Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    1. Dar es Salaam - Present Day
  2. History
  3. Geography
    1. Population Geography
    2. Physical Geography
  4. Conclusion


New York, Los Angeles, London, or Tokyo might be the first places that come to mind when asked which of the world’s cities could be considered megacities. These cities have long been established as global economic centres, having grown at a considerably fast pace over the last few centuries. If this rate continues, we may soon have another megacity to add to the list. As of the 2012 census, Dar es Salaam (Dar), a rapidly growing city in Tanzania, had a population of around 4.36m, displaying an average 5.6 percent annual growth rate between 2002 and 2012[^1]. Compared to some other megacities, Dar is expected to grow to a population of around 21m by 2050, amounting to a total rise of around 20.7m between 1950 and 2050 (Sturgis, 2015). Many challenges stand to accompany these patterns of rapid expansion; some of which are only contemporary in nature or rarely occurring over such a short projected timescale. Framed by the heritage and urban geography of Dar es Salaam, I intend to examine these challenges to better understand how sustainable growth might be realized.

Dar es Salaam - Present Day

Dar es Salaam is an expansive, ethnically diverse, and architecturally varied city. Dar is also one of the few favoured harbor locations along the eastern African coast. The mouth of the harbour opens narrowly into the Indian Ocean—so narrowly that only one large boat can pass through at any given time (De Blij, 1963). Situated very close to the equator along the eastern edge of Africa in Tanzania, it’s well situated to handle most of Tanzania’s international trade. The harbour itself sits adjacent to the Central Business District (CBD) which the rest of the city radiates outward from. Over its relatively short lifespan of around 156 years, the city has grown to a population of at least 4.3m, up from only 150000 at the midpoint of the 20th century. The coupling of a minimal urban planning strategy with the city’s tumultuous political history has led to the creation a situation that will likely prove challenging to adapt. One symptom of these factors can be seen in the approximately 70% of the population that reside in informal settlements on the periphery of the developed city. This is a significant issue that is currently faced in Dar and will carry forward into this period of intense growth, which in North America—particularly after World War II and during the middle of the 20th century—saw the adoption of unsustainable development patterns that rely on the automobile for transit. This pattern is characterized by the term ‘urban sprawl’ and has resulted in many cities' unrestrained and low density outward expansion. Dar's development until now has largely followed a similar pattern; albeit with far less reliance on automobiles. Despite 88% of the population choosing some form of public transit, congestion in Dar is still quite high; likely as a result of commuters travelling from suburbs by car to work in the CBD (Nkurunziza et al. 2012). With little formal strategy in place to grow a city upward and slowly from the centre, the population spreads out, and along with it, costs. Another consequence of the aforementioned lack of formal urban planning initiative, is that neighbourhoods in Dar don’t conform to a specific grid pattern or regular system, leading to property development within odd angular shaped parcel boundaries (De Blij, 1963). Architecturally, the CBD shares traits of other African-Portuguese cities, inherits direct German influence in many governmental buildings, and even incorporating some parisian flavour through the embrace of street level cafes. Suburban dwellings are reminiscent of large American single family homes, while informal settlements are characterized by more rudimentary shelters.


Around 1860 the Sultan Sayyid Majid bin Said Al-Busaidi of Zanzibar was reaching the pinnacle of his control over African territory. His empire was built on profits made from the slave trade—which in Zanzibar was centred upon the Bagamoyo port—and his affairs were becoming the subject of greater British interference. According to Harm de Blij, it was out of an increasing sense of uneasiness towards this interference that Majid decided to seek an alternative headquarters for his empire. Materializing as an Arab settlement, this alternative headquarters became Dar es Salaam. (De Blij, 1963).

The sultan’s death in 1870 coincided with the first British attack on the slave trade in Zanzibar and along coastal Africa and Dar es Salaam was left abandoned. The British would return a few years later, attacking the mainland slave trade and spurring growth in Dar; which because of its location directly across the sea from Zanzibar was better suited for a port than Bagamoyo. During the 1870’s, there was an effort to build a road from Dar to Lake Malawi with an intention to stifle the slave trade by providing alternative and legitimate ways to engage in commerce. This was a matter of replacing the previously shortest path between Bagamoyo—which was the slave trade centre—and the deep interior.

