Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tale of an African City


Cities. So much of our modern mythology is tied up in them - Gotham, Metropolis, The City of Angels, dark and dire Glasgow, sinking Venice, catacombs in Paris or sailing in Sydney; hell, London and New York probably set the scene for more than half our modern literature. So why, then, are cities strangely absent from our current discourse on sustainability in Africa - a topic very much a part of our immediate story? What is it that puts land and agriculture, large capital projects like dams and power stations (renewable or otherwise) and conservation (as important as they are) at the forefront of our efforts when so many of the drivers of the consumerist urge that turns the handles on the machine are in our cities? How did we miss them, these hungry beasts, growing daily and showcasing the best, and the worst, of humanity?

Well, the why's and wherefores aren't really the topic here, but rather, a discussion of how African cities are the pointy end of sustainability, the places in which either we will get it "right"; or we won't. "It" being our species' ability to shift from small communities that have worked before to large ones (that typically haven't). And when I say work, I mean work in the sense of resources, of human connections, of creativity, of experience, of spirit, of lifestyles, of beautiful, functional and present ecosystems and real upliftment from poverty.

I'm going to discuss some of the reasons our cities don't currently work; from how they are planned to keep people in boxes (little boxes, made of ticky tacky), to how they make people reliant on motor vehicles and the oil industry to how they are underpinned by centrally controlled services. These things: planning, transport and service infrastructure are at the heart of my approach to Africa's cities.

And why Africa? Well, most developed cities have sunk so much into the current models for service infrastructure, transport and planning that to re-imagine them represents an insurmountable waste of capital expense, and furthermore and admission of failure in design. Our modern cities are predicated on linear resource flows and some have even perfected them. How difficult then to shut down expensive, working systems (no matter how mis-guided) in preference for the unknown - decentralised systems without the hand of big brother controlling from above.

On the other hand, Africa's cities have not yet chosen a path. The old (in years and thinking) infrastructure is broken and there now exists the chance to re-imagine our cities without the huge opportunity cost of abandoning old ways faced by our rich global neighbors. It is the very fact of our disfunction that I believe gives us the opportunity to get it right here; at the pointy end of sustainability.

This discussion will run in three sections: service infrastructure and resource efficiency, transport and mobility, and finally planning and community. I hope you will engage with me and help develop these ideas further.

1. Service Infrastructure and Resource Efficiency

So, first infrastructure. African cities are critically hobbled by current infrastructure along the European model - started by Rome and perfected over the millennia. Poor maintenance, poor investment and lack of skills and accountability in government have all assisted in our basic services not reaching the majority of citizens and even those that do being woefully inadequate. In my home country, South Africa, this very lack of service delivery has resulted in extensive civil unrest as the expectations of political freedom leading to into economic freedom have not been achieved. Equally, one of the major backlogs in delivering low-cost housing, another political bug-bear, is the difficulty in rolling out water, power and sewer infrastructure fast enough - we can build houses faster than we can service them.

Further to failing these social servicing requirements, our cities are resource black holes: transported with oil, tons of material and food flow in to build and feed; millions of joules of energy are sucked through grids from dirty power stations to keep the lights on and millions of litres of fresh water are pumped from ever larger dams to keep us clean, cool and hydrated.

In some ways our cities appear to be designed specifically to take nutrients out of the earth, fresh water out of our rivers and deposit them into our lakes and oceans using vast amounts of fossilized sunlight while all the time degrading the very systems which provide these things in the first place. This seems to be a system ill-suited to realizing our dreams for the places we create.

One of the core responses to the resources dilemma is to mimic one of the complex systems that we do know works: ecological systems. Two of the principles which typify functioning ecological systems are to use cyclical systems with feedback loops and to decentralise core functions for resilience. The design response to these challenges lies in scaling infrastructure such that the nested systems which they can support are enabled in such a way that waste products are eliminated and there is no single point of failure. Key to this is the analysis of whole systems; in the words of Bill Reed "If it's smaller than a watershed (catchment area), then you can't talk about 'sustainability'".

