Accelerating Sustainable Land Use Planning in African Cities

By Enrique Silva, Chief Program Officer, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and Kathy Nothstine, Director of Cities and Societies, Challenge Works, July 17, 2024

A recent study from the Lancet found that by the start of the next century, more than half of all births will occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Thanks to higher fertility rates and longer life expectancies, the continent’s population is on track to nearly double to 2.4 billion by 2050, then nearly double again, to 4.2 billion by 2100.

Within Africa, intermediary cities (noncapital cities, typically with a population of 1 million or fewer) are the fastest growing urban places. Between 2022 and 2030, intermediary cities are expected to account for nearly 50 percent of Africa’s overall urban population growth, and this growth will occur largely in cities that currently have fewer than 1 million people. For example, Zinder, the third-largest city in Niger, is expected to more than double its population between 2020 and 2035, growing from about a half-million to over 1 million residents.

The implications of this tremendous growth for people, communities, economies, and the environment are extraordinary, made even more complex by the impacts of climate change and climate migration.

A recent collaboration between the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Challenge Works investigated ways to support effective land use planning, infrastructure investments, land-based financing, and disaster resilience in rapidly growing intermediary cities in Africa. We used a mixed-methods approach that synthesizes literature reviews, interviews with urban policy experts and city officials, and specialist workshops.

We explored:

  • the main goals of intermediary cities in Africa when it comes to managing growth;
  • the barriers preventing such cities from using data-driven planning, mapping, and land-based financing tools; and
  • how a challenge prize could accelerate the creation and scaling of such tools.

Below, we summarize some of the things we learned, and how we plan to take the idea of a challenge prize forward.

Growth is not inherently bad—but can have unintended consequences if not managed.

Often, with population growth comes economic opportunity and improved quality of life. More and better jobs, more economic mobility, and better access to health care, education, and sanitation are among the benefits of population growth.

However, we wanted to dig into questions of land use and infrastructure development knowing that:

Land use planning in intermediary cities is critical to creating more sustainable futures.

In speaking with city leaders and experts within government, NGOs, and industry working in this space, we learned that land use planning has different inputs, outputs, and outcomes. When these are integrated, a virtuous cycle can occur:

  • cities can use evidence and insights to inform plans and policies;
  • evidence-based, implementable plans that are created with input from diverse stakeholders are more likely to be enforced and lead to better outcomes; and
  • this increases the level of trust and evidence available to inform new plans and policies.

The enabling ecosystem—which includes elements like institutional capacity to develop and implement plans, political dynamics, human capacity and skills, funding, cultural norms, and more—also plays an important role in creating and implementing land use plans (or conversely, limiting or obstructing progress).

We also learned that the loop can become ineffective for a number of reasons, which are generally attributed to two primary gaps: first, when effective, evidence-based land use plans are not created, due to organizational barriers (things like internal government silos or lack of planning capacity), political and economic barriers (things like political cycles and competition for resources), and technical barriers (such as lack of quality, up-to-date data); and second, when completed land use plans are not implemented, again due to organizational barriers (like complex land tenure), political and economic barriers (limited authority or resource to implement plans), and technical barriers (lack of local buy-in or weak enforcement powers).

Innovation has the potential to both address pain points within those gaps and strengthen the enabling ecosystem.

For example, we’ve identified city-specific use cases to create context-sensitive solutions that use data analytics to better plan for future mobility needs and transport infrastructure, or to better predict climate risk vulnerabilities and therefore inform land use regulations; apply crowdsourced data and citizen-sensing techniques to create and implement inclusive, equitable land use plans; or examine and collate property registration and valuations to bolster municipal finances and the use of land-based financial tools.

At the ecosystem level, creating new tools or adapting tools to the local context can help organizations leapfrog over traditional planning systems and catalyze new practices, and bring together government agencies or organizations that would not normally collaborate.

Tech solutions can help—but need to be paired with institutional enablers.

While our investigations confirmed the exciting potential for data-driven, digital technologies to help city leaders reduce risk and make more informed decisions, we also learned that new data collection and analysis tools are only as good as the planning and implementation processes they inform. Data-driven tools need to be developed in ways that are people-centered, inclusive, and fair, and are ineffective if they aren’t supported by an enabling ecosystem to implement and update effective plans.

Solutions that pair technical innovation with institutional innovation will enable intermediary cities in Africa to pioneer methods to manage growth in ways that are contextually appropriate and don’t yet exist.

A challenge prize can help spark and scale up solutions.

We propose to run an open innovation challenge in partnership with rapidly growing African intermediary cities. Such a challenge would invite innovators to create, test, and scale solutions to manage rapid growth. The challenge structure is based on partnering with cities to create an open call to innovators, oriented around a specific city use case, which will then work closely with city stakeholders to create custom, locally relevant solutions.

The challenge will include these fundamental features:

  • Centering the challenge around opportunities cities want to address. Innovators will respond to challenge statements that reflect the goals cities want to achieve. This is different from, and complementary to, innovation funding approaches that focus on specific technologies or methods.
  • Prioritizing scalable and replicable solutions. Our research revealed a number of promising innovations that are already being piloted and implemented in real-world settings. Despite this, scaling solutions remains a barrier. For instance, innovators who have the right data analytics solution may not have access to the permissions needed to test it in the real world, or the relationships to introduce it in places that need innovation. Local governments may not be prepared to adopt and maintain services. The challenge will be designed to address scaling barriers through seed funding, capacity-building, new business models, and access to customers, investors, and networks.
  • Providing appropriate incentives and support for innovators to experiment and take risks. The outcome-based, stage-gated funding model of an innovation challenge means that innovators can experiment, while cities can benefit from crowding in a variety of ideas and expertise. Having access to both financial and nonfinancial support enables innovators to develop solutions in ways they might not be able to otherwise.
  • Shaping and accelerating innovation in land use planning. By supporting multiple innovators working across multiple use cases and settings, the challenge can accelerate progress in the field of land use planning, as well as steer innovation in a direction more attuned to the needs of rapidly growing cities in low- and middle-income countries.

The time is now.

Africa is both the cradle of civilization and the world’s youngest continent, with half the population under the age of 19. The continent is also facing critical risks related to climate change and associated implications to disaster resilience, food and water security, energy supplies, and more. To ensure that future city growth in Africa is inclusive, equitable, sustainable, and resilient to changing conditions, we urgently need to take action now to accelerate and scale new models to manage growth. Our next steps are to assemble the partners to implement the next stage of the challenge. If you are interested in contributing, get in touch!

With sincere thanks to Stefan Chavez-Norgaard, Teodora Chis, Astrid Haas, Peter Oborn, and the many policy experts, development practitioners, city officials, tech innovators, and others who provided their insights and experiences to shape this program.



Lead image: City market street in Lagos, Nigeria, West Africa. Credit: peeterv via iStock/Getty Images Plus.