Africa's carbon-copy cities show how much it wants to be the new China

Given its history with population booms, China certainly seems like a good role model for other rapidly growing places.

Select capital cities in Africa are inclined to agree.

For example, here’s Guangzhou, a port city northwest of Hong Kong:

And here’s Kalimba New City, located near Angola’s capital city, Luanda:

Here’s downtown Nairobi, Kenya:

And here’s downtown Beijing:

The urbanizing shift that took place in China over the last 30 years has now made its way to Africa.

It’s out of necessity: Africa is booming from 1 billion people today to 4 billion by 2100. It’s getting way denser: According to reports, Africa had just eight people per square kilometer in 1950, and it will be 80 people per square kilometer by 2050.

In Luanda, Angola; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Nairobi, Kenya, governments and businesses are looking toward Chinese-style urbanisation as the model that will support that rapidly increasing population.

The ultimate goal of the urbanisation: Make Africa more like China, where the national poverty rate went from 84% in 1980 to just 10% by 2010.

In theory, urbanisation supports manufacturing and other industries, thereby creating jobs in the short-term and economic growth in the long-term.

The hope is that, in bringing all the successful ingredients from China’s urbanisation plan into developing African cities, the continent will enjoy similar financial payoffs: revenue from exports, increased demand to live in African cities, and raised visibility in the global economy.

The partnership is already reaping rewards.

In 2009, China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner, amassing trades totaling nearly $US200 billion. Contractors have been recruited to help build railway lines, apartment buildings, and offices — all following the Chinese model.

According to Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen, residents living in the thick of these changes couldn’t be happier.

In July 2013, Hulshof, a journalist, and Roggeveen, an architect, visited Africa to learn how six urban-minded cities across the continent were taking their cues and cultural norms from the East.

In an essay for their art project, “Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa,” the team explains how enthusiastic many of the citizens are about partenering with China.

On their first day in Kenya, the team encountered a man who openly denounced American influence (despite both men being Dutch). The man told them Kenya was developing a nice relationship with China. Kenyans had no need for help from the West.

“Over the course of the next week, we will discover that our young acquaintance is far from alone in this mindset,” the team wrote.

They’d come to find China’s state-owned TV broadcasts throughout Africa and a growing number of students living in capital cities attend Confucius Institutes — non-profit centres where kids learn about Chinese culture and language.

Despite the cities’ celebration of Chinese culture, interviews with over 100 African and Chinese architects, journalists, citizens, politicians, entrepreneurs, and designers, revealed to the duo how difficult a perfect replication will be. China and Africa differ too much in economics and politics for a “copy and paste” approach to work, the authors say.

Reason number one: Africa is an entire continent, not a country — a simple fact that can easily get overlooked. African countries differ widely in their politics, economy, history, and culture. For example, West Africa is generally regarded as less organised and developed than East Africa, in which British colonization built up much of the area.

China, meanwhile, is its own country with a unified cultural and economic mission that drives the country’s growth. People in China tend to fall along similar political lines and consider themselves unified under Chinese identity.

The success of making African cities like Chinese megacities will ultimately be measured by how much the country can expand its infrastructure. Urbanisation depends on moving people into cities, which means those cities must first exist, and also make it easy for people to live there.

Right now, China is struggling with building the infrastructure than can support its own urbanisation. The average commute in Beijing is 52 minutes, longer than New York’s. Africa’s sheer size presents another hurdle — its land mass is equivalent to the US, China, India, and most of Europe put together.

If population doesn’t become a limiting factor, geography inevitably will.

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