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Scaling of the morphology of African cities

A large proportion of Africa’s infrastructure is yet to be built. Where and how these new buildings are constructed matters since today’s decisions will last for decades. The resulting morphology of cities has lasting implications for a city’s energy needs. Estimating and projecting these needs has always been challenging in Africa due to the lack of data.

Yet, given the sweeping urbanization expected in Africa over the next three decades, this obstacle must be overcome to guide cities toward a trajectory of sustainability and resilience. Based on the location and surface of nearly 200 million buildings on the continent, we estimate the interbuilding distance of almost six thousand cities. Buildings’ footprint data enable the construction of urban form indicators to compare African cities’ elongation, sprawl, and emptiness.

We establish the BASE model, where the mean distance between buildings is a functional relation to the number of Buildings and their average Area, as well as the Sprawl and the Elongation of its spatial arrangement. The mean distance between structures in cities—our proxy for its energy demands related to mobility—grows faster than the square root of its population, resulting from the combined impact of a sublinear growth in the number of buildings and a sublinear increase in building size and sprawl.

We estimate that when a city doubles its population, it triples its energy demand from transport.

R. Prieto-Curiel, J. E. Patino, B. Anderson, Scaling of the morphology of African cities, PNAS 120 (9) (2023) e2214254120.

Rafael Prieto-Curiel, faculty member at the Complexity Science Hub © Anja Böck

Rafael Prieto-Curiel

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