A few hundred miles from Abuja, the host city of the World Economic Forum on Africa 2014, lies the sprawling city of Lagos. This city, more than any other in Africa, illustrates the challenges and opportunities in making urban areas more sustainable and humane. Just about a decade ago, families living and working in Lagos faced daunting environmental and socio-economic challenges: from slums, violence and crime to huge infrastructure and basic services delivery problems. Today, while Lagos is slowly getting a grip of some of these challenges, it is facing another serious threat, in the form of rising sea levels. For a city built on low-lying islands, this worrying phenomenon will threaten economic growth, endanger lives and exacerbate inequality, since poorer people are less able to move.

As the post-2015 development agenda is being shaped, Lagos provides a timely reminder of how important it is to take Africa’s rapid rates of urbanization into account. The city’s magnetic appeal for Nigeria’s youthful population has made it a centre for technological innovation and commerce. This has, however, made it even more important to put in place the right plans for facilities, infrastructure and amenities, both in Lagos itself and the neighbouring countryside.

Against this backdrop, the figures are pertinent: cities will host more than 1.4 billion new residents within the coming 20 to 30 years, mostly in Asia and Africa, according to a UN report. The number of people living in slums is currently almost 1 billion. Humanity is now 50% urban and 50% rural, and that’s expected to change to 70% urban and 30% rural by 2050. The UN also argues that if current trends hold, cities in the developing world with at least 100,000 people will expand to up to three times their present size. As the African continent plans for the next 50 years of its development, there is a wide acknowledgment that planned urbanization must form an integral part of its structural economic transformation.

The reduction of rural poverty rates is not meaningful if it just reflects the fact that poor people are moving out of the countryside and into slums. This is why progress on development targets must reflect wellbeing in both cities and rural areas. However, traditional approaches have often associated the countryside with underdevelopment, while cities and industries are held up as beacons of progress. This has encouraged unskilled rural populations to migrate to slums, but in fact it’s a false dichotomy.

An increasingly urban world is more and more in need of a range of facilities, goods and services that must come from rural areas – from nutritious food to jobs, energy, environmental services and much more. Cities and countryside must be thought of as one integrated system. Moreover, the new challenges of climate change, land management, food security and ecosystems management provide new opportunities for rural areas. As World Bank evidence shows, giving support to small and medium-scale agriculture producers is more than twice as effective in reducing poverty than every other sector, especially in the least developed countries. This is especially pertinent in Africa, where there’s an opportunity to create jobs in agriculture to meet rising global demand for food.

We need an integrated approach to transforming both cities and rural areas in order to eradicate poverty. One vision of urban development includes a web of prosperous rural villages and towns, smaller cities with vibrant identities, as well as big, well designed, well planned urban centers.

Under the current status quo, as cities sprawl haphazardly, they lock themselves into unsustainable patterns: people live too far from their jobs, transportation costs and congestion are high, infrastructure is expensive, different socio-economic groups are segregated and the toll on the environment is heavy. This kind of city is also vulnerable to the impact of climate change, from storms to rising sea levels. On the flipside, well-planned, compact cities that offer a mix of land uses, from business to leisure, as well as different kinds of buildings, transport and jobs generally improve lives while using fewer resources and creating less emissions – the very core of the principles of a green economy endorsed at Rio+20.

The post-2015 development agenda will not be successful if it doesn’t mobilize all the energy, political will, resources and partners at all levels including at the local level. It will not be enough to tailor the targets at the national level only, but to consider how they will be relevant to and implemented at the local levels as well. “Locally adapted and defined” sustainable development objectives should be understood and owned in cities, villages, communities, contributing to global goals; it may be one of the most powerful drivers of transformation.

For future well-being, prosperity and resilience, all human settlements will need to have enhanced social protection arrangements alongside nurtured economies that can prosper with smaller ecological footprints.

The future I envision for Africa and its settlements, including Lagos, is one which puts people at the center of its transformation and leaves no one behind. This means decent and affordable housing, improved sanitation, better access to social and economic amenities, better waste management, clean transportation and sustainable energy. The way Africa manages its cities will be the arena in which the battle for equality and sustainability will be won or lost. At the same time, we must not neglect links between the city and the countryside. Properly planned settlements will be critical to safeguarding future generations by addressing the three dimensions of sustainability: economic growth, social inclusion and ecological sustainability.

Author: Amina J. Mohammed is Assistant Secretary-General and Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on Post-2015 Development Planning, United Nations

Image: A view of buildings in the Victoria Island district of Lagos October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney 

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