Near the shores of Lake Volta in Ghana, MIT researchers are working with villagers and other stakeholders on a project that could shape the future of African cities. They are developing no less than a new urban model for “a changing continent that is expected to add close to a billion people over the next 100 years with an economy increasingly based on large-scale industrial agriculture.

“We call it the holistic agribusiness city,” says Alan Berger, co-director of MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU), which creates new models for 21st-century cities. “The idea is to design thousands of small cities from scratch that reuse as much as possible in a sustainable way using the best technologies, the best in environmental planning, the best architecture, and the best infrastructural integration.”

One component of the conceptual design in Ghana, for example, is “a system that closes the loop on water consumption,” says Berger, professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. It uses lake water to irrigate many acres of a principal crop like corn managed by Africa Atlantic Franchise Farms, a CAU partner. That water is then recycled through smaller constructed wetlands in the interstitial areas between the irrigated land. There villagers—who may also work for Africa Atlantic—can grow their own secondary crops for personal use or export. “It’s a holistic cycle where the water and the nutrients in it are constantly being filtered out and reused,” Berger says.

And the potential for real impact is not limited to just one city or one country, Berger says. “Together we’re helping to design the future urban form of a continent.”

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