Track Leader:    Roberto Rocco (

Track organizers:  

Giulia Gualtieri

Stephanie Idon

Jakob Schmidt

Kya Sands Informal Settlement, Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Roberto Rocco.

Through the discussion of cases, the launching of a book and a round table, this track aims to discuss how Africa is addressing its slums. Urbanisation in Africa is currently the greatest driver of development in the continent, but several authors point at the unsustainable way through which urbanisation is happening, with informal urbanisation being a large part of all urbanisation processes. Around the world, approximately 1/3 of all urban dwellers live in informal settlements of varying degrees of precariousness. In Africa this figure is thought to be much higher. Different national and local governments have very different attitudes towards informal settlements and towards the rights of informal settlers. The “winding road to citizenship” often starts with migration from deprived rural environments to cities, where citizens are able to demand positive rights connected to a more robust understanding of what citizenship means. Access to healthy, safe, and inclusive living spaces is an important element in this struggle. This track explores these ideas in relation to how national and local governemnts react to and answer those demands.

There are big challenges when discussing urbanisation in Africa. While many seem to see urbanisation as an opportunity for development (SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda), since many countries in the African continent are still predominantly rural, others think the discussion should also include how to manage rural communities in order to provide them with services and opportunities that would somehow “slow down” the process of urbanisation in the continent, leaving more breathing space for national governments to develop strategies of sustainable inclusive urbanisation. 

The size and the scale of urbanization processes is a common defining element in Africa. According to Hoornweg (2016), in 100 years from now, African cities will be the largest cities in the world. While the largest cities in 2006 were Tokyo, Mexico, Mumbai, New York and São Paulo, the three largest metropolises in 2100 will be Lagos, Kinshasa and Dar-es-Salaam, with Kharoum and Diamey coming in 6thand 7thplaces.  

Such speed of urbanisation is taking a toll on African governments’ ability to steer sustainable inclusive development that harnesses the benefits of urbanisation. The World Bank emphasizes that “investments in African cities’ infrastructure, industrial, and commercial structures have not kept pace with concentration of people, nor have investments in affordable formal housing.  The potential for coordinated investments in infrastructure, residential, and commercial structures is great, which will enhance agglomeration economies and connect people with jobs” (World Bank, 2017). 

In this framework, informal urbanization fills the gap of providing African rural to urban immigrants with a foothold in the city, from where they start the winding road to full citizenship and access to the public goods that this entails.

By informal urbanisation we mean the informal unregulated spontaneous processes of urbanisation that happen mostly (but not only) in countries of the Global South resulting from economic and social exclusion of groups or communities.

We do not dispute the many positive aspects of informal urbanisation: it is a gateway to the city, it is a force from grassroots and it is able to create strong communities and provide families with livelihoods. The entrepreneurship of people in informal settlements is remarkable and many informal settlements around the world are the source of employment, culture and hopes. However, we wish to dispel any doubt that informal urbanisation has several drawbacks. In the way it happens in most countries, informal urbanisation is unsustainable in the long run. More often than not, it has not been able to provide most households with a decent living environment. Many informal settlements around the world face unimaginable environmental, social and economic challenges.

Improvement only happens when there is concerted collective action between the public sector, the private sector and civil society (not least, citizens themselves) in order to deliver improvements to informal communities in the form of better housing, services, sanitation, infrastructure, public space and so on. We recognize the importance of understanding the processes behind informal urbanization, as well as its relationships with other issues such as poverty, gender discrimination, social segregation and economic inequality.

Spatial planning and design are sadly failing to deliver sustainable solutions that address the needs and wishes of citizens living in informal settlements. This track discusses the attitudes, policies and projects that aim to improve, urbanize and incorporate informal settlements into African cities.