Cities around the globe are moving towards a poverty-free, and well-protected planet whose people will enjoy harmonious peace and prosperity by 2030. Unfortunately, for socio-economic, technical, and especially geopolitical and historical reasons, the sub-Sahara African (SSAn) city is stuttering and lagging behind. This study is part of wider research conducted to contextualise and understand how SSAn cities can be made more competitive internally with each other and with those around the globe. Lusaka in Zambia, with a 2019 population of 1,267,440 inhabitants, still bearing a sprawled and fragmented colonial structure, is the case study. The city, modest by African standards, has experienced a rapid population increase from 138,000 in 1968 to the current. 45% of its population mainly live in upgraded housing, which mushroomed spontaneously on the periphery.

Prof Paul Makasa

The study uses qualitative methodologies factoring in statistically insignificant quantitative approaches derived from primary and secondary data. Primary data uses observations, lived experiences, unstructured (questionnaire) interviews, and photographs. Secondary data uses desktop surveys, print, and electronic media. Findings will be disseminated to inform policy and strategies to adequately address the plight of SSAn cities.

Sprawl, spread and fragmentation.

Out of a horde of interrelated reasons, this study identified the spatial structure’s sprawl, separation and fragmentation as patterns characterising SSAn cities. These factors subscribed by restrictive institutional and legal frameworks municipalities operate in encumber the cities’ competitiveness. Combined, they generate serious development challenges making the cities stutter towards sustainable development goal 11 (SDG 11) as adopted by the United Nations.

Like all other cities in Southern Africa, Zambia’s urban areas were established as fragmented and control-oriented towns. Different uses were permitted for different sectors. From the on-set this established their mono-functional and effectively dysfunctional spaces. Lusaka was laid out to an extended and very expensive plan aimed at preserving the original structure. Provision was made for future development to be through densification within the area. It thus differed from a policy of concentration which reduces initial capital outlay including the provision of essential services but in which subsequent extension would take the form of suburbs. Unfortunately, herein lay the genesis of its challenges. Williams (1983) explains that, due to a technical oversight, Lusaka’s plans were non-statutory (not backed by law). Instead, development was controlled using byelaws and clauses. Since government owned most of the land, controlling clauses could be inserted into leases. This proved ineffective and the town started developing in a piecemeal and loosely structured way.

In addition to sprawl, Lusaka was characterised by racial segregation which unnecessarily spread and defragmented the city. This ‘spread’ was typical of most Rhodesian settlements, land was cheap, time was no object; settlers liked privacy and built houses far away from each other, due to poor sanitation. This ‘spread’ allowed ample elbow room but made subsequent provision of services difficult and expensive (Williams, 1986). Based on this legacy, Lusaka’s fragmented scale now covers an area once considered a region. It stretches 25 kilometres from east to west and about 18 kilometres from the north to the south. This structure is exacerbated by inefficient and insufficient transport infrastructures in many parts of the city.

How are they lagging behind?

Zambia, with an urbanisation rate of 42% ranks amongst the highest in SSA. Its cities are urbanising rapidly due to inter alia, high rates of rural–urban migration. Due to the pressure resource-starved arrivals exert on available services, recipient municipalities cannot cope with demand. Consequently, most people cram in the few available informal houses. The World Bank (2017) observes that this urbanisation is not accompanied by an urbanisation of capital and classifies them as not economically dense. Compared to others on the globe, SSAn cities are urbanising rapidly void of matching capital growth and dense investments. They consequently fail to attain enough robustness to economically compete with others elsewhere. It is here the cities are missing the point.

Being productive engines of growth, cities play an important role in the global economy. Management and power are increasingly centralised therein and they now control the global economic environment. They have contained population growth, international trade, capital flows and effects of globalisation. As they grow, they bring economies of scale, develop markets, create jobs and encourage new economic activities to flourish. Globally cities have been competing amongst themselves from ancient Greek colonising movements through the trading city states of the 16th century. They now produce and sell goods and services competitively wherever they want.

As economies move from primary activities to industrial production and services, their competitive roles in the global economy metamorphosises as they transition from mega to global cities. As sites of rapid and widespread developments in finance, information and people, cities host major processes of globalisation. This is what SSAn cities have failed to attain, yet in their formation they were to be centres of trade and defence having a civilising influence on natives enhanced by their spatial forms. Unfortunately, the spatial form they took became the main inhibitor to development.

