AFRICAN cities are struggling with increased levels of urbanisation. But in building cities for their bigger populations, it is critical to take into account urban green spaces, a public dialogue hears.

THINK of the typical smart modern city and images of high-rise buildings always come to mind, with little consideration given to urban green spaces. There is still little appreciation of the value of green spaces in cities, and many people do not fully understand the impact these have on wellbeing.

This came to light at a public dialogue held at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 2 July. The dialogue, organised by Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Wits, explored the need to conserve the urban natural environment to enhance the quality of life in cities.

It was attended by representatives of intergovernmental organisations, institutions of higher learning, the private sector and civil society. Delegates agreed that critical steps were needed to deal with the rapid decline of urban green space to ensure a sustainable future.

Patrick Wamoto, the Kenya high commissioner to South Africa, noted that green spaces in Africa were disappearing at a very fast rate, giving rise to concrete jungles. “Increasing urbanisation is putting pressure on housing needs and the supporting infrastructure. This has led to many local authorities having to make a choice between development of grey infrastructure and preserving some green spaces in the urban environment.”

In most African countries the rate of urbanisation was increasing, with the southern parts of Africa being classified as the most urbanised. The rapid urbanisation taking place in the global south had put immense pressure on African cities’ fragile natural environment.

He attributed the problem of declining green spaces to limited success by local authorities in explaining the importance of green spaces, especially in high density and low income areas. “It does not help if the local authorities make a lot of effort yet there is no support from the local residents. I have seen many parts of Africa where the local community vandalises public green spaces and this reverses the gains that have been made,” Wamoto warned.

Populations were growing in Africa cities and towns without sufficient planning for these crucial green spaces. Wamoto suggested that local authorities should revise most of their land use management regulations to ensure that all new developments catered sufficiently for green spaces to try to correct the mistakes that were made in the past.

“A starting point should be emphasis on urban planning and approval of new infrastructure developments by the local authorities. Our cities are full of unplanned structures,” he added.

Collins Mensah, a doctoral research fellow at Britain’s University of Birmingham, echoed Wamoto’s sentiments. He said poor enforcement of development controls caused by a lack of political will was destroying the green belt in Africa.

“Many African countries are still using old master plans, which makes it difficult to fight the destruction of the green belt,” he said. He cited the example of his home country, Ghana, as well as Malawi. The two nations were still using old town planning acts from 1945and 1948, respectively.

However, Mensah noted that there was much emphasis on planting of trees in Africa to combat climate change. “In 2010, about 62 500 trees were planted in Durban, 500 000 trees in Lagos, 2 800 trees in Maputo, 30 000 trees in Mombasa.”

Countries in North Africa, such as Morocco, Egypt, Libya and Algeria, have limited green space. Comparatively, countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana and Tanzania, have much green spaces.


Michael Onyeka, the executive director of Green Peace Africa, discussed deteriorating urban green spaces and Africa’s vulnerability to climate change. He stressed that urban green spaces were often overlooked and underappreciated aspects of urban sustainability.

“The benefits of these green spaces cannot be underestimated and should form part of city life.” He explained that Africa was one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and climate variability. “There is excess morbidity and mortality related to extremely hot weather and poor air quality found in cities worldwide, including Africa.”

Rainfall was expected to decline by 10% by 2050 in Southern Africa and parts of Eastern Africa, he said. “Sea levels are projected to rise around 25 centimetres by 2050, with tidal waves and storm surges on the west and east coasts of Africa.”

Also at stake were natural resources, with Onyeka pointing out that we lived in a resource-constrained world in which most sources were depleting. He also emphasised the importance of improving living standards in rural areas to cut down migration to cities as a way to preserve green spaces.

Cecilia Njenga, the head of the UNEP, said indicators were key to assessing cities’ environmental performance. “Neglecting to take action swiftly to shift to greater resource efficiency has severe consequences as it exposes the urban population to health hazards, poorer environmental quality and poverty,” she concluded.