Spatial Inequality and Poverty in African Cities

George Owusu

Institute of Statistical, Social & Economic Research (ISSER)/

Centre for Urban Management Studies (CUMS)

University of Ghana


The rapid pace of urbanization characterized by under-served urban neighbourhoods, sprawl and the emergence of slums and other informal settlements are common features of cities of the global south, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet these characterizations of cities have not slowed down the movement of the population to cities. This is because cities are largely seen as offering better livelihood opportunities compared to rural areas. In other words, the ‘brighter lights’ of cities and towns which describe the lure of urban life, and the promise that urban centres hold for individuals and groups who may be hungry, jobless, or just curious remain strong – fueling the shift of the population to cities and hastening the process of urbanization. Equally important is the fact that migrants to cities in the global south, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, are predominantly young people and this inevitably contributes to high rates of natural increase in urban centres. Youth populations in cities are coterminous with high levels of unemployment, a major contributory factor to urban poverty. Moreover, urban poverty is equally associated with poor living conditions and inequalities.


Nowhere in the global south is the process of urbanization a challenge as in Sub-Saharan Africa where economic growth and development have not kept pace with the rates of urbanization. For instance, while Sub-Saharan African countries can match the urbanization rates of China and India (which are considered the industrial powers of the future), they cannot boast of anything near the rates of economic growth of these two countries. The effects of this situation are increasing urban poverty and the emergence of slums and other informal settlements. Indeed, urban sustainability issues in many Sub-Saharan African countries are best observed through the challenges confronting their cities. Yet, urban life has not collapsed in most African countries largely on account of the informal sector which provides the urban population with housing, employment and income, and any claims on consumption of goods and services in the city.


In many African countries, poor urban planning and governance remain at the core of challenges to be met, as they impede the creativity and innovation required to address other urban development challenges. A critical challenge is the inadequate attention of urban planning and governance to the informal economy despite its significant contribution to the city and national economies. In many African cities, the lack of adequate policy attention to the informal sector has led to a situation whereby spatial planning has failed to consider informal economy activities in planning and development of zoning schemes. This has resulted in clashes between informal economy operators and local authorities, mainly on the issue of location, further exacerbating spatial inequality and poverty levels in cities. In many cities in Africa, city authorities and policy-makers’ attempts to deal with informality have entailed taking on euro-centric notions of the city and utopian notions of urban development. Rather than asking how urban dwellers in African cities manage to create their own mechanisms of production and sustenance within existing societal structures, city and national governments have continually pushed a development agenda aimed at making African cities conform to ‘developmental’ norms of cities in the global north.