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The next African megalopolis (and why it is important to talk about it)

The accelerated process of urbanization that our civilization has undergone since the middle of the last century, has managed to cross all borders and continents of our planet. Never before in history we have had cities so populous and dense, with so many people sharing increasingly smaller spaces, where the problems of congestion, pollution and overcrowding contrast with the buoyant economic and political power of these urban centres.

Today there are more than 20 metropolitan areas in the world with more than 15 million inhabitants. Among them, we can count world-renowned cities like Tokyo, New York or Shanghai, as well as other less famous ones like Karachi, Chongqing or Dhaka. This has even led to the creation of a new category of urban agglomeration, in which beyond metropolitan areas or conurbations, we speak about urban regions, clusters or megalopolises, where several metropolitan areas generate shared dynamics in a complex urban network.

Traffic in Beijing, China. Source: Pexels.com

The term megalopolis has so far been applied to the urban regions of the Northeast of the United States, the Pearl River Delta in China or the Taiheiyō Belt in Japan. However, this phenomenon is also beginning to be evident in other countries such as India, Brazil and Indonesia, where there is a main city to which others of lower hierarchy are "attached".

Megalopolis of Northeast USA. Source: Google Earth

But there is a continent where megalopolis could reach a singular scale and complexity in the near future. Africa currently has the highest population growth rate of all the continents and it is projected that by the year 2050 it will have exceeded 1 billion inhabitants. Additionally, the urbanization process is also notably changing the distribution of the population in African countries, from being a predominantly rural continent to a highly urbanized one by the middle of this century.

Currently the largest urban agglomeration in Africa is the Greater Cairo area, which is home to more than 20 million inhabitants and extends over the Nile River Delta. It is followed by Lagos, in Nigeria, with around 15 million, while other cities like Kinshasa and Johannesburg they already exceed 10 million inhabitants. Although Cairo will continue to be the largest African metropolis during the following years, expanding through colossal projects such as the New Capital of Egypt, the case of Lagos poses a particular and more complex scenario within this continent, since its metropolitan growth goes beyond from the limits of its own country.

Lagos is located in the Southwest of Nigeria, on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea. It was the Nigerian capital until 1991, when it was replaced by the planned city of Abuja, built in the mid-1970s. Despite being no longer the capital, it is still the main economic and financial centre of Nigeria and West Africa. Today it is one of the cities that seek to project themselves in the world, with megaprojects such as Eko Atlantic City, a luxurious district on land reclaimed from the sea, which contrasts with the hundreds of thousands of people who live in precarious conditions on the mainland, without access to basic services.

Satellite view of Eko Atlantic City in 2020. Source: Google Earth

Lagos seems to group almost all the possible problems that a big city can have: overcrowding, pollution, congestion and a large percentage of its population living in extreme poverty, which continues to grow every year. This is clearly not a unique problem of Lagos or Sub-Saharan Africa. However, what makes the case of this city different, is the relationship it will generate with the region in which it is located.

Congested street in Lagos. Source: Google Street View

Near Lagos are located the capitals of three other countries in the Gulf of Guinea: Accra (Ghana), Lomé (Togo) and Porto Novo (Benin). The city of Cotonou, the former capital of Benin, is also located on this band. The sum of the population of these cities adds up to around 9 million inhabitants and that of Lagos is added, resulting in an urban region of more than 23 million people living in a band of around 400 km long.

Accra - Lagos Urban Region. Source: Google Earth

Unlike other megacities in the world, the urban region of Accra - Lagos comprises four countries with different laws, languages and customs, something that can hinder economic and cultural relations between these cities. Additionally, the fact that these cities are in different countries further complicates the planning of this supranational territory, since the urban policies that are applied in the countries can go in opposite directions, complicating a macro-scale organization of the territory. All this, added to the precarious conditions of connectivity between the four countries and the chaotic border crossings between them.

Ghana - Togo border conurbation. Source: Google Earth

Ghana - Togo Border Crossing. Source: Google Street View

The above-mentioned makes the urban region of Accra - Lagos a complex scenario, with great challenges in terms of integration and organization, where the will of public and private actors will be fundamental. In Africa, this is undoubtedly complex, since institutions are often affected by episodes of instability. However, this is not an impossible challenge either, as there are also supranational institutions and cooperation groups between countries that can play a key role in this process.

One thing is certain, and that is that Africa will be the centre of many urban discussions in the near future. Or at least it should be…

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  1. This type of road is a great advance, well structured to be able to withstand the influx of cars repuve

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