What should be in a city … the quality or the quantity?

Recently, the world took time to celebrate “world’s cities day”, a day expected to greatly promote the international community’s interest in global urbanisation under a general theme of ‘Better City, Better Life’.

Recently, the world took time to celebrate “world’s cities day”, a day expected to greatly promote the international community’s interest in global urbanisation under a general theme of ‘Better City, Better Life’.

This year the focus sub-theme was ‘Innovative Governance and Open Cities’, as a push forward in cooperation among countries in meeting opportunities and addressing challenges of urbanization seen as as a source of global development and social inclusion, in order to attain sustainable urban development around the world.

But what is actually the meaning of city?

In general literature, a large human settlement qualifies to be called city.

In the deeper academic framework, the label of city is more dependent on the extensive systems for housing, transportation, sanitation, utilities, land use, and communication.

Their density facilitates interaction between people, government organizations and businesses, sometimes benefiting different parties in the process.

In this perspective, there has been a consistent and promising shift from ‘city’ to ‘urban’ label, which displays a record of all the good qualities above, regardless of the size. In other words, the departure from quantitative to qualitative, as the researchers would put.

Why is talking about cities important?

In 2008, the United Nations announced that 50 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, which was recognised worldwide as a milestone in demographic history.

Interestingly, the various articles I have come across so far illustrate this phenomenon with photos of Mumbai, Shanghai, or New York, which are beyond just cities but ‘mega-cities’.

The UN, ‘our global prefect in urbanization’, uses the term “mega-cities” to mean urban areas of 10 million people or more. Grounding this conversation a little closer home, in Africa, yes we do have mega cities as well.

Kigali city? Not yet, at least as per this definition. The population of Kigali is estimated at around 1.3 million, but we have bigger cities such as Lagos in Nigeria, which is currently Africa’s model mega city.

It is said that the reputation of Lagos as a city certainly precedes itself! Starting with the urban population, the UN says 14 million but the Lagos State government thinks it’s near 21 million.

The count included all those living in the sprawling slums, the poor fishermen, the middle and high income people as well as the entrepreneurs.

Worse still, these figures are expected to double by 2050, not the USDs but the urban citizens. This vision has seen a rush to new planning strategies; to have more and more tower blocks, urban transformation and reclaiming land from the sea for ambitious new developments.

On a daily basis, the waterfront slums are being cleared without due consultation with the residents while luxury apartment blocks are springing up. Dreaming big, to be the Dubai of Africa.

Lagos is already struggling to support its current population as evident in the acute power cuts and traffic jams. The forceful evictions have also left a considerable population unhappy and troubled, at one incident it was reported to be 40 communities or 300,000 people! That is equivalent to a quarter of Kigali’s population.

In a country like Rwanda, a large part the urban population actually lives in relatively small towns and villages. The industrialisation in Rwanda is still low for known reasons such as past atrocities, geographical challenges of Rwanda being landlocked, and challenging topography, among others.

However, Rwanda is doing commendably well in agriculture as evident in recent news and articles. Kigali city, on the other hand, has been in headline news as the safest and cleanest city in Africa and ranking high in the world pool. Safe, clean are both qualities recommendable for qualification of being ‘urban’.

Rwanda’s Vision 2020 and EDPRS II encourage the growth of secondary cities, which is a very intuitive to achieving sustainable urbanisation. When secondary cities and other smaller towns continue to grow over time, there will be no longer the need to move to the capital Kigali for jobs, education, healthcare and many other reasons that cause rural-urban migration.

The rural economies shall grow with a multiplier effect reducing the push factors. Mind you the people living in these areas will count when calculating Rwanda’s urbanisation, as the per centage of the nation’s population living in urban areas.

It is important to reiterate the fact that “urban” is an entirely different experience in Rwanda and Africa’s developing countries than it would be in a developed country.

The competition therefore to urbanize quickly and be like the Dubai, Shanghai, Manhattan or Singapore may not be a wise one. The same urbanization can be achieved in a more contextually sensitive manner by growing our small towns with the resources and techniques available.

It is equally undeniable that the classification “urban” does not automatically mean that the population has lost its traditional rural values and social customs. No! In fact, in the so-called developed countries, the quality and access to amenities and services that rural population continue to have are not as excellent as we envision in our planning of the developing world.

Going by the theme ‘better city, better life’, it would be recommendable if cities focused on the qualities of urban life more than just mere statistics. Meaning that cities should aim to be ‘urban’ not just ‘bigger’ and ‘mega’.


The writer is a lecturer at the school of Architecture, University of Rwanda. An architect and urban designer with keen interest on the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.


The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.

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