How do we measure “livability” in African cities?

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Street-level actvity at Makola Market in Old Accra.
Street-level actvity at Makola Market in Old Accra.

In the Africa.com article “The Top 10 Most Livable Cities in Africa”, I was excited to see the city that I currently reside in — Accra, Ghana — listed as the second most livable city in the continent. As you might guess, it’s many of the continent’s main attractions that find themselves on the list — both Cape Town and Johannesburg, in South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Gaborone, Botswana; and Tunis, Tunisia are just some of the upscale cities that find themselves on the list.

One of the challenges I’d like to pose is to the article’s very perspective on “livability” — and how that influences which cities end up on this list. While the editors acknowledge that they considered both quantitative and qualitative factors in their determinations —  “availability of goods and services, quality of infrastructure, and overall security (which is defined both in personal terms and in national political terms)” — they conspicuously leave out important economic (and other) factors that in my mind, play an immense role in making a city a positive, affordable, safe, and productive space to live and work in. I also am a bit uncomfortable with the distinct emphasis on these cities as travel/relocation destinations (and leaving out any emphasis of these cities’ livability from the perspective of residents already living there).

What is “livability,” anyway?
Livability is a somewhat elusive term. It is also a neverending goal when it comes to urban development. In my own words: how can we make the city an enjoyable, safe, environmentally friendly, equitable, affordable, accessible and enduring space for the city’s residents (not necessarily in that order)? City planners, governments, architects, urban designers, etc, they all (should) aim to achieve livability as a goal — but even once they achieve it, they have to work to maintain it.

In the case study “What Makes a City Livable?” from the Canada-based research center Community Research Connections, the authors  acknowledge that the idea of “livability” is difficult to define, because it has so many (potential) attributes:

“Livability is critical to the establishment of a sustainable community, if for no other reason than if it is not present people will not stay in the community. But liveability as a term is exceedingly difficult to define. For some, it is intrinsically tied to physical amenities such as parks and green space; for others to cultural offerings, career opportunities, economic dynamism, or some degree of reasonable safety within which to raise a family. Where liveability is linked to sustainability and infrastructure issues it is normally as an alternative development model to the expansion of sprawling suburbs with low densities of both population and services and where infrastructure provision is costly to ecological, economic, and social capital…”

When people speak of livability, they aren’t always on the same page. For example, in the Economist’s Future Cities Conference that took place in Lagos, Nigeria earlier this year, Anam City blogged on the discussion of a livable African city, a discussion which drew disparate responses — the World Bank representative considered transportation and power as major measurements, while the mayor of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania pointed to security and community involvement. On the other hand, the United Nations Nigeria representative pointed to clean energy and the availability of social infrastructure. With not even any overlap in this discussion (at least what we can see), it highlights the need for a transparent, clear methodology set forth from organizations that aim to undertake a measurement of this fashion. It also shows that there are a wealth of factors that could, and probably should be considered.

On measuring livability

While the editors considered availability of goods and services, infrastructure access, and security, I’d argue that’s just the beginning in trying to measure these cities. In a city like Accra where inflation has caused dramatic increases in the prices of goods over the past year, it’s hard to believe that no economic factors were considered in Africa.com’s analysis. How affordable is to rent an apartment/house or buy a house/condo? How affordable and accessible is public transportation, or fuel for private transport? How affordable are groceries each week? How difficult is it to get a job, to see a doctor when your child is sick, how accesible are parks and community spaces? Or, environmental concerns: How clean is the air I’m breathing? How well is my city prepared against flooding (an unfortunately regular annual issue in many low-lying areas in parts of Ghana, including Accra; and in Nigeria, including Lagos, Owerri, Port Harcourt…).

This infographic from the Philips Center for Health and Well Being, titled “A livable and lovable city?” considers provides an interesting and visual way to consider three main themes for a city’s livability: resilience, inclusiveness, and authenticity. [Click on the image to enlarge]
In addition, what is core is that the city’s livability, whatever criteria considered, is in sufficiently considering these criteria from the point of view from the people who are living there. While the attractiveness of a city’s livability plays a huge role in pulling tourism, new business, investments and residents to a city, livability is most critical for those already present.

If I were to compile a list of key criteria, here’s some additional areas I would certainly tag on:

  • Environment – How clean is the city, how green? What are key climate concerns and how are they being addressed?
  • Socioeconomic – How equitable is the city? How do measures like the Gini coefficient (or similar measure) demonstrate the city’s economic (in)equalities?
  • Security – What is the level of crime, and how are things trending?
  • Inclusiveness – How are marginalized populations included and responded to in their needs? From ensuring the elderly, the disabled, the poor, even the undocumented are assisted in becoming full members of society? Are there areas in the city that do a good job of bringing people together (e.g., public spaces)?
  • Accessibility – how easy is it for the average person reliant on public transport to get around the city? How affordable is it? Is the city infrastructure conducive to non-motorized transit (walking, bicycling)?