Whereas cities in developed countries have their own challenges mainly related to an ageing population, obsolete housing stock and others. Those in SSA, are struggling with overwhelming multiple challenges including young and un-skilled populations, concerned with migration; transportation and communication infrastructure deficiencies; inadequate housing related institutions; social practices engendering in-balanced growth and low competitiveness; and, environmental problems overwhelming over-regulated local governments. All these are underlain by dearth finances; with often mismatched resource expenditures not able to finance development plans.

Because of its mono-functional and disintegrated structure, Lusaka’s inhabitants live far from the CBD. They commute at dawn and dusk causing traffic jams during the morning, noon and after work peak hours. During working hours, the streets are full of activity. This wanes as commuters go back. Most activities on the streets dissipate into various townships. Since there are no houses and no eyes on the street after hours, the CBD becomes eerily quiet. Street kids and hawkers then take over, transforming it into a dead and threatening space. The CBD remains in this comatose state until the following day when life starts all over. This process repeats itself on weekends from Saturday afternoon through Sunday until Monday.

This legacy of alternating active day and dead night spaces lies in colonial policy. The colonialists designed the city to control access. They separated and confined different races to different residential and work areas. The CBD was meant for commercial purposes only while residential areas were confined to racially segregated townships. Individuals who eke a living on the street cannot enter the CBD if workplaces are closed. There is simply no market.

Despite these racially segregated areas transitioning into income areas, the legacy of separation is entrenched in Lusaka. Its transport infrastructure was designed such that all local, inter-town, interprovincial and international traffic passed through the CBD until ring roads were constructed. This fragmented urban form and poorly serviced areas impose high living costs on workers and households, resulting in indirect costs and other constraints for firms thereby limiting urban development. When investors see a city that flooded when it rained heavily, had serious water shortages when it was dry, coupled with other inhibiting challenges, they voted with their feet elsewhere.

In addition to urban form, other equally negating factors emanate from regulatory and institutional frameworks guiding urban development. These are: restrictive business regulation; lack of access to finance (for residential and commercial investments); the peculiarity of Africa’s demographic transition; the absence of agricultural productivity gains; and, more generally, the macroeconomic context (World Bank, 2017). The World Bank (ibid) posits further that, sub-Sahara Africa’s cities are growing under a patchwork of constraints such as inefficient land markets, overlapping property-rights regimes, suboptimal and ineffective zoning regulations, All of these and others, hinder the drive toward dense concentrations of capital and infrastructure investment.

The rise of informal sector.

At the national level, cities in Zambia do not compete with each other. In most cases, LED decisions are made at the central government and passed on to municipalities. While some cities have gained from trade liberalisation, others have been unable to adapt sufficiently. In fact, since the mid-1970s, when the government’s ‘heavy and visible’ hand started intervening in urban development, they started performing badly. They have since lacked a robust macroeconomic climate with high development levels to enable households to access jobs, earn a decent living, and invest in their city’s welfare. They have failed to compete effectively. Attempts at opening up national economies to global markets still fail to achieve success.

The ensuring macroeconomic slowdown led to unemployment exacerbated by structural adjustment programmes, especially privatisation. Since economic growth became sluggish globally, SSAn countries have had the highest average estimated proportion of their productive economies in the informal sector. This sector has grown rapidly. Informality, the result of population growth not correlating with economic growth, is now the most visible survival strategy for the urban poor. It burgeons when the legal system imposes rules which exceed the socially accepted legal frameworks (Dijk, 2006).

Observations indicate that most unemployed people engaged in informal activities, e.g., mobile or stationary street vending, money lending, using housing for income-generating ventures, e.g., multi-habitational, garages, vegetable growing, poultry houses and grocery stalls. These are all viable as survival strategies, but they do not add value to any tradable goods and the traders evade paying tax. With this increase in informality, city competitiveness is dampened. Municipalities lose revenue since they cannot collect decent user-fees from clandestine informal trade, yet they use limited resources to clean up the resultant mess. This reduces their ability to maintain a clean environment which starts depreciating. Unsustainable informal income-generating activities, which thrive on unregulated social contact engender poor living environments and numerous health hazards. This contributes to negative externalities like respiratory diseases and is now a strong conduit for the spread of the dreaded COVID-19 amongst local people. It also affects the community water quality and sanitation which in turn contributes to waterborne diseases.

Role of the different actors in enhancing city competitiveness

Different actors operating at the global; macro; meso; and micro levels, playing different interrelated roles can make Zambia’s cities more competitive.

