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Urban Sustainability : Lessons from Africa’s Greenest Cities

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Urban Sustainability : Lessons from Africa’s Greenest Cities

Sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing rapid urbanization, outpacing all other continents. Its urban population is expected to reach 600 million by 2030 and 870 million by 2035. Fortunately, African cities are actively embracing sustainability to address the environmental challenges associated with urbanization.

Sustainability and Urban Transition in Africa

Africa’s impending urban transition poses many challenges. These are constraining solutions to the socio-economic and environmental problems of many nations. The fact that hundreds of millions of people live in urban areas has an impact on the continent’s resources and ecosystems. Adopting sustainable and ecological practices is therefore essential for African countries to create cities that are inclusive, resilient, and respectful of the environment.

Key Elements of a Sustainable City

In 2011, the Economist Intelligence Unit launched the Siemens Index of Green Cities in Africa. This case study is based on an assessment of the sustainability of 15 African cities, examining their efforts according to eight environmental criteria:

  • Land Use
  • Transportation
  • Waste management
  • Water management
  • Sanitation
  • Air Quality
  • Environmental Governance
  • Energy and CO2

The results show that no city achieved the maximum score of « well above average ». However, of the 15 cities assessed, 6 achieved above-average scores, while 5 others were just average. On the one hand, this highlights the efforts of some cities and Africa’s ability to move towards sustainability. On the other hand, it suggests that even Africa’s greenest cities could improve their performance.

The study is based on a small sample of green cities in Africa, suggesting that the total number of sustainable cities on the continent is relatively small. Most of the highest-scoring cities are in South Africa and North Africa. Accra, the capital of Ghana, is the only exception in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ranking of the 6 Greenest Cities in Africa

Arcadis, a global consulting and engineering firm, periodically publishes a ranking of the 100 best sustainable cities in the world. Its methodology takes a holistic view of city sustainability, going beyond mere environmental protection and energy efficiency.

The Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index integrates 32 social, environmental, and economic criteria into three main pillars: quality of life, environment, and economic gain. Six African cities stand out in the ranking for their efforts in biodiversity and technological innovation. However, these metropolises are penalized by the challenges of mobility, income inequality, and air pollution, relegating them to the bottom of the ranking.

Cairo, Africa’s Most Sustainable Metropolis

Cairo ranks 86th in the world according to the Arcadis Sustainable Cities 2022 Index. Considered Africa’s greenest city, this metropolis is characterized by its strong public transport network. Cairo has a low per capita energy consumption of just 1.6 MWh per year, compared to the global average of 3.1 MWh, with hydroelectric power accounting for about 20 % of its electricity supply.

Cape Town and Johannesburg

South Africa has the highest number of green cities on the continent. Cape Town ranks second in Africa and 89th in the world. The city boasts vast nature reserves, an attractive coastline, and an efficient public transport system. Johannesburg also makes the list, ranking 97th globally.

Nairobi, the green city in the sun

Also known as the safari capital of the world, Nairobi is ranked 96th in the world. This green city is known for its sustainability efforts, with a notorious energy transition and 70 % use of renewable energy. In 2020, Nairobi ranked 14th out of 40 in Tourlane’s list of green cities. The Kenyan capital hosted the first African Climate Summit, which took place from September 4-6, 2023.

Lagos and Kinshasa are at the bottom of the list

Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria, ranks 99th in the Arcadis Sustainable Cities 2022 Index. Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rounds out the ranking. This city stands out for its connectivity and employment potential. Despite being at the bottom of the global ranking of the 100 greenest cities, Kinshasa asserts itself as a favorable location for business, green finance, and transport projects.

Building a sustainable city: practical environmental approaches

Urban growth in Africa is increasing demand for infrastructure and energy, and generating more waste. Despite the challenges, sustainability is emerging as a key solution. Inspiration from the continent’s greenest cities can guide a gradual and safe transition to sustainability.

Circular Economy, Key Factors in Green Cities

Sustainability revolves around energy transition, carbon reduction, and water security. To build a sustainable metropolis, it is essential to focus on renewable energy, recycling, expansion, and preservation of green spaces. Reforestation not only sequesters carbon but also promotes sustainable food production. Once green energy independence is achieved, attention turns to green public transportation and sustainable housing.

Establishing green policies

Many African countries, including Seychelles and Mauritius, are dependent on tourism, making their economies vulnerable. Promoting responsible tourism is essential to building green, sustainable cities in Africa. Naturally, reducing the negative impact on the environment is a priority for responsible tourism. This policy aims to reduce carbon footprints, assess environmental impacts, and encourage tourism businesses to minimize pollution while preserving biodiversity. In Cape Town, this approach is already bearing fruit, with the city winning the title of « Best Destination in Africa » for two consecutive years.

Municipalities are also required to develop urban plans that include comprehensive road planning to improve air quality. Efficient road design standards must also be established, taking into account the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. This approach will also incorporate mixed-use developments that encourage the use of non-motorized transportation. According to data from 911 cities in 114 countries in 2020, the average proportion of the world’s urban area devoted to streets and public open spaces is around 16 %. This is well below the UN-Habitat recommendation of 30 % for roads and an additional 10 %15 % for public open space.

Rwanda and its « Green City Kigali » project

Rwanda is actively committed to urban sustainability and aims to have 35 % of its population living in cities by 2024. A leader in renewable energy, the country is promoting solar, hydropower, biogas, and geothermal energy to increase energy security and reduce its carbon footprint. Having increased access to electricity from 10 % to 60 % between 2010 and 2020, the country aims to achieve universal access by 2024, with at least 48 % coming from renewable sources.

Rwanda is building the continent’s first green city, the 600-hectare Green City Kigali project, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. The project is expected to benefit some 150,000 people, including 30,000 homes and the potential creation of 16,000 jobs. The Rwandan capital also proposes renewable energy, sustainable transportation, waste management, water conservation, biodiversity protection, and green governance.

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