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9 February 2021

Putting People First: A reflection on people-centred development for African cities

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The city is a product of its people just as the city supports its people

We have entered the Decade of Action for achieving Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. This crucial decade requires radical, systemic and decisive action framed around putting people and the planet first if we are to achieve sustainable development and social justice around the world. Cities are a key lever for bringing about positive global change and play a critical role in localising global sustainability agendas.

Since the inauguration of the Millennium Development Goals and subsequently, the Sustainable Development Goals, we’ve seen positive and promising shifts. These include global connectivity, access to information, technological innovations, commitment to environmental protection, actioning enabling environmental policy and the uptake of renewable energy, and many innovations pioneered by cities to address urban sustainability through effective partnerships and platforms for collaboration. These shifts have reinforced the important role of city-level action and local government leadership.  However, despite the great strides being made, cities and nations continue to grapple with socio-economic exclusion and social injustices. The current global health emergency (COVID-19 pandemic) and the climate crisis have unearthed deep inequalities in access to resources in cities. It also reflects how unsustainable interactions with nature and our environment are not only causing these crises, but also impacting the most vulnerable in our society disproportionately. The urgency for change is demonstrated in increased social movements and protests in cities that often resonate globally. These are a testament to urban citizens’ growing dissatisfaction as they take a stand and challenge systems that do not represent their diverse needs and value systems.

As we enter the Decade of Action, we have an opportunity to lead a paradigm shift in how we tackle sustainable development for the future. This paradigm requires systemic change and must place people, their needs and their aspirations, at the forefront of urban growth and development agendas.

If cities are the engines of growth, people are the creators of opportunity and the solution to environmental sustainability

African cities are experiencing rapid urbanisation and exponential growth. It is predicted that by 2050, Africa’s population of 1.1 billion will double, with about 80% of people living in urban areas, many in slums. With many African cities already having to contend with high levels of poverty and severe resource constraints, a growing population means the need for more resources, services and infrastructures such as water, food, electricity, waste management, housing and mobility.

Cities will further experience an increase in consumption patterns, driven by basic human needs as well as individual aspirations, desires and expectations. As cities experience economic growth, and more people have access to disposable income, so will the need to consume more as the aspirations and desires of people shift and lifestyles change. These lifestyles often lead to unsustainable practices as people aim to increase their standard of living and quality of life which is often motivated by social pressures, cultural influence, and tradition. Our urban environments further shape how we respond, for example, a city offering limited access to public transport reinforces the need to own a car as a way of increasing our quality of life. In this way, as African cities transform and aim to achieve sustainable development, questions around their motivations, aspirations, cultural expressions and agency are central to enabling just transitions. These in many ways are intricately linked to how urban environments shape and are shaped by people.

Putting people first for sustainable development is reiterated by the aspirations and goals  of African Union’s Agenda 2063 that recognises the value of placing people at the center, especially Priority 6 “An Africa Whose Development is people driven, relying on the potential offered by African People, especially its Women and Youth, and caring for Children”. In addition to this, other priorities emphasise inclusive growth, sustainable development, good governance and strong cultural elements as significant aspects of the future Africa of 2063. There are three vital reasons for embedding people-centred approaches in African urban development: 

African cities are a melting pot of social, cultural and value systems

Most visions for future African cities are based on the values of a smart, modern and world class city, with master plans showcasing modern skyscrapers and elevated freeways. These imaginaries, produced by Northern urban planning and design traditions, are more reminiscent of American or European cities, than African expressions. These external visions, that more often drive change from the outside, not only force people into an image of what their urban space and cities should look like, but also renders certain settlements, urban spaces and practices that do not fit this image as invisible or invalid such as informal settlements and economies. In addition, they impose a value system and a set of aspirations that often strip away local identity, culture and valuable contextual character. This takes with it individual and community agency and ownership.

It is therefore important to not lock cities into a single vision but to acknowledge different visions, cultures and aspirations, and as expressed by Riel Miller, Head of Foresight at UNESCO, “be ready to imagine futures that are not about the future but about helping us discover, tease, provoke aspects of the present that wouldn’t otherwise be noticeable”. Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate that cities are dynamic, and are always growing and evolving with its people. With this, we need to constantly create opportunities for everyone to participate in creating visions for their city that is representative and empowering.

Citizens are a resource to the city that could strengthen sustainability

Putting people at the centre of sustainable growth and urban development is recognising that people have a vital role to play in making and shaping their urban environments, based on their physiological, social and economic needs. African cities are often seen as underdeveloped, but what this view fails to recognise is that there’s a rich and diverse network of processes and knowledge that already exists driven by (often hidden) contextual motivations. With high levels of unequal access to basic resources and services such as food, water and energy, people have found makeshift ways to access these and play a vital and active role in sourcing, distributing and collecting and reusing these. In some cases, offering valuable circularity services to the city through practicing their own livelihoods.

In addition, African cities account for a burgeoning youth population many of whom are unemployed and remain an untapped resource. Further, our cities have a highly active female labour force that contribute significantly to the informal economy, however they face gender inequality, cultural disempowerment and discrimination, lack of  access to economic opportunities, along with disempowering policies and rights. It is therefore important to recognise these key population segments as resources and valuable contributors to the urban economy, and provide them with access to social support, accessible spaces and infrastructure, end discrimination and violence as well as ease access to investment opportunities to help grow their businesses. This can enable inclusive growth and development in African cities.

