Engage & Learn

Urban Africa

It is not uncommon for depictions of Africa in American media to focus on certain images. Photographs of children in need of donations show African children experiencing drought, famine, or illness. Photos from war torn countries show people in pain, suffering the consequences of war, be it local, national, government sanctioned, or civil. These photos serve a purpose, whether it is to accompany a piece of journalism or encourage a mid-afternoon television watcher to sponsor a child in need. The notions they perpetuate are not false, but they are incomplete. The urban landscape of Africa is growing annually, and has been for some time. A variety of African nations, steeped in manufacturing, travel, and urban development, experience a type of modernity we do not often see in American media. What of these cities on the rise?

It’s important, when considering these major metropolitan areas, to have some sense of size and scope, so let’s use American cities as a jumping off point. Chicago is the 3rd largest city in America with a population of 2,695,598 people and an approximate population density of 11,864.4 people per square mile. The two American cities that outrank Chicago include New York, with 8,175,133 people and a population density of 27,016.3/square mile, and Los Angeles, clocking in at 3,792,621 people with a population density of 8,091.8/square mile. Roughly 8 million, near 4 million, and near 3 million people – pretty big cities!

View over the Manhattan skyline from the top of the Rockefeller Center in New York. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia User Florin dr.

When we think of New York and Chicago it may be easy enough to picture a skyline or some iconic buildings that dots the skyline. The same may even be true of large European cities, Big Ben, The Eiffel Tower, or the Coliseum in Rome may help us identify big cities we’ve never visited. My favorite images are often of skylines at night, their modernity exemplified by their glowing electric buildings, bustling even after the sun sets. It surprised me, then, to see these very same images all over the continent of Africa in a variety of nations. This is nothing like what I’ve seen on TV as a child or teenager. Many people in African nations are not living in huts or swatting flies from their brow.

Keeping in mind the biggest American city, New York, with over 8 million inhabitants, living with just over 27,000 people per square mile, let’s look at some of Africa’s largest cities.


Johannesburg circa 2005; Photo courtesy of Lars Haefner.

One of the largest cities, with 6,758,581 people (as of 2006) living at a population density of 44,500/square mile, is Cairo, Egypt. This may not surprise you given that Cairo is a place we hear of often both in history class and in the news. But it might surprise you to learn that it’s not just Cairo, but a number of cities in African nations rival most American cities in population. The Nigerian city of Lagos has a population of 7,937,932 people! Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire boasts 3,660,682 inhabitants in the city proper, and Johannesburg in South Africa boasts 1,009,035 city inhabitants. The list goes on, large cities, sprawling metro areas, in a variety of African nations, not too far off from our own “big cities” of America and Europe. And many of these numbers are taken from censuses from years past, indicating that they’d only be larger today.

Danai Gurira’s play, The Convert, takes place in the nation we now know as Zimbabwe in the 1860s.  The capital of Zimbabwe, Harare, falls into this conversation as one of Africa’s many big-cities with a 2009 population of 1,606,00o.

Harare, Zimbabwe, circa 2003. Photo Courtesy of Martin Addison (shared under the Creative Commons License) via Flickr.


While the numbers tell us about the quantity of people living there, it does not speak to urbanism. Nor does it address how many Americans understand Africa, which is largely shaped by the images seen in magazines and on TV. When viewing images of these cities, the related notions of urban development are obvious. Just look at a few of these sprawling urban landscapes and African cities may not seem entirely different, visually, than American or European cities!

Arial view of Abidjan circa 2008. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Zenman.

Lagos from above circa 2012. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Jrobin08.

Downtown Cairo circa 2006. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Jackson550.

Another popular method of measuring a city’s size includes accounting for the attached metro areas. In Chicago, this might include the suburbs and even parts of northwest Indiana. These are sometimes referred to as  “urban agglomerations.” When viewing a chart of the 10 largest agglomerations in the world,  you’d find the United States only appears once, and that is the New York City agglomeration! Below is chart of African agglomerations, many of which outnumber American metro areas.  Because this chart was compiled by Wikipedia users, and not from a single scholarly source, it may not be 100% accurate, it has, however,  used multiple sources of census data to paint a  picture that gives us a good idea of the growth of these African cities.  You can even sort this chart by different statistics by visiting it online!

List of metropolitan areas in Africa (via Wikipedia)

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