Africa's urban planning

By Gemma Todd

With urbanisation becoming a rising topic on the research agenda it is interesting to see how new models for urban planning, and laws, are being constructed. Recently, an event by the Africa Research Institute raised such ideas. The speakers introduced how the contextual diversity across Africa required exploration, and consultants need to focus on adapting a checklist of rule making, rather than make the rules, in planning Africa's emerging cities. Current African cities were presented as 'un-planned', or in need of a re-visioned approach to become inclusive and equitable. Urban planning was the solution — a means of enabling tax reform, effective management, and equal rights to the city. However, urban planning law needed to be re-written to work for 'African cities'.

The model introduced identified how the process of law making, and therefore planning, in African cities would change. Firstly, using a participatory approach to identify needs and interests; secondly, devolving power through to civil-society and municipalities; and finally, stepping away from a 'one size fits all' framework to ensure basic standards are maintained. Crucially, the speakers documented the need to focus on land laws. Urban planning law was identified as the key to creating just, inclusive, and social, cities. Effective urban planning had to be based on a functioning legal system; and the planning law would only work by embracing participatory approaches. The participatory approach proposed encouraged citizens to be the direct link to the central and local state, and redistribute power in planning to lower socio-economic groups. However, key questions need to be raised on the one hand, concerning the politics of 'informality'; and alternatively, the relationship between civil-society, participation, and the state. Crucially, it needs to be asked — can the law work for everyone and what kind of law(s)? Is there too much trust in 'planning'?

As highlighted, the promotion of participatory governance provides an opportunity to enable the sharing of ideas and a democratic process to make rules. Civil society enables greater accountability, transparency, and access to rights. However, in the African context, is civil-society too weak or alternatively has the voice of civil-society actors chosen to be marginalised? Further, whom does 'civil-society' include, and whose rights will they raise? When looking at what planning law can do, decentralising who spends the time to create such laws needs to be met with a state willing to take note. It seems there is a new paradigm emerging across the developing world, one of which embraces a 'localist' idea. However, the role of the state, and political nature of civil society, remains key. Whose 'informality' will be changed if new planning laws are implemented?

New planning laws are needed on how we build and design cities. However, as David Harvey has shown the switch of urban governance from managerialism to entrepreneurialism, with the state role switching from provider to enabler, comes with implications. A new model is born whereby investment in land becomes speculative, governance lawless, and a volatile geography the norm to avoid risk. The Open Government Partnership provides a step in the right direction for designing planning laws — encouraging a dialogue, and partnership, between multiple actors. However, we need to ensure the voices of urban inhabitants are heard.

Planning laws need to return to whom the urban environment is for and how the urban is imagined; and therefore who is involved in the process. Rather then being a simple 'chicken or egg' scenario where we now need new planning laws to engage in building just cities; we are missing a piece of the puzzle within the paradox — whom needs to be involved to lead such changes?

Photo credit: Carlos Fernandez

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