Climate change and informality as defining features of African urbanisation

Blog post by Brandon Marc Finn and Patrick Brandful Cobbinah

27 Jun 2022, 9:34 a.m.
Brandon Marc Finn and Patrick Brandful Cobbinah



In our recently published paper in Urban Studies, we highlight two related issues which have and will define African urban development over the coming century: informal urbanisation and climate change. The confluence of this relationship is existentially important to African citizens and urban development. It also represents the global interlinkages and inequalities which magnify the vulnerabilities of the world’s poorest urban residents.

Africa produces the world’s lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita, yet its people face climate change’s harshest consequences. As the continent’s cities expand, its dependence on informal modes of urban life is also set to increase. Cities such as Accra (Ghana), Freetown (Sierra Leone), Lagos (Nigeria), Harare (Zimbabwe) and Nairobi (Kenya) represent a continuing and exploding trend of informal urbanisation. To understand informal urbanisation’s relationship to climate change, we categorise three key domains of informality: informal settlements, informal economies, and the state.

Informal settlements across the continent are often in low-lying, climatically vulnerable areas. Climate change-induced migration pressures contribute to pushing people into such settlements, which are at risk of flooding, disease, fires, and excessive heat. Compounding these threats is the neglectful, often violent treatment by national states and city municipalities of people living in informal settlements and working in informal economies. Such communities routinely face forced eviction, lack tenure security, work without social protections, are not provided with adequate sanitation and infrastructure, and are especially vulnerable to longer term climate change-related catastrophes like flooding.

While climate change is a global phenomenon, its effects are ‘significantly amplified in informal settlements’ in African cities. The global responsibility for these effects is an important topic, although not the focus of our current paper. Instead, we ask questions such as: ‘What public and economic support is offered to those who evaded formal economic systems because of their prohibitive cost or because of an over-saturated formal job market? Where do resources come from to rebuild communities that were never “formally” acknowledged or infrastructure that was drastically lacking before such events? How do we conceptualise theoretical, empirical, and practical interventions on urban informality as the effects and dangers of climate change grow more severe?’

To begin answering these questions, we propose that theorisations of urban informality require urgent engagement with questions of climate change. This is essential because both the effects of climate change and the realities of urban informality are produced across multiple local, national, regional, and global scales. Informal urban communities are dynamic and generative in their responses to structural neglect. Therefore, their incorporation into urban plans, climate change mitigation strategies, and international development projects is essential if they are to be protected against climate change’s harshest consequences, and provided economic and social support to gain upward economic mobility. Lastly, we must also consider the multiple scales at which climate change is produced. These inequalities are linked to the highly disproportionate effects resulting from global inequalities including greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

The confluence of urban informality and climate change appears dramatically and acutely across Africa’s diverse cities. The stakes of understanding this confluence, and equitably and effectively responding and planning for it are exceptionally high.  


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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