Namibia is a beautiful desert country in southwestern Africa. It's easy to find vast expanses of open land here, especially in the south - the roads are long and straight, and the twin cities of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund stand like fortresses guarding the thin strip between the icy Atlantic ocean and inhospitable sand dunes. Many travelers come to Namibia to "escape" real life and find something in the desert which approximates a simple, uncomplicated existence - perhaps finding an inner peace in the stillness. Even Angelina Jolie came to give birth to her daughter Shiloh, a type of birth tourism the irony of which did not escape many who live here.
Namibia, like many developing areas of the world, is seeing a tremendous growth in urban areas. In Swakopmund (shown here) the pace of growth is one of the fastest in the country, growing by 188% since 1991. The vast majority of the growth has been shacks - tin shacks in which a growing number of Namibia’s poor live. In fact, while the number of brick or block houses has doubled since 1991, the number of shacks has grown seven times over. That’s 700%. This represents a major shift in population away from rural areas to cities, a huge challenge for job creation, service delivery, and health. Namibia is different in this sense from South Africa, which is already heavily urbanized.
Growth of cities is preferable for many reasons - sustainability, prosperity, solidarity. Cities make it possible to provide hospital services, jobs, waste removal, power generation, higher education, and organized sports. Cities are more efficient in almost every way.
But rapid urbanization can create vast slums, continuing the level of poverty found in rural areas but with a much lower quality of life. This is the situation found now in much of Africa, and government officials struggle to grow their cities fast enough to accommodate this vast influx of people. Historic injustices of colonization, apartheid and economic inequality mean that there is no "quick" way to provide services to city dwellers with local tax revenue, requiring national, and even international, interventions to prevent the current catastrophe of a two-tiered society becoming even more sharply divided. Namibia and South Africa currently vie for the title of world's most unequal country.
How can we make sure this historic population shift is done in the best way, ensuring quality of life, dignity, and prosperity to all? The decisions made by city planners in the next few years will be critical to the long term viability of cities like Swakopmund and Windhoek.