Past, present and future perspectives


With 64 per cent of its population living in towns and cities, Northern Africa is the most urbanized sub-region in Africa (UNCHS 2001a). Within the sub-region, urbanization rates vary between countries-36 per cent in Sudan to 95 per cent in Western Sahara (UNCHS 2001a). Most of this growth has occurred in the last two decades, although urban populations have increased steadily since the colonial phase. In 1990-1998, the average rate of urbanization reached 2 per cent per annum (World Bank 2001a), and it is predicted that this will continue over the next 15 years, which means that by 2015, 70 per cent of Northern Africa's population will live in cities (UNCHS 2001a).

Urban growth in Northern Africa is partially the result of rural-urban migration, but natural urban growth and reclassification account for more than 70 per cent of urban development (World Bank 1995). Furthermore, the new structural adjustment programmes adopted by most countries in the sub-region have brought new frontiers in industrial development in the last 10 years. By 1990, Alexandria (Egypt), Algiers (Algeria), Cairo (Egypt), Casablanca and Rabat (Morocco), Tunis (Tunisia), Tripoli (Libya), and Khartoum (Sudan) had populations of more than one million (UNCHS 2001a).


Old and well-established urban centres such as Cairo, Casablanca, Alexandria, and Tripoli continue to thrive and have retained their character despite various economic, social, cultural and political changes. However, urban agglomerations and 'mega-cities' are important features of recent urbanization trends, as well as heavy industrialization. Most infrastructure, and societal services are centred in these cities and they make the greatest contribution to national products. As a consequence, they play a vital part in economic development by providing opportunities for investment and employment. They have also gained a key political and administrative role.


Despite the gains outlined above, rapid urbanization in Northern Africa has also given rise to significant environmental and social problems, and is characterized by increasing urban poverty, emergence of informal settlements and slums, shortage in basic urban services, and encroachment on agricultural land. Between 15 and 50 per cent of city residents in the sub-region are urban poor living in squatter settlements, illegal subdivisions, sub-standard inner-city housing, custom-built slums, and boarding houses (World Bank 2000). It has also been indicated that cultural heritage sites are especially at risk from uncontrolled development and environmental degradation in urban areas. While there have been national and international efforts to conserve this heritage, greater efforts are required to ensure its protection.

Water supply and sanitation rates are higher in Northern Africa than in some other sub-regions, but they are nonetheless variable and many of the poorer residents of urban centres are without reliable services. In 2000, most urban residents had access to improved water supply (ranging from 72 per cent in Libya to 98 per cent in Algeria) and sanitation (87 per cent in Sudan and 100 per cent in Morocco) (WHO/UNICEF 2000). Casablanca's wastewater network, however, cannot cope with the volume of wastewater produced, despite recent upgrading by the municipality. As a consequence, large quantities of wastewater are discharged into the sea (WHO/UNICEF 2000).

Unplanned settlements in Northern Africa

Cairo has several large informal settlements on the city periphery and these accounted for 84 per cent of urban growth between 1970 and 1981 (ABT 1983). In 1992, there were 400 shantytowns in Casablanca, housing more than 53 000 families, and in Algiers, 6 per cent of the population are reportedly squatters (UNCHS 2001c). These settlements suffer from a shortage in basic infrastructure and hence have major health problems. Their illegal status compounds the problem, and residents often have to be moved to more appropriate sites where local authorities or municipalities can provide them with basic urban services including water supply, transport or health care (CEDARE 1997, Hamza 1994). More investment is required to provide these services to the whole urban population (Larsen 1995).

There has been land use planning and zoning in most of the cities in the sub-region. However, this has not, in some cases, prevented chaotic expansion and densification of cities. It is now the norm to find residential zones next to industrial sites or industries enveloped by housing estates, with all of the potential risks to the environment and to health which that entails.

In 1979, the Egyptian government implemented a strategy for improving the living conditions of urban slum dwellers in Cairo, by moving them to alternative locations. Residents of Eshash El-Torgman and Arab El-Mohamady were moved to El-Zawia El-Hamra, Ain Shams, or Madinat El-Salam. Their original residences were close to the city centre and thus to the job market, whereas the resettled areas were far out of town. Reports of the negative social impact of this move prompted the government to change its approach to informal settlement upgrading, and to adopt a new twofold strategy: clearance for state land (squatter settlements), and upgrading for private land (informal settlements). As a result of social pressure, however, no areas have been cleared, but provision of infrastructure to informal settlements has made significant strides (Manal El-Batran from UNCHS 2001c). In Morocco, settlements have been upgraded in Agadir (see Box 2g.2) and, in Casablanca, the state issued a plan, in 1992, to build 200 000 houses for low-income people. Progress has been slow however, as the extent of stateowned land has declined sharply, and privately owned land is very expensive, making subsidized housing unviable (UNCHS 2001c). Over the last three decades the government of Libya has made housing provision a priority and general housing, investment housing, agricultural housing and low-income housing projects have been implemented. Nearly 400 000 units were constructed in various locations, and efforts are well under way to deliver a further 60 000 (UNCHS 2001c).

Box 2g.2 Settlement upgrading in Agadir

The Moroccan National Shelter Upgrading Agency's project in Agadir has been recognised as one of Habitat's Best Practices for Human Settlements. Agadir was devastated by an earthquake in 1960 and housing for lower-income families has been insufficient ever since. In 1992, there were 77 separate shanty areas with 12 500 households (13 per cent of Agadir's population). The Upgrading Agency's project has provided approximately 13 000 serviced housing lots, housing units, apartment units, or lots for apartment units, has provided utilities connections for an additional 3 600 families, and created 25 000 jobs per year in construction. Reasons for the project's success include active participation of the clients in project design, implementation and monitoring, recognition of the clients' rights to adequate shelter by local authorities, open dialogue between the parties, and integration of former squatter into cosmopolitan neighbourhoods.

Source: UNCHS 2000.