Global actors operating at the strategic level should formulate and ensure that: universal policies to guide national governments are disseminated and followed; finance and logistical support to feasible initiatives are provided; and, ‘the international community ensures that governments adhere to commitments undertaken and spend funds in a transparent and accountable manner’ (UNCHS, 1996. 91). Regional bodies adapt these into regional policies.

Central governments deal with political and strategic issues emanating at a global level down to the local government. Erroneous decisions (like those imposed by colonialists) are difficult to reverse and can inflict severe penalties, and serious consequences to the city’s environment. A factor still contributing to the lag of SSAn cities. Governments should decentralise, mobilise capital, and facilitate others to act. Only intervening subtly to safeguard the interests of the poor because competing firms are more concerned with efficiency and effectiveness. They ignore equity. In providing viable economic solutions to beneficiaries, firms can impose negative externalities and other costs on the inhabitants.

Local governments on their part should: strengthen their competencies and generate enough resources to meet the demands of their inhabitants; avail developable land, reform land use planning, promote the most efficient use of urban land, and undertake environmentally friendly economic ventures. They should source and finance LEDs; and, let PPPs perform..

The micro-level is the action enclave. Here policy makers maximise economic options available for every city dweller while guarding against exclusion, exploitation, insanitary conditions and “externalities”. All investors compete as effectively as possible within a framework of “minimum government standards”. Financial institutions compete in financing private sector investment in urban development

The way forward

The way forward in enhancing the economic potential of cities hinges on the capacities of empowered local governments to develop and operationalise a well-coordinated urban strategy encompassing elements dealing with integrating and managing city growth. This must be a goal orientated and better monitored management and development process focused on priority setting. The far-reaching and challenging institutional implications of this strategy must involve significant transformations in local governments, themselves requiring change and capacity building. It must focus attention on several actions to  enhance the capacity of cities to generate greater economic activity; achieve growth and competitiveness; alleviate urban poverty; and, maximise direct employment opportunities capable of igniting multiplier effects. All of this should be undertaken with ceded power from a central government simply acting as a watchdog.

Further to the above, assertive LED strategies to retain, expand or attract economic activity must be instituted. Investments must be multi-pronged and geared to integrating fragmented urban spaces and neighbourhoods. These approaches should aim at providing adequate housing and its infrastructure, alleviating environmental health hazards, encouraging investment, providing job opportunities, creating social and community facilities. These can better be achieved through PPPs. Finally, in pursuit of this strategy, the roles of the key players should be clearly outlined.


Spatially, sprawl, separation and fragmentation, spurred by restrictive institutional and regulatory frameworks, which characterise the structure and form of Zambia’s settlements combine to generate serious urban challenges. They hinder agglomeration economies by preventing job market pooling and matching and impede the transfer of skills and knowledge, thereby deterring firms from reaping both scale and agglomeration benefits. They discourage investments consequently reducing access to jobs and constraining firm size. These need to be ameliorated otherwise they will continue pressing down and barring investment in cities, which will continue precluding their entry into higher-productivity tradable goods sectors. Attempts at making Zambia’s urban areas more competitive must involve all actors focusing on integrating their spatial structures and reforming regulatory frameworks that drive urban development.

To enhance the correction of artificial functional divisions imposed by past planning inefficiencies and decentralisation, urban policy must strive to integrate the colonial legacies of segregated mono-functional and dysfunctional city spaces. If the status quo remains unchanged, urban agglomeration economies which thrive on knowledge spillovers by presupposing a mix of specialised cognitive skills in the labour market will be difficult to achieve and competition will be stifled. This will prevent SSAn cities from marching together with the rest of the world towards achieving SDG No 11. They will continue stuttering and lagging behind others.

  • Paul Makasa is a Professor in the School of Architecture. He obtained his PhD from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, a Master’s in Housing Policies for Developing Nations, from Alvar Aalto University in Finland and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Zambia.

He is a member of The Zambia Institute of Architects, and a student member of the SACAP. He is also a member of four research networks: the GRUPHEL – Gender Research network on Urbanisation, Planning, Housing and Everyday Life. Administered from the National University of Lesotho (NUL), sponsored by the Swedish International Development Corporation Agency (SIDA); the ALPHA-IBIS - network involving European, South American and African researchers, administered from Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands; the ENHR, the European Network of Housing Researchers; and, the ANHR: the African Network of Housing Researchers.

His research interest include: low cost housing policy development and management: poverty alleviation; urbanism; and gender issues.