So, where do the opportunities start to show themselves. Firstly on the water front: our cities do not have to deplete or pollute fresh water resources. We have the technology to collect, treat and re-use all our waste water. By decentralising water treatment, we open opportunities for nutrient recovery, which can in turn be used for biogas energy production or local agriculture (thus reducing some of the demand for centrally produced food). Localised agriculture thus becomes a water treatment question as well as one of health, eco-system functionality and poverty alleviation when community gardens provide both a dietary and income alternative to communities. Wetlands are another waste-water treatment mechanism with multiple benefits - treatment of storm water run-off and grey-water from buildings coupled with the introduction on biodiversity hotspots into our urban spaces. Sewerage treatment can be done through high-tech packaged treatment plants or low-tech composting toilets. All in all, by re-thinking our approach to water, energy, sewage treatment and food, and recognizing that they are in fact a single complex system, we can start to re-imagine our cities' water cycles.

Another key system for re-imagination is our approach to energy: currently a case of distant fossil fuel combustion for local electricity consumption. With the agreed end-game being a solar society based on an integrated renewable energy grid, there are many steps along the way.

The first of these recognises that large scale power generation is only about 20% efficient - 80% of all the thermal energy is lost as waste heat. This is criminal, especially as a significant at portion of that 20% is then used to generate thermal energy down the track for heating and cooling. One mechanism for capturing this is to decentralise power generation through combustion using clean burning fuels (natural gas, bio-diesel, biogas or biomass) and capturing the waste heat for use in hot water generation, space heating or cooling (via an absorption chiller). This allows us to re-imagine our energy loops from single purpose electricity systems to multipurpose electricity, heating and cooling mixes which optimise the nested thermal opportunities of power generation. When these systems are linked with biogas and biomass from local water treatment or agricultural by-products, the cross-links get closer and the resilience improves. Just like natural systems.

Of course the development of smart energy grids, which can balance thermal and electrical loads and storage requirements across an urban space will also be critical in balancing diversified renewable energy sources when we get closer to being fully reliant on them. At that stage we may find that a combination of solar thermal and solar electrical systems still fits our resource demands better than simply using large grid-connected RE power stations.

Further to these, when we decentralise all these systems, we lower the barriers to entry; so then private sector now have an opportunity to engage with the provision of basic services by-passing the often-inefficient government bureaucracy that typifies so many African cities. It also allows smaller scale business to work in the field; something to be further enhanced through at active financing options.

And so we start to see a city where the water, power, waste and food systems are all intricately linked, using each other's waste products and building value at every scale. We see green space and wetlands move into our cities, food production and a city which cleans up the mess made so far instead of adding to it.

Further to fixing our infrastructure, we must also fix our buildings; after all, it is ultimately the buildings in a city and their inhabitants which provide the demand for the resources we've just discussed. Sound design at a building level is a critical ingredient in creating beautiful, livable, sustainable cities. Designing for resource efficiency through passive design, meshing seamlessly with re-imagined infrastructure and building communities as well structures will all contribute to our new African cities.

It into this context that the Australian-born Green Star rating system is introduced; a rating tool based on the USA and UK tools and primarily focused on creating a market for 'green' buildings. It has been adapted to South African conditions, and recently permission has been given for certification in Ghana, but there remain some huge questions on it's ability to meet the challenges of Africa's cities, most particularly on the social and conservation fronts. However that must not detract from it's importance in delivering the resource-efficient buildings on which our re-imagined infrastructure true will rely. The wide-spread adoption of green building design is going to be critical to the success of our new cities, and the willingness of the Green Building Councils of Australia and South Africa to "let go" of their tools to be made relevant and accessible across the continent is also of vital importance.

2. Transport and Mobility

This is not a section on public transport, as important as it is. This is a discussion on moving people, and allowing them access to the resources they need in a manner that does not require moving thousands of tons of steel around our cities on congealed oil residue. Our African cities seem to have lost the art of moving people effectively - crowded taxis, impossible traffic, absence of options and high cost all typify the realities of navigating African cities.
So, what to do...

