A new city classification method shows Southern African countries more urbanized than thought

By on 02/18/2019

LUSAKA, January 2019 – Countries in Southern Africa define their urban or rural areas in diverse ways. Current approaches use criteria such as population size and density, administrative functions, economic purpose and political delineations. This significantly affects both the number of urban areas and the share of population living in such areas in these countries. When a common approach is used to define urban areas, the sub-region is more urbanized than previously thought. This discovery was unveiled during a technical workshop held in Lusaka between 22 and 25 January 2019, and attended by representatives from 12 countries in the sub-region. These results were based on application of a unified city classification approach known as Degree of Urbanization (DEGURBA). Based on this classification, Botswana has seven cities/urban areas compared to the two nationally/officially recognized cities, and South Africa has 67 cities against fewer than 20 nationally recognized ones.

The DEGURBA approach evaluates whether an area is a city, town or rural area based on uniform grids (squares) measuring one square kilometers. The character of each grid is assessed based on its population density, and the total population of continuous grids determines if they collectively constitute cities, towns or rural areas.

One of the key challenges in reporting on progress on Sustainable Development Goal 11 which calls for inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities, is the lack of a globally agreed and applicable definition of a city or urban areas. A global voluntary commitment by the European Union and other partners during Habitat III in 2016 provided a way to advance work towards a globally harmonized city/ urban and rural areas definition. Through the commitment, countries are being consulted before an official proposal is made to the United Nations Statistics Division in 2020. Since October 2018, three regional consultations have been organized in Africa by UN-Habitat, the European Commission, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other partners that form part of this voluntary commitment. Four more consultations will be held in Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia regions between March and August 2019.

The Lusaka workshop was attended by representatives from national statistics offices, civil society, universities and ministries in charge of planning, urban development, housing, local government and finance. At the opening of the workshop, Mr. Charles Mushota, Permanent Secretary at the Zambian Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure Development, noted that a global definition would significantly help his country, which was preparing for the 2020 census, to implement systems for local monitoring and reporting on urban SDGs and NUA indicators, and the Africa 2063 agenda. Among other things, he highlighted the importance of a harmonized city definition in monitoring and making informed decisions that promote social inclusion, provision of basic services, creation of livable cities, improving connectivity and strengthening resilience. Mr. Thomas Chiramba, UN-Habitat’s programme manager who is in charge of several countries in the southern Africa region, noted that a harmonized city definition is urgently needed so that countries can accurately identify their types of settlements, compare data, monitor various development agendas and make informed decisions to bring about sustainable urbanization

Countries participating in the regional consultations on harmonized city definition are expected to undertake national and sub-national reviews of the DEGURBA and, if possible, put in place the necessary systems to adopt this approach as a mechanism for urban SDGs monitoring and reporting. UN-Habitat, the European Commission and FAO will continue to engage key actors in piloting the application of the DEGURBA and support its local adaptability, as part of their wider activities around urban SDGs monitoring

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