Who will plan Africa's cities?

By Vanessa Watson and Babatunde Agbola

Africa's cities are growing — and changing — rapidly. Without appropriate planning, they will become increasingly chaotic, inefficient and unsustainable. In many countries, planning legislation dates back to the colonial era. It is ill-equipped to deal with contemporary urban problems. A shortage of urban planning and management professionals trained to respond to urban complexity with progressive pro-poor approaches exacerbates urban dysfunction.

As planning educators seek to train students for employment within the existing system, the urban and rural planning curricula of many planning schools are as outdated as planning legislation. Some African countries have no planning school. The reform and revitalisation of planning education — and legislation — could contribute significantly to sustainable and more equitable urban development in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2012, planning students at Makerere University and members of the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda concluded a four-month "urban studio." The purpose of this unusual collaboration was to survey living conditions in six Ugandan informal settlements. For many of the students, this was their first experience of daily life in an informal settlement. With residents and Federation staff acting as "community professors," and planning students contributing technical knowledge, a vibrant two-way learning partnership was initiated.

Enumeration and mapping exercises provide invaluable evidence about informal settlements. Many such settlements, throughout Africa, do not even appear on official maps. At the conclusion of the urban studio in Uganda, the students and Federation members presented reports to the municipal authorities and communities. These included detailed information on education, income and savings, land tenure and access to basic services in the informal settlements. An indispensable resource for guiding the planning of inclusive, pragmatic urban development in the study areas had been created.

Urban planners in Africa are confronted by a daunting task. An urban crisis is being fueled by growing numbers of inhabitants without access to shelter, basic services or formal employment opportunities. Vigorous, often unrestrained, development of any available and well-located urban land is widespread. Environmental hazards are escalating, compounded by waste, air pollution and the effects of climate change. Conventional urban planning practices and systems that remain trapped in the past are failing to counter these threats. Planning is the single most important tool that governments have at their disposal for managing rapid urban population growth and expansion.

The prevailing image of urban and regional planning in Africa depicts a disengaged, technical and apolitical profession. A more critical view holds that planning is deeply political, its overriding purpose being to further the interests of political and economic elites. There is little enthusiasm for reform from within. Yet planning is the single most important tool that governments have at their disposal for managing rapid urban population growth and expansion. If inclusive and sustainable planning replaced outdated, controlling and punitive approaches it would underpin more equitable and economically productive urban development in Africa.

Crucially, change depends on planners who are innovative problem-solvers and willing to collaborate with all parties involved in the development process, including local communities. Their actions will need to be informed by explicit and progressive values. The education of these future planners requires thorough reappraisal of existing teaching methods, the introduction of new ones, and remodeled curricula.

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This is an excerpt from a publication entitled "Who will plan Africa's cities?", authored by Vanessa Watson and Babatunde Agbola of the Association of African Planning Schools and published by Africa Research Institute.

Africa Research Institute is a non-partisan think-tank based in London. Our primary objective is to influence policy through understanding and documenting best practice within government, the economy and society in sub-Saharan Africa. We seek to draw attention to ideas and initiatives that have worked and identify new ideas where needed.

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