Environmental scientists and urban planners have used a real-life SimCity to predict what booming Niamey, Niger, will look like in the year 2030.
Over the past 40 years, Niamey, Niger, has experienced a stunning growth spurt. In 1974, its population was less than 250,000—relatively small for a national capital. Then droughts and an economic crisis triggered a migration from rural areas to the cities, and by 2001 Niamey’s population had swelled to nearly 700,000. Today, some 1.3 million people call the city home. By 2030, more than 2 million will.
Managing such rapid growth can be a daunting task for city planners. Major utilities and transportation projects can take decades to complete; upgrading the infrastructure of a city that will look far different in 15 years than it does today calls for quite a bit of guesswork. Now a research team led by agronomist Andrew Manu of Iowa State University has devised a tool that provides city planners with a glimpse into Niamey’s future. It is, in essence, a real-life SimCity—a computer model that predicts just how and where Niamey will grow during the coming population boom.
The team includes researchers from two HBCUs: Yaw Twumasi, a professor of Urban & Regional Planning at Jackson State University and Tommy Coleman, an environmental scientist at Alabama A&M University. To build the model, the researchers started out by using satellite photos to analyze Niamey’s growth between 1973 and 1988. They found that a rural land parcel’s distance from existing urban areas, local roads, marketplaces, gullies, and airports were strong predictors of whether that parcel of land eventually became urbanized. The team incorporated those and other factors into an equation that assigns a probability of urbanization to every 30 x 30 m square of undeveloped land in Niamey. When they tested the model by letting it run between 1988 and 2001, it was able to forecast changes in Niamey’s cityscape with better than 90% accuracy.
The team’s model predicts that the Niamey of 2030 will be a picture of urban sprawl. As shown in the map below, the city will expand mostly to the northwest, along the Niger river, and to the river’s largely undeveloped southwest bank. (The purple, red, and yellow areas on the map show the extent of Niamey’s urban areas in 1973 and 2001 and 2030, respectively.) Tendrils will stretch out along the city’s main thoroughfares, the N1 and N24 highways, and along the Avenue de l’Africa.
Although their current work focuses exclusively on the Nigerien capital, the researchers note that Niamey’s population boom is by no means unique among African countries. Africa at large is urbanizing at a staggering 5% rate; Nairobi (Kenya), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Lagos (Nigeria), and Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) all grew sevenfold between 1950 and 1980.
Such growth can be a boon to a city’s residents. Unproperly manged, it can also bring ills—poverty, poor housing, traffic congestion, and overcrowding. For better or worse, however, the march of urbanization shows little signs of slowing down. Simulated cities like those developed by Manu and company might be key to making sure it doesn’t trample the quality of life of those in its path.