With urbanization rates continuing to rise and participation in the global economy necessitating ‘smart’ cities, the African continent seems to be the last frontier for the construction of ‘world-class’ mega-cities that boast a high-degree of planning, pristine landscaping, and glimmering skyscrapers modeled after Singapore and Dubai. By designing cities by master-plan, rather than trying to manage organic urban growth, governments can ‘leap-frog’ some of the less desirable urban attributes that seem to be synonymous with pre-existing African cities: poor infrastructure, uncontrollable sprawl, overwhelming traffic, pollution, housing shortages, and poverty. By starting fresh with a new city, governments can skip straight to the influx of international business and postcard-perfect architecture. The models for these cities – Singapore, Dubai, Shanghai, Putrajaya – tend to originate from rapidly developing economies rather than the usual ‘world-city’ suspects (London, New York) of the West.
The ‘smart city’ has gained currency across the continent in the last decade and the Horn of Africa is no exception. The region is planned to be home to the first planned mega-cities of the region: the Al Noor Cities (‘the cities of light’). The Al Noor twin city project was announced in 2007 as a joint project between Yemen and Djibouti. It includes an ‘eco-city’ on each side of the Gulf of Aden and the largest suspension bridge on earth, ‘the Bridge of the Horns’, which will link them. At present, no infrastructure – much less the bones of a city – exists in the planned location of Al Noor.
The project is seen primarily as a vehicle to attract international investment to the region, but serves an equally important role of changing the perception of cities on the continent as a whole. President and CEO, Ahmed Al Ahmed, stated: “It is a giant project, which will change the way the world looks at the region and increase trade movement. It will provide job opportunities and create cultural, scientific and commercial development.” Indeed, the ambitions of the plan go far beyond engineering feat. The Al Noor plans include environmental and social development objectives and – if we are to take the projects publicity material to heart - the ambitions of this project seem to border on saving the free world.
The Al Noor twin cities are not alone; they are part of a larger trend in new planned cities that has sprung up around the continent in the last decade, all with the aim of increasing investment and overcoming the perception that African cities are undesirable places for investment. Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, DRC, Morocco, Senegal, Rwanda (to name a few) all have at least one city in the works at the moment – even if that means only on paper. While little has been systematically documented about these cities in Africa (See: Watson, 2013 for an overview), there is much to learn from research conducted on Asia’s urban experiments.
For now, like many of its counterparts, Al Noor remains limited to mock-ups and promotional videos. With the ongoing political challenges in Yemen and the lack of intergovernmental agreements on the specifics of the project, little is expected to change in the near-term. But given the rate at which these plans have emerged and the lack of thorough investigation, they present a great opportunity for further research.
Goldman, Michael (2011). “Speculative Urbanism and the Making of the Next World City”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35 (3): 555-581.
Watson, Vanessa (2013). “African Urban Fantasies: Dreams or Nightmares?”, Environment and Urbanization 26 (1): 1-17.
Al Noor Cities website - www.alnoorcities.com