African Alternatives

Within the next four decades, the African city population will almost triple. Currently, more than half of the urban population of sub-Saharan Africa lives in slums. Open the curtain to discover two possible futures. Will the African city become ‘smart’ for the privileged few? Or is it possible to think of a wiser and more inclusive future?


Africa’s urban population is expected to triple between 2010 and 2050, reaching 1.2 billion people. The continent will overtake Eastern Asia as the region with the largest urban population in the world. Most of Africa’s urban population live in small cities, which are likely to undergo significant expansion in the coming decades. The scale of development required to accommodate this growth is monumental, and for the most part it is following a car-oriented intensive path. African cities represent the single biggest opportunity for the development of post-fossil cities, and cannot be ignored when envisioning our urban future. These cities have the potential to adopt radically different approaches to development that learn from the successes and mistakes of the rest of the world, and combine these learnings with local wisdom to create inspiring cities that lead us into a post-fossil future.

But first, we must acknowledge the current reality. While most citizens in European cities take infrastructure like piped water and electricity for granted, the same cannot be said in the cities of Sub-Saharan Africa, where over 60% of the population lives in slums. Many governments find it easier to exclude these people from the definition of ‘the city’ that they serve, leaving slum dwellers with no guarantee of meeting their basic needs and no prospects for the future. They experience a daily struggle to access water, energy and food in the midst of extremely uncomfortable, unhealthy and often dangerous living environments. As a prelude to envisioning the Post-Fossil African City, our installation brings to the fore some of the harsh realities of urban life in Africa using a dramatic 'status quo' scene.

This image portrays a street scene from a fictional African city. One can almost hear the sounds of the chaotic intersection — the honking horns of dilapidated cars, the conversations between people and the sounds of street dogs fighting over food. The sky is thick with the stench of exhaust fumes and smoke from the burning of wood and charcoal, while coal fired power stations belch out clouds in the distance. In the absence of services, residents resort to innovative and often illegal means of survival. Makeshift wires connect some to the electricity grid, risking the lives of others in the process. Unroadworthy vehicles provide unreliable, unsafe and often overpriced connections to places of work. A lack of piped water creates a gap for informal vendors and entrepreneurs to sell water at high rates, while poor sanitation threatens the health of residents. Informal settlements extend as far as the eye can see, and are likely to continue to do so unless something changes. In the exhibition, this 'status quo' image is printed on a semi-translucent curtain, indicating a temporary situation through which one can catch glimpses of something intriguing ahead. The viewer is invited to lift this curtain to experience two possible futures: the ‘smart city’ and the ‘wise city’.

The smart city represents a vision of the future akin to those crafted by multinational technology companies and real estate developers, aimed at positioning African cities as a new space of opportunity for the world’s elite. This is a city of high security enclaves served by “smart” technologies that seamlessly integrate renewable energy, robotics and private mobility to optimise the convenience of those who can afford to live there. In order to protect the safe and sanitary environment enjoyed by its users, security checkpoints are a way of life. The poor are relegated to living in unserviced informal settlements between wind turbines on the urban edge, or begging on the streets (when they manage to sneak into the city). This city may combine best practice from around the world, but largely ignores what the local context has to offer. Although the modernity and ambition of this city stirs pride in many residents, its promises of a better future for all are hollow as it does little to improve the lives of those living in ever-expanding slums.

In contrast, the wise city represents a more inclusive vision, centred on meeting the needs of all income groups. This is an egalitarian city, where affordable housing is located close to work opportunities to reduce the time and costs of commuting. This is a city teeming with owner operated stores and markets, instead of big name retailers and shopping malls. Free public wifi and fast data connections allow citizens to educate themselves, to innovate, and to participate actively in the local, regional and global economy. Instead of private cars, an extensive network of cycle lanes facilitates low cost mobility, and allows entrepreneurs to move people and goods through the city via pedal-powered vehicles. For longer journeys, a network of trams provides safe, reliable and affordable transit. Energy efficiency is optimised through passive design, and renewable energy is generated throughout the city. Energy sources include significant amounts of biomass grown on the roofs and facades of buildings, which is harvested and converted into fuels. A city-wide network of greenery allows indigenous ecosystems to flourish, helping to cool and purify the air whilst providing habitats for indigenous birds and small creatures. These ecosystems extend skywards through the green facades of forest-like buildings that make innovative use of sustainable construction materials and technologies to minimise environmental impact. Higher densities free up fertile land on the urban edge for agriculture, making fresh food affordable for the city’s residents.

These images are not intended to dictate what African cities should be like, but rather to act as a reminder of the need for innovation in developing world contexts, and to stimulate discussions about how the transition from fossil fuels might be used as an opportunity to uplift the poorest of the poor. Our dream is that they will serve as the starting point for an Africa-wide exhibition that assembles the sustainable city visions of artists and urbanists from across the continent. This exhibition would travel around Africa, exposing citizens to new ideas that help them to question assumptions about what cities should be like, and add momentum to a transition toward a better future for all urban dwellers.

About the makers

Blake Robinson
Karl Schulschenk

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