Cities and Urbanization

he image of Africa as a continent of traditional villages and small towns has never been correct. Africa has always included both highly urban and rural settlements. However, its cities have grown dramatically in recent years, and some researchers who study population trends have predicted that by the early 2000s about half of all Africans will live in urban areas.

Urbanization—the growth of cities and surrounding areas—has followed different patterns in sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. In both areas, however, the recent rapid growth of cities has been fueled by two factors: the high birth rate of city dwellers and the migration of large numbers of people from rural to urban areas.

African cities are a magnet. For those living in agricultural areas devastated by drought or war, moving to the city offers the opportunity for a better life. But many African cities are plagued by problems, including unemployment, lack of housing, crime, and poverty. They also suffer from inadequate public services such as water, electricity, schools, and health care. With urbanization likely to continue, African governments and international aid agencies are under pressure to create plans for managing the growth of Africa’s cities.

Africa: Cities and Urbanization


Until about 1980, sub-Saharan Africa was overwhelmingly rural, and experts believed it would remain that way. African governments focused on programs for rural and agricultural development, paying little attention to the rapid growth of their cities. Now urbanization is recognized as a major trend in sub-Saharan Africa. But it has not been accompanied by the modernization and economic growth needed to improve the quality of urban life and support expanding city populations.

Precolonial Cities

In the centuries before European colonization, western Africa was the most urbanized region south of the Sahara. Cities arose there as centers of religion and government in ancient kingdoms, and a web of trade routes linked these centers with Muslim cities in North Africa and the Saharan borderlands.

Jenne-jeno, located in MALI, is thought to be the oldest city in West Africa. Already nearly a thousand years old by A.D. 800, Jenne-jeno consisted of many round brick houses surrounded by a wall. At that time, it was actually two cities: a native town and a nearby settlement of Arab merchants. This mixture of Islamic and African elements was typical of many sub-Saharan cities with links to North Africa. The town of TIMBUKTU in Mali, founded around A.D. 1000, became a major trading hub and a center of Islamic learning in the 1400s and 1500s Farther south in present-day NIGERIA, the YORUBA established citystates that controlled areas of the surrounding countryside. Ile-Ife, the Yoruba capital, was centered on the king’s palace. Radiating out from the palace were 16 residential areas, one for each of 16 major family groups.

When the European trade for gold and slaves began along the West African coast in the 1400s, new cities emerged to extend the trade northward into the interior. Despite the presence of European trading posts, the organization and the population of these cities remained African.

Cities existed in other parts of Africa during the precolonial period. In ETHIOPIA, the city of AKSUM was an important economic, political, and religious center. Along the Indian Ocean coast in East Africa, urban centers sprang up at ports that served seafaring traders from the Arabian and Indian peninsulas. Kilwa, with magnificent mosques, palaces, and baths, was the most splendid East African city in the 1400s. However, larger but less splendid cities, such as Mombasa, and in the 1800s ZANZIBAR, came to dominate coastal trade.

Colonial Urban Development

Between the 1500s and mid-1900s, European influence and colonial rule created a number of major urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of these cities arose from settlements founded by Africans, which the Europeans changed and enlarged. Others were new settlements established to serve as colonial administrative or trading centers. But most cities developed near the sites of natural resources—such as gold, tin, coal, or diamonds—that were being mined by the Europeans.

In the early colonial period, Europeans established small forts and trading posts, often on or near the coasts. These settlements eventually developed into major urban centers, including ACCRA in GHANA, LAGOS in Nigeria, and CAPE TOWN in SOUTH AFRICA. Most of the inland cities, such as JOHANNESBURG and Nairobi, were not founded until the late 1800s and early 1900s. The urban areas became centers of industry. At first, the African populations in urban areas consisted largely of adult men who had come in search of industrial jobs and left their families behind. The high proportion of males continued until the mid-1900s, when more and more families began moving to cities from the countryside.

One of the main features of colonial cities in sub-Saharan Africa was the separation of blacks and whites. Europeans established residential and commercial areas in the more desirable sections of the city, forcing black Africans to establish their neighborhoods elsewhere. Colonial administrators also created parklands or industrial areas to serve as buffer zones between the European and African quarters. While colonial officials made an effort to ensure the comfort and safety of Europeans and to provide them with various services, they generally devoted much less attention to the African quarters.

