How to build a city in Africa

News - 09 April 2019

Natural repopulation combined with mass migration to cities has rapidly increased the speed of urbanization in Africa. Those who leave the countryside in search of opportunities often end up in self-built settlements that lack basic facilities. This creates congested cities where ‘public’ services are often inaccessible and as a result developers and investors have been building an increasing number of so-called ‘New Towns’ – settlements that are built from scratch and in a short period of time, often using Asian or American planning models. In the book ‘To Build a City in Africa - A History and a Manual’, the authors discuss 146 examples of those New Towns that were built between 1960 – 2018 across the African continent, and offer 10 key principles for future New Towns.     

New Towns are urban developments constructed on previously unbuilt, ‘greenfield’ sites. They exhibit some degree of political autonomy, and generally have more than 10,000 residents. New Towns are also constructed from planning documents (Master Plans) developed at a specific moment in time. Because of this, they reflect a single vision for the future – a future that may or may not come to pass.    


Although New Towns in the developed world have been relatively well researched, this is not yet the case for Africa. As urbanisation is taking place in such a high pace in Africa, researchers from Delft University of Technology, the International  New Town Institute and UN-Habitat decided that it was time for a closer look at African New Towns.

In To Build a City in Africa the authors explore the complex implications of these new developments through interviews with different stakeholders, in-depth case studies of five African New Towns, and essays that elaborate specific issues connected to these New Towns. An Atlas places these developments within a broader geographical and historical context, examining related aspects such as fertility, mortgage rates, and car ownership.


The authors lined up 146 African New Towns on a timeline, and saw that after 1990 a continent-wide shift towards more neoliberal economic policies took place, resulting in an increase in privately-developed cities, eco-cities and resort cities in Africa (see graph below). 

In addition, a shift has been taking place from mixed-income development to higher-end development. As New Towns are becoming increasingly popular, and their development is often led by private and international developers, this is leading to spatial segregation, a lack of public transit, and a lack of (quality) public space and of housing stock diversity. New Towns may also ‘drain’ its surrounding lands, increasing the risk of flooding and drought.

Key principles for development

As ‘To Build a City in Africa’ is not only about learning from the past, but also about translating the challenges into potentials, the authors have formulated a set of planning principles to guide commercial developers and public planning departments in the development of future New Towns. Among others, they sketch the advantages of not treating city development as a product, as a city’s development is never completed. In addition, they stress the importance to start from the existing landscape. Recommendations are also made on the topics of infrastructure, the need for diversity, and on public transit, among others. 

More information

The book To Build a City in Africa: A History and a Manual was  presented at the African Perspectives conference at Delft University of Technology’s Faculty or Architecture from 27-29 March.

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