Satellite Cities: Is this the future of East Africa's urbanization?

by Ahmed Salim | Take a careful look at the data on urbanization in East Africa and three trends stand out. First was the low level of urbanisation in the region in 2000, relative to the rest of the continent (34 percent) and the world (47 percent). Second, is the very fast growth rate of three of East Africa's capitals. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit's 'World in Figures 2010', Kigali is the fastest growing city in the world, Kampala was number sixteen and Dar es Salaam eighteenth. Third is the very high rate of slum residence in the region, accounting for more than 80 percent of the urban population in 2005. Faced with this character of urban growth, visible in the capitals that are literally bursting at the seams, how is the region responding? With satellite cities.

Five new satellite cities that are proposed in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They include Tatu City and Konza Technology City adjacent to Nairobi, Kigamboni and Kalungulu in Dar es Salaam and Kampala respectively and La Cite du Fleuve (River City) in the DRC, which will literally rise from the River Congo itself. What do these ambitious visions and projects mean for the future of urbanization and social cohesion in the region? Three observations are worth noting.

Equity ignored: displacement and relocation

The purpose of these satellite cities are to accommodate the impending economic and population growth expected in the major cities of the region. But who are these cities really for? From the onset they all seem quite cosmopolitan and presents an exclusive demeanor. It is almost inevitable that the poor will be displaced from their homes and livelihoods to make way for the new cities. For instance, it is instructive that while the government of Tanzania promised that there would be limited displacement in the areas earmarked for Kigamboni Satellite City, a UN Habitat report expressed its doubts about this, noting that given the size of the development, a large proportion of existing landowners would have to be relocated.

Compensation could reduce some of the pain of displacement and relocation but only when it is deemed adequate in the eyes of the recipients - a rare event under prevailing conditions of determined governments and property developers. Tanzanian legislators raised serious questions on behalf of the incumbent residents, some of who have little or no legal basis (title deeds) for their claims to the land on which they live. On this basis they can face lawful dispossession and displacement. Overall, questions of fairness, justice and equity appear to have received little more than a passing mention.

Satellite cities as secession by the rich

It is difficult to shake off a sense of concern that these cities, as envisaged and designed will deepen the social division and exclusion in the region's urban areas. There is an almost deafening silence on the issue of their implications for ordinary and poor urban residents. While some of the language and marketing sounds inclusive, the pricing is not.

In more concrete terms, the poor and vulnerable populations in the ëmother' cities face the heightened risk of further marginalization and impoverishment in at least two ways. The first is by encouraging the migration of the richer residents to the new cities, taking with them the property taxes, land rent, rates and levies paid to local city authorities. This revenue loss would have to be compensated for either by imposing higher rates, or levying new taxes on the less affluent residents who cannot move, or by lowering the quality of existing services, for want of resources.

Ultimately, that most fragile, intangible and precious quality of vibrant cities, a sense of shared space and experience between rich and poor, could be lost forever.

East Africa's satellite cities as prototype Charter Cities

The US economist, Paul Romer, has developed the concept of Charter Cities as a 'radical solution to the problem of poverty'. According to the website, 'A charter city is a new type of special reform zone. It extends the concept of a special economic zone by increasing its size and expanding the scope of its reforms. It must be large enough to accommodate a city with millions of workers and residents. Its reforms must extend to all the rules needed to support exchange in a modern market economy and structure interactions in a well-run city'.

Combining Romer's concept and the growth of satellite cities in East Africa points to the fascinating possibility that the region could lead the world in the creation of private charter cities which are geographically, socially, fiscally and, ultimately, politically separate from their host nations.

The emerging satellite cities contain the seeds of such autonomy: Tatu City has struck a fiscal deal with the Ruiru Council; Konza City is premised on a new, almost self-contained high-tech economy; La Cite du Fleuve is rising from the waters of the Congo river and physically separating itself from Kinshasa. Imagine a future in which international bidding processes will select the management teams for the satellite cities; residents (firms and families) would apply for residence and be interviewed to gauge their financial fitness and cultural compatibility; and day workers would be issued with special passes to be in the city.

These practices are not new: special city passes are used to control the inflow of migrant workers into China's manufacturing heartland in the Pearl River delta; residence interviews are conducted by some New York co-op apartments; and contracts are regularly awarded to manage large infrastructure assets such as ports and utilities.

Commenting on Romer's Charter Cities concept, Financial Times columnist Tim Harford is excited by what he calls the 'real radicalism' it represents, 'that building cities could become a business in its own right. And as with any dynamic industry, some of these city-businesses will flourish magnificently. Others will fail.'

A new 'city-building business' has arrived through the satellite cities in East Africa. A future of Charter Cities is on the doorstep. It remains to be seen, which of the city-firms will 'flourish magnificently' and which of them will 'fail.'

Related article: The Greater Horn of Eastern Africa Outlook: Satellite Cities