From 1881 and onward, Dar became a garrison town for the Germans while they engaged in conflict with Africans in the interior. Remaining primarily a military town for the Germans until around 1914, Dar begins to see it’s first notable population growth, as the British and Arabs did little to develop the city as a settlement. The Germans would act as the first influencers to the city’s urban character, as can be seen in throughout the buildings originating during German rule. They’d also establish the first street plan which led to the aforementioned irregular property development in the urban core. 1914 would see the defeat of the Germans, and a return to British rule; temporarily administered from elsewhere due to a scarcity of accommodation for new personnel (De Blij, 1963).

Between Britain regaining administration over Dar (1914) and 1945, Dar experienced highly fluctuating growth as a subject of the same financial effects as the rest of the world during the great depression. One such effect being changes in market forces for their main commodity Sisal during World War II. After the war, Tanganyika—present day Tanzania—would once again fall back to British administration and a new phase would begin in the capital.

Post-world-war Dar es Salaam moved quickly and managed to pass the first urban development plan called the “Colonial Development and Welfare Act”. This was a ten-year plan that was meant to encourage faith in Her Majesty’s Government by promoting development through investments. The harbour would be renewed, many governmental institutions would be constructed, and in 1961 the state of Tanganyika would gain independence as a sovereign nation. Tanganyika didn’t last long however, as it was dissolved three years later when it joined the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, later to become Tanzania, a portmanteau of the names of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

Population Geography and Urban Development History

With the relief of an order that had restricted the migration of africans into towns in 1961, the population started growing rapidly (Sheuya, 2010). The rate of population growth in Dar started growing at almost double its population per decade and in an effort to quell this growth, citizens of Dar es Salaam were actively encouraged to reside in rural towns under a socialist farming movement (Sturgis, 2015). Further efforts to slow its growth came in 1974 when the capital was moved from Dar to Dodoma.

While these efforts likely hampered Dar’s growth for a few decades, the city still continued to grow at around the previous rate, though it could have become a notable city sooner had these efforts not been in place. The movement against city life started dissipating in 1985 and the city once again had an influx of people, growing from approximately 1,360,850 in 1988 to 3,825,877 in 2012 (Sturgis, 2015). This trend is expected to continue, reaching 21 million in 2050.

As a consequence of the active discouragement toward city living, and during this first influx of people, the city was severely lacking in urban planning and general development. This led to a severe shortage in accommodation and a massive rise in informal settlement growth. Informal settlements can be thought of as shelters constructed illegally or not in compliance with an urban planning regulation or specification. The UN places the figure of informal settlements at 70% of the population of Dar es Salaam (Sheuya, 2010).

However, according to CityLab, this does not mean that Dar is largely composed of people living in poverty, nor that the city is necessarily doomed to collapse. Dar will lift more people into the middle class than any other African city in the coming decades and maintains a 4.1 percent poverty rate compared to the 33 percent poverty rate in surrounding rural towns (Sturgis, 2015).

Physical Geography of the Region


Dar es Salaam has been established in one of East Africa’s optimal locations for a natural harbour; earning its place as Tanzania’s primary port city. Natural harbours require a sheltered body of water and deep enough water for ships to dock. Dar fits this criteria reasonably well, as the harbour sits in the drowned estuary of Mzinga creek. Evidence suggests that the whole area, including where the city sits today, were recently submerged. (De Blij, 1963) There are a few obstacles however, such as shallow terraces beneath the water and near the mouth of the harbor that necessitate careful navigation. These geographical limitations restrict the harbour from servicing a large amount of traffic simultaneously; an existing source of growing pain that presented itself more prominently in the latter half of the 20th century and only stands to become dramatically more difficult to manage in coming years.


Dar is a topographically flat and low-lying area, with most of the land under 35m from sea level. A few miles inland we see a terrace rise above 300m. Surrounding this low-lying area is a bluff that stretches from the shore to the terrace, in Northern areas forming a cliff and in some areas giving way to beaches.