Cities Since Independence

Sub-Saharan Africa is still the least urbanized region in the world, with less than one third of its population living in cities. However, sub-Saharan Africa is also experiencing the fastest urban growth in the world, and researchers predict that more than half of the region’s population will be urban by the year 2025.

Although southern Africa ranks as the most urbanized part of sub-Saharan Africa, the cities in western and eastern Africa are expanding much more rapidly than those in other areas. Lagos, Nigeria, one of the fastest-growing cities, is becoming what experts call a megacity—a very large urban center. If growth rates continue, Africa will contain more megacities than any other continent by the end of this century. Managing the growth of these urban centers and solving their problems are among the most serious challenges now facing African governments.

One of the most common features of modern African cities is the growing number of people who live in shantytowns. Usually overcrowded and filled with inadequate housing, these communities have little or no sanitation or other public services. People in shantytowns build shelters with whatever materials they can find—boards, tin sheets, or even cardboard and plastic—generally on land they do not own. Since African governments cannot afford to replace inadequate housing or provide basic services, many shantytowns have been accepted as unavoidable.

Another problem facing African cities is a shortage of jobs. The economies of most African nations are just not able to create enough jobs for their growing populations. Unemployment and the high cost of living in cities combine to create a serious problem of poverty. Linked with poverty and unemployment are various other problems, such as crime, illiteracy, and disease. Because these conditions can lead to social and political unrest, they threaten not only the stability of cities but of African nations as well.

Some experts believe that one way to improve prospects for Africa’s urban future is to encourage the growth of small and midsize cities, reducing the burden on large urban centers. These smaller cities could also serve as a link between megacities and the agricultural countryside. However, such plans require reliable transportation systems, and in much of Africa highway and rail connections between cities and rural areas are inadequate.

Another way of dealing with the future is the development of national urban plans. Such plans would look beyond the immediate needs of cities and focus instead on long-range efforts to provide housing and services and to create jobs and build economic connections between urban centers and the rest of the country. African leaders realize that continued urban growth is unavoidable, and that city life will be in the future of more and more Africans.


North Africa, home of the ancient Egyptian civilization and site of ancient Phoenician, Greek, and Roman colonies, has a long history of urban life. Today, it is the most urbanized part of Africa. In MOROCCOTUNISIA, ALGERIA, and LIBYA, more than half the total population lives in cities or towns.

Large cities have existed in North Africa for thousands of years, and some present-day towns stand on the sites where they were founded. The Egyptian culture that built the pyramids and other monuments also established cities that show evidence of careful urban planningALEXANDRIA, a major port on the Mediterranean coast, dates back more than 2,000 years.

The Arabs who conquered North Africa during the Middle Ages founded many of the region’s major cities, including Marrakech and Fez in Morocco, Tripoli in Libya, and Tunis in Tunisia. At the heart of each Arab city was the Casbah, a fort that served as the center of government, and a mosque with an accompanying tower called a minaret. Around the city was a wall pierced by several gates.

After European powers took control of North Africa in the 1800s, urban areas expanded rapidly. Colonial trade, in particular, contributed to the growth of port cities, such as Casablanca, in Morocco, ALGIERS, and Tunis. As Europeans settled in large North African urban centers, they became dual, or twin, cities. One half of the dual city was the medina, the old walled Arab city with narrow, twisting streets. The other half was a new European-style city with wide, straight, tree-lined streets and houses built on large lots.

The rapid growth of cities that began in the colonial period continued after North African nations gained their independence in the mid-1900s. Governments of North Africa have faced two challenges in regard to their cities. The first has been to unify the native and European areas of the cities and modernize them. This has proved very difficult, and in many cases the divisions remain. The second challenge has been to provide housing, employment, and services for the people who flock to cities in ever-increasing numbers. (See also Architecture; Colonialism in Africa; Development, Economic and Social; European Communities; Houses and Housing; North Africa: Geography and Population; Population.)