One option is move places of work closer to places of residence. Through the exploding cellular communications technology in Africa, the potential for remote work must be championed in all quarters. As the African middle class emerges, and services replace labour as the primary activity, so too do the options for moving information more than people.

From a design perspective, one of the principal focus points must be safety for non-vehicular commuters. Providing safe pedestrian and cycle spaces should accompany the public transport initiatives which have proven successful in most modern cities. The road infrastructure in Africa currently requires such enormous investment that the viability of alternatives become better in comparison. I would suggest that reducing road infrastructure in favor of diversified light rail, pedestrian and cycle paths with excellent communications technology will open a less congested road for Africa in the future.

Further to this, where roads are necessary, they must again be multi-functional: smart kerbs must assist in the treatment and management of urban storm water, green strips alongside must link intra-city parks and green spaces, creating a green web through our cities. Speed limits reduced, security improved and mixed zones encouraged where pedestrians have priority, not cars.

This may seem like a pipe dream to most inhabitants of modern African cities, but as oil prices soar, alternatives to cars will become meow mainstream and cities that are placed to offer alternatives will be in a position to fly.

3. Planning, Communities and Civil Society

Again, looking at my homeland where the Apartheid system institutionalized racism, the relationship of city communities and sustainability is clear. Among their varied instruments, the racial segregation through the physical layout of our cities has endured long after the legislation governing behaviour has been repealed; nowhere more than my current city: Cape Town. And while it is particularly evident here, planning along racial, economic or class lines is evident in most cities to a greater or lesser degree.

The segregation of rich and poor, black, white and coloured, privileged and forgotten is enshrined in the layout of our suburbs, roads, railways and services. These in turn break down our efforts at community building, peace, reconciliation, education and health. Our schools miss the crucial peer to peer learning as all peers in under-developed schools are equally lost, while the privileged shine and immigrate. Our clinics are burdened to the point of breaking with no local business or community leader with the resources to fight for better services. Our artists are unable to write or paint, as begging for food takes the day away and crushes the spirit. The story is told over and over in our cities across the continent.

Investment breeds surrounding slums as the poor flock to be exploited. Massive urbanisation pulls people into the threatening maw, with no services to support them. It is in these places that we have the opportunity to meet the needs of people in ways never yet imagined. To provide opportunities for economic freedom without the linear consumption models of our current city paradigm. These initiatives will by necessity deal with the provision of resources and services. However it is only by choice that they will also address our wide and varied challenges of nested systems, ecological health, community building and the lasting prosperity that is the hope of sustainability professionals globally. Without mixing rich and poor, our cities have no hope. Without opening eyes and hearts, our best efforts at transport and infrastructure will fail. Without encouraging genuine participation from all corners, we cannot expect to represent the people who inhabit our cities.

And so through design, how do we address these things? My thoughts are by no means definitive, certainly not sufficient, but none-the-less present.

As Africa urbanises, we can plan new communities that cross class and cultural boundaries. We can design for the surrounding communities that will be affected by new urban investment in such a way that they are included as participants, not silently exploited. We can design systems which open up new opportunities for entrepreneurship while improving resource efficiency and providing new services; especially if the public sector is failing in this regard. We can widen the net of stakeholders, voluntarily extending our design teams to include community leaders. We can ask for input and listen to the answers. We can start to design for value - value to people, value to natural systems - and not just cost mitigation in a short-sighted financial model. We can seek real prosperity.

These things are all within our reach as we re-imagine cities at the pointy end of sustainability; Africa's new cities. Shining.


  1. Interesting post. Only had time to skim read it now but will be sure to read it thoroughly later.

    Sustainable development certainly needs to take priority when planning for city growth. It's happening-albeit slowly

  2. Very insightful – enjoyed the read. Hope the next article addresses the economics!

  3. Nothing other to say other than brilliant Rich. Loved the focus on moving people rather than public transport – we should be getting to the core of the problem rather than focusing first on the solutions. Also the Bill Reed comment on looking at anything smaller than a catchment – so important to be thinking about this while we are living and working in the detail of everyday life.

    Looking forward to reading more :)