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Time to Rethink: Pandemic Disruptions an Opportunity for Africa to Reimagine Cities

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The need for social distancing and better sanitation could leapfrog African city development into a more sustainable future.

This is according to Duncan Bonnett, Director Market Access & Research at Africa House, and research partner of exhibition organiser Messe Muenchen South Africa, who says that while Africa’s architects and planners have long been pushing for greener, smarter better designed urban spaces, the Covid-19 pandemic may help fast-track moves to better living spaces.

Speaking ahead of the bauma CONEXPO Africa trade show, Bonnett said: “The pandemic has certainly caused delays and disruptions across construction and infrastructure development, but there are some silver linings for the sector, and for Africa as a whole.”

These, he said, included a new need for the realignment of developments such as commercial and hospitality spaces, the reconfiguration of retail developments and the reimagining of towns and cities.

“We could see redevelopment and remodelling of spaces, the development of new warehousing and logistics hubs as e-commerce really takes off; and the growth of retail distribution infrastructure closer to outlets and consumers,” he says.

“Another opportunity lies in the complete redevelopment of urban spaces in South Africa and across Africa,” he says. “The pandemic is highlighting how difficult it is to maintain safe social distancing and ensure water and sanitation for townships and informal settlements, for example.  This is an opportunity for investors, governments and private sector to reconfigure how Africa lives – reimagining housing, green spaces, sanitation, power, and the work environment to ensure that both urban and rural  spaces are resilient to disruption such as pandemics.”

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The growth of urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa has accelerated in recent years and this growth is expected to pick up over the next 15 years, Bonnett says. “Donors, investors, governments and developers have been striving to improve living environments, but Covid-19 may sharpen minds around a more coordinated approach to developing sustainable, safe settlements.”

“In the same way as much of Africa leapfrogged telephony progress and went direct to smartphones, we now have an opportunity to develop new urban areas that are sustainable, environmentally friendly and resilient to disruption. This shock to the system could push us in the right direction to develop better integrated, smarter cities.”

Bonnett says Africa has much to learn from international best practice and pan-African forays into sustainable cities and infrastructure. “This is the time to have the conversations, and stimulate thinking around how we do this. Events like bauma CONEXPO Africa can play a key role in creating the linkages and getting processes going, so that the future-proof, sustainable African city is not just a theoretical concept.”  

Suzette Scheepers, CEO of bauma CONEXPO Africa organisers Messe Muenchen South Africa, says new approaches, technologies and construction materials can underpin Africa’s efforts to reimagine urban development. “Despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic, development will continue, and new opportunities will emerge across the continent. At bauma CONEXPO Africa, thought leaders from around the world and across Africa have an opportunity to assess new approaches and forge new partnerships that can support the development of the African cities of the future,” she says.

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