Cities heavily depend on natural resources and biodiversity for economic and ecosystem services

Ecosystem services play a vital role in urban and human health and wellbeing and provide access to improved air quality, clean water, sustainable food systems and reduced urban disasters. However, urbanization coupled with the lack of universal access to basic resources and services and extractive economies pose a significant threat to environmental regeneration, as can already be seen by deforestation practices and the destruction of natural habitats. This exacerbates disasters such as urban flooding, public health emergencies due to pollution and pandemics, poor waste management systems and proliferates socio-environmental injustices in African cities, with the urban poor disproportionately impacted.

Protecting people and the planet are inextricably linked and should be mutually beneficial. Recognising that in protecting the economic needs of people through the provision of sustainable urban livelihoods, in turn protects urban natural assets. Therefore, transformed economies that are people-driven, could enable regenerative and just growth.

Practical considerations for Local and Sub-national governments in Putting People First

Rapidly growing urban areas in Africa provide strategic opportunities for developing and testing out the processes and tools required to achieve an inclusive and just continent that we aspire to achieve by 2063. Local and regional governments can pursue the processes that support inclusive development for all and safeguard the natural support systems for human life in the following ways:

  • Engaging in participatory governance: Inequality, poverty and human rights violations are in many ways a result of power relations that are discriminatory, exclusionary, corrupt and unjust. Therefore strong, stable and democratic institutions and processes are vital to checking these injustices. These can be built through some of the processes below:
    • Engaging in co-creation processes that seek to listen to the voices of citizens and going the extra mile to surrender to a process that may have unexpected but valuable outcomes. This takes time but has the potential to improve citizen experiences as well as continuously inform and engage them in governance.
    • Supporting participatory and inclusive processes that are cognisant of the needs as well as conducive environments for full participation of the most vulnerable or under represented citizens.
    • Building a culture of accountability to citizens that enhances the effectiveness of public service as well as encouraging citizen responsibility and accountability to their local governments
    • Conducting capacity building that empowers all citizens to express their agency and putting in place accessible facilities for the different inputs such as social media platforms and free hotlines. For example the City of Cape Town is active and responsive on Twitter and Facebook which encourages citizens to meaningfully engage with them on these accessible platforms.


  • Promoting dignified urban livelihoods for all: Policies and regulations should put emphasis on removing factors that constrain as well as put in place conditions that enhance the creation of decent and sustainable livelihoods for all. Livelihoods directly affect the wellbeing of people and that of future generations. Additionally, the nature of livelihoods should not undermine the natural environment which is also the resource base. Some of the considerations for dignified livelihoods are:
    • Creating green and sustainable jobs that minimise or eliminate negative impact to the environment
    • Supporting employment and local entrepreneurship through enabling access to finance and affordable credit as well as incentives for small businesses that can demonstrate social and environmental outcomes
    • Enabling access to opportunities through support systems to the most vulnerable such as social grants, accessible public infrastructure, among others
    • Securing safe access to quality services such as energy, water and sanitation, food, affordable shelter, transport and childcare


  • Celebrating and rebuilding local cultures, values, and norms: Cities offer an immense opportunity from the large and diverse pool of human resource. This is important because it gives greater access to talent, unique ideas and changes that could be beneficial. However, this could also bring about undermining different cultures, exclusion, and oppression as the negative aspects. Therefore, cities could reap the benefits of diverse societies by emphasizing and building the positive aspects through:
    • Recognising community as an important lever for social cohesion, and the importance of social networks that support individuals, households and communities.
    • Creating opportunities for showcasing the diversity within cities through festivals that welcome people into different parts of the city and partnering with local influencers such as religious leaders, pop stars, and citizens to shape the sustainable aspirations for living.


  • Supporting citizen’s aspirations and city growth within planetary boundaries: The current trajectory of economic growth of cities heavily relies on unsustainable consumption patterns as well as exploitation and degradation of the natural environment. This is putting pressure on the natural environment, the capacity of the planet to sustain us and the exclusion of the vulnerable from living in dignity and access to basic services. Local governments can promote sustainable lifestyles through:
    • Planning and building cities with accessible low-carbon aspirational lifestyles options. The availability of green infrastructure and sustainable services can support healthy and sustainable aspirations and lifestyles
    • Planning for and enabling access to safe and dignified natural and built environments
    • Exploring ways of measuring growth in the city that strongly put into consideration citizen wellbeing and environmental health as success factors in addition to economic growth
    • Educating citizens on low carbon lifestyles and environmental stewardship


  • Actively pursuing development for people by including people-centred development targets and key performance indicators within action plans and municipal reporting to enable clear monitoring, measuring and evaluation against development goals.

ICLEI Africa’s work on People Centered development

At ICLEI Africa, the equitable and people-centered development pathway is a central aspect of most of the work that we do and it aims to build more just, livable and inclusive urban communities and address poverty. Through this pathway, ICLEI supports local and regional governments to pursue processes that promote inclusive development for all and that safeguard the natural support systems for human life. This approach is important because it is apparent that the natural and built environment in and around cities improves livability and safety, promotes human health and mitigates disease and therefore sustains human-centered, safe, socially and culturally cohesive communities, where diversity and distinct identities are woven into the social fabric.

Three of the ICLEI Africa’s active projects that illustrate the above are:

  • Scaling Up and Empowering Movements for Climate Change Advocacy (SEMCCA): The project is rooted in the principles of community-based adaptation (CBA), actively bringing urban communities together to achieve climate action at scale within Africa city regions.
  • Localising the SDG’s: Offers practical tips for cities, towns and regions to achieve the  Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by implementing projects that create a more equitable, healthy and resilient future for everyone.
  • Urban metabolism: Including the Hidden flows photography exhibition that emerged out of a need to enrich current conversations about resources, infrastructure and services in African cities.
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