Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Satellite Cities

Written by on . Published in Searchlight.

This article was originally drafted by the Society for International Development for the newsletter “GHEA Outlook” as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Searchlight Project. For more Searchlight content on, please click here.

Satellite cities are mushrooming across the Greater Horn of East Africa (GHEA), in response to the very rapid and largely unplanned growth of its urban centers. They also seem to be an expression of ambition and reflect the expectation of near-term prosperity, at least for their planners and developers. Satellite cities are attached to “mother” cities, but contain important public amenities for their residents. For example, Kakungulu Satellite City in Uganda, located not far from Kampala, contains 2,500 houses and apartments, as well a 50,000-seat stadium, a business center, two shopping malls, schools, hospitals and hotels. Tatu City in Kenya is designed to be a model of the African city of the future and a home for 62,000 residents, while Konza Technology City is a 5,000-acre ICT City Park.

Satellite cities may become case studies in how the older incumbent cities could be managed so as to attract or retain their residents. Kigali and Nairobi have modernized their city center and revitalized social and economic life there. If and when satellite cities are successfully executed, they could become shining examples of urban development in the region and inspire other, smaller cities to emulate them. While an inspiring vision for the future, satellite cities raise concerns about social equity as well as excitement about urban development.

First of all, it is almost inevitable that the poor will be displaced from their homes and livelihoods to make way for the new cities. It is instructive that while the Government of Tanzania promised that there would be limited displacement in the areas earmarked for Kigamboni Satellite City, a UN Habitat report expressed its doubts about this, noting that given the size of the development, a large proportion of existing landowners would have to be relocated.

Compensation could reduce some of the pain of displacement and relocation but only when it is deemed adequate in the eyes of the recipients – a rare event under prevailing conditions of determined governments and developers. Tanzanian legislators raised serious questions on behalf of the incumbent residents, some of who have little or no legal basis (title deeds) for their claims to the land on which they live. On this basis they can face lawful dispossession and displacement. Overall, questions of fairness, justice and equity appear to have received little more than a passing mention.

Secondly, there is a danger in what could be seen as secession by the rich. It is difficult to shake off a sense of concern that satellite cities, as envisaged and designed, will deepen the social division and exclusion in GHEA’s urban areas. There is an almost deafening silence on the issue of their implications for ordinary and poor urban residents.

In more concrete terms, the poor and vulnerable populations in the ‘mother’ cities face the heightened risk of further marginalization and impoverishment in at least two ways. The first is by encouraging the migration of the richer residents to the new cities, taking with them the property taxes, land rent, rates and levies paid to local city authorities. The second way is in imposing higher costs in the form of longer, more expensive commutes on those who are able to secure work in the new satellite cities but cannot afford to live there. Such physical distance would create, reinforce and deepen social and economic separation – a form of physical and fiscal secession by the rich from their compatriots.

Searchlight Process

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Research and Records Unit has undertaken an innovative approach to addressing this challenge by generating applicable intelligence that emerges from a forward-looking, on-the-ground perspective throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is known as the “Searchlight” function—a group of forward-looking, regionally-focused horizon scanning and trend monitoring grantees that conduct regular, ongoing scanning for novel ideas, research results, and "clues" to where the world is evolving.