Dar's location in equatorial East Africa provides for an extremely hot and humid climate year round; making shade a precious commodity and a desirable feature of urban development. To lessen this burden, both the Germans and the British helped to introduce trees into the urban landscape; at least in the more desirable areas east of the downtown core. There are few viable agricultural crops supported by the land surrounding the city, but yields of Sisal—a species of the Agave plant—were found to be worthwhile and became one of the primary exports from Dar.

In summary, Dar es Salaam’s notable features include its harbor and port, the underlying estuary, and the cliffs that bound the region. It’s a relatively flat and low area, that suffers from exposure to the intense near-equatorial sun. Agriculturally undiversified, Dar primarily relies on other economic exports than cash crops, but farmers have been able to farm Sisal for most of the last century.

Urban Growth Patterns and City Structure

Dar es Salaam is composed of the municipalities Ilala, Temeke, and Kinondoni, each of which have a share of 73 total wards and 276 sub-wards. The city radiates outward from its Central Business District along the major thoroughfares that run to the north, northwest, west, and south. As early as the first major growth period in the mid-twentieth century, suburbs began developing outside the CBD. Residents originally conglomerated into their own ethnic areas, but now the suburbs compare more closely to North American cities where the population is distributed by wealth, increasing in a as they move further away from the center. One notable example of what would be called 'first-class' residential is called Oyster Bay, which sits just to the North of the city. First-class residential also appears near the harbour on the edge of the CBD. Second-class residential can also be seen northward from the CBD, but closer in proximity, while third-class residential mixes with commercial in the inner city. Lastly, outside the built city we see the aforementioned informally developed sprawling settlements.

Managing the Growth - Solutions

One of the most obvious symptoms of sprawl in any city is traffic congestion and Dar es Salaam is no exception. In the last 15 years, a master transportation plan has been developed with consideration towards the majority 88% of the population that commutes via public transit, and a bus rapid transit system conceived. This system is being deployed in 6 phases, the first of which was completed in 2016 and proceeded to service 300,000 daily commuters. All of the built city of Dar, including some parts of the outer informal areas will be serviceable by end the 6th phase. This is a big step in the right direction, but this plan will only go to serve a small portion of the population that lives in informal settlements. Gradual re-development of informal settlements, that were originally poorly planned for, could provide for a sustainable growth pattern going forward, and a positive impact on the economy as people are able to realize the benefits of a modern accessible city. My suggestion here would be to build and plan for rapid growth, addressing former mistakes now before the city grows outward further. More formal building development would invite those of informal populations into the city as well as newcomers, densifying a potentially massive economic base and supporting Dar’s projected evolution into a megacity.


Dar es Salaam is a very young city of only around 156 years, largely in existence as a result of it’s viability as a port city and military outpost, once the headquarters of the Tanganyikan slave trade. Growth and development was hampered severely during the first 80 years of the city’s history, but now finds itself within the top 9 fastest growing cities in the world (City Mayors, 2018), projected to reach a population of 21m by 2050 (Sturgis, 2015). With regard to urban development, Dar’s neighbourhoods follow familiar patterns. Concentric circles of residential suburbs radiate outward from the CBD with increasing levels of wealth furthest north. By contrast, residents had at one point ethnically conglomerated in such a way that would have determined different neighborhood boundaries. Other high income residents live near the harbour on the edge of the CBD, while the lowest income residents either live adjacent to commercial development within the CBD or outside the built city in informal settlements. The city currently sits at a transitionary period in which it’s adopting modern methods of city planning, public transportation, and increasing densification, in contrast to the lack of these intentions during the first half of the city’s history. While these efforts do stand to serve the vast majority of Dar’s built urban area, it may struggle to serve the 70% of its population that live outside in informal settlements.


1 - National Bureau of Statistics, Office of Chief Government Statistician President’s Office (2012)._ Population and Housing Census 2012_ [Data file]. Retrieved from
2 - Thanks to ODILRAK91 for the photo of Dar's night lights found on Wikimedia Commons


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