions. That is one of the numerous gaps that technology can easily be leveraged to fill.

A lot of functions in the city can be automated using technology — bringing about immense savings in the process.

Great cities have also leveraged technology to carry the inhabitants along. This can be through online polls or mobile apps.

Technology can also be utilized to enhance security, track progress etc.



African cities lack enough data or information to make informed decisions — or come up with functional policies. With the use of Geospatial Data, cities can begin to put in place the right systems, structures, and people to harness these data to come up with better policies. Information about inhabitants, buildings and locations can be centralized and monitored to ensure progress and safety.



With the rise of Artificial Intelligence and Internet-of-things, technology can be leveraged to ease tracking and reporting functions. Surveillance Systems, Infrastructure Monitoring etc. — all these can harness the power of AI and IOT. These easily extend to populate the city data. Various functional technology systems in the city can also be programmed using AI — such as the street lights — bringing about cost and energy savings in the process.



Recall that the most fundamental element of the city is the people. Technology can be utilized to carry city dwellers along via apps. This could range from reporting ailing systems to voting on a decision, to seeking help. With the right infrastructure in place, African cities can begin to unleash the power of technology to create more liveable and united cities. This also builds up to the city data.


After the original planning of the city, the plan has to be executed and maintained. Great cities have a city mayor with a team dedicated to serving the city dwellers. It is imperative that the value chain involved in the execution and maintenance of the city be highly integrated. This entails involving all the professions and sectors involved.

According to Mckinney 2013 Report, great cities have learned to

Do More With Less.

This entails Partnerships, Investment Accounting etc.



Integrated delivery here entails harmonizing the various stakeholders into a process that collaboratively harnesses their talents and insights to optimize project results, increase value, reduce waste, and maximize efficiency. This would ideally come in the form of Public-Private-Partnerships whereby various stakeholders bring their expertise, under a collaborative environment and shared values.



To minimize wastes — especially on construction projects, it has become necessary to carry out most of the activities — up to 90% — in a conditioned offsite environment. This ensures quality and predictability, as well as save time and labor. For African cities to employ integrated delivery with prefabrication technology, they ought to create enabling policies and invest in the right infrastructure and competitive clusters.



Both integrated delivery and prefabrication employ lean methodology/principles. A principal ideology underlying lean methodology is minimizing waste. For African cities to do more with less, they have to set up transparent structures and systems — enough to bring problems to the surface when they occur. Most African cities are currently wrought with bureaucratic, disintegrated value chain.


Cities are organic and will continue to evolve with time. Great cities have experienced highs and lows. However, great cities are led by visionary leaders who always communicate the vision with the city dwellers.

According to Mckinney 2013 Report, to achieve the set vision, they have to Win Support for Change. This they do by forming a Performing Team, building a Culture of Accountability amongst the city dwellers and forging a Stakeholder Consensus.

When city dwellers feel the impact of the management, they will support the actualization of the vision.



Most African cities don’t even have a dedicated leadership for the city, let alone defining the vision of the city. Without a defined vision for the city, it will be hard to harness the uniqueness and the competitive advantage of the city. For African cities to be great, they need dedicated leaders capable of achieving Smart Growth (without affecting the well-being of inhabitants), Do More With Less and Win Support for Change.



African cities need systems that are conducive for development. Such systems will Integrate Environmental Thinking and Insist on an Opportunity for All. Such systems will Adopt a Strategic Approach and Plan for Change. Therefore, the system needs to be flexible, so as to adapt to the dynamic global economy. For African cities to be great, they need to employ the strengths of both the public and private sectors — and even foreign aids and investments.



African cities need to utilize Smart City Technology to unleash their potentials. With modern tools and processes — such as Building Information Modeling(BIM) and Geography Information System (GIS), they can better plan, deliver and manage the cities. With technology such as AI/IOT, City Apps etc., they can curate city data and harness the inputs of city dwellers.

With the availability of such data, they can make more informed decisions and make the cities even greater.

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***Adapted from Blaze Monthly Digest – February 2019.

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