In the end…?

When we fail to consider the factors that impact daily life – for the expat, sure, but most importanly for long-term or lifelong residents at the lower, middle and upper-income class levels, we fail to paint an accurate picture of how responsive a city is to its residents’ needs, and how livable it really is. Not just the tourists or the economically mobile returnees looking to capitalize on new opportunities at home, but for the very people who are living in and working to keep that city going.

In the end, it’s entirely possible that one could widen the lens through which we are exploring the livability of African cities, and still come up with this same list determined by Africa.com. Cause they are likely on the right track. I’d just like to see them go all the way.

  • As an engineering student I once studied a report that rated standard of living on the basis of two measures alone: energy consumption and the size of the divide between the rich and the poor (i.e. total variation in class inequality). It was reasoned that higher per capita income of electricity is an indicator of standard of living and smaller variations in class inequality an indicator that electricity was evenly shared by the population, as opposed to concentrated at the manses and compounds of rich lords.

    In the developed world, per capita energy consumption is an excellent measure of standard of living because, though vast gulfs exist in class equality, electricity is still cheap enough to be easily afforded by the masses.

    Perhaps standard of living is not all the way to livability, but its damn near on close.

  • Wow. I have made three trips to Accra and I would not have labeled it the second most livable city in Africa. What I recall most is sitting in gridlock traffic and thinking that what the city needed was urban planning! I certainly agree with your definitions of livability. The other thing that I heard a lot about when I was in Accra in 2010 was that a lot of “illegal” housing was being bulldozed to make way for urban development, leaving thousands of residents homeless. Which raises the inclusiveness criterion that you identified. How is access to adequate housing addressed when considering livability. Thanks so much for a thoughtful, interesting post!

  • Very interesting. I live in Johannesburg and have been to several African cities and agree wholeheartedly. I have never been to Accra, will definitely try and get there one day!

  • Reblogged this on Ashley Hoy.

  • hope to visit one day

  • Excellent blog. I will be moving near an African city in the near future and look forward to thinking about this question in context then. I agree with looking at inclusiveness as a measure – is the city liveable for all? How does the city tackle its challenges for different groups? Security and safety is also key. Thanks for the article and well done on getting ‘Freshly Pressed’

  • For a while 2-w00 and I lived in a suburb of Kampala – made livable-in by Sam’s – one of the best curry houses in the world! 😉

  • As long as life is sustainable and safe, “livable” can be applied to any city.

  • Kat

    Great Article, and living in an African city myself, I can totally relate to all the issues you raise. You raise valid points. I, too, find it rather strange that economic factors, including the recent hyperinflation in the cities wasn’t considered. In my native Luganda we say ‘this simply wants to send me back to the village’.. i.e city life has become too hard. Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed.

  • Exactly, you’ve really hit the nail on the head talking about the traffic/transport issues and illegal housing demolitions. Still very much present in this city. Accra is a great city, don’t get me wrong (and I think that in many ways, other African cities I’ve visited could learn a lot by how the government has been able to develop the city with what it has, issues aside), but we shouldn’t gloss over the challenges and negative points.

  • Important point, and something I hadn’t considered! Thanks for sharing. Any chance you still have the details so we could take a look at the report online, if possible?

  • Thanks! Will check out your blog now!

  • I really like the point you raise in this post.

  • Sorry, I graduated 8 years ago and the interim has not been the most stable part of my life, nor am I a practicing engineer any longer. I’ll poke around this afternoon and see if I can find a related article. Excellent post, btw, very well researched.

  • I agree with your post wholeheartedly. I studied International Affairs, and wrote my Master’s thesis on Human Rights Based Approach to Urban Upgrading, using a program called Favela Barrio in Rio de Janeiro as a case study. While my thesis focused more on the aspects of “rights to the city”, citizenship, social issues and equality, I 100% agree that mere presence of certain goods and services, for example, is not enough to determine “livability”. Providing people “access” to something is not sufficient, if for most residents the basic goods and services are still unaffordable, unattainable or unreliable. I have lived in Kenya for a brief period of time, and while I very much liked the city I lived in, Kisumu, I absolutely hated Nairobi though it had much more “services” to offer than smaller Kisumu did. The pollution, congestion, traffic and lingering instability stemming from the grave inequality and disparity that is present in Nairobi, in my opinion, made the city anything but livable. I currently live in Bangalore, and experience many of the interesting and challenging issues of a multi-million city in a growing yet highly unequal country. Will definitely keep visiting your blog – feel free to pop in for a dose of India, women’s rights and American politics at http://onforeignground.wordpress.com/

  • Reblogged this on benabits's Blog.

  • Reblogged this on Urban Choreography and commented:
    The controversial “Livability” of cities comes up again and again – how we measure this and how we agree what o to do about it is critical…. some relevant comment where – especially the emphasis on what it means for those who live there and who make it possible.

  • Reblogged this on urbanculturalstudies.

  • Reblogged this on Rashid's Blog.

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