Changing urban planning: an urban SDG for compact cities

Gemma Todd, Dar es Salaam Community Manager
Dar es Salaam, 5 September 2014

What does it mean for a city to be 'sustainable'? A common definition of sustainability refers to development that is able to meet the needs of the present without jeopardising that of future populations. Such is becoming the topic of discussion within urban design, policy, and planning — with the future 'urban,' how can we ensure sustainable cities; and for whom is it important? This article focuses on how Dar es Salaam has implemented ideas on sustainable design, and what an urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) would resolve for the growing city. An urban SDG puts focus on the importance of cities within the modern age — acting as economic, social, and political nodes, it shifts the scale of focus from nations to cities: how they are run, planned, and lived. But can an urban SDG change Dar es Salaam's urban planning?

Reports suggest that Dar es Salaam is set to become Africa's next megacity. The city is the most populated region in Tanzania, with new migrants entering the city, and an average annual population growth of nearly five percent. New peripheral districts continue to pop up at the edge of the city, creating new spaces for the changing population, but also making traffic jams a daily experience for many. Urban sprawl continues to be an issue, affecting the experience of living in Dar es Salaam. Traffic jams have social, health, and economic costs. The city's congestion is predicted to cost vehicle users 411/bn Tsh a year (almost USD $250 million). The high costs (in money and in time) of travel results in segregated communities, and worsening inequality as studies show that as a result of poor services and infrastructure, the poor are getting caught within a poverty trap. Put off by high travel costs, the poor remain stuck in their neighbourhoods.

In 1993, the idea of a designing a 'Compact City' arose within the Sustainable City Programme (a joint UN-HABITAT — UNEP project). Dar es Salaam was identified to showcase 'unguided urban growth' characterised by the city's expansion and growth in informal housing. The SCP emphasised the need for strategic urban development planning — to resolve environmental issues including waste management, transportation, and sprawl. The concern on sprawl emphasised firstly the need for understanding land titles, transfers, and markets; and secondly, mapping and creating a database of current services. Sustainable city design returned to compaction: the idea that small is beautiful and efficient, and that sprawl should be controlled. Although debates have questioned whether a compact city is more sustainable, the prospect of an urban SDG revives this debate. An urban SDG acts as a composite measure of how land, housing, agriculture, transport, and policy are utilised and established. It is therefore an indication of urban planning, and an opportunity for a new Master Plan.

Additionally, the focus on urban sustainability will encourage urban renewal by changing how space is viewed and used. Restricting urban growth and measuring the city's sustainability encourages officials to rethink the use of space. The importance of urban agriculture as a source of food security and income is being recognised.

However, when recognising the importance of an urban SDG in resolving urban issues concerning sprawl, food, and income, the bigger picture needs to be seen. For Dar es Salaam, an urban SDG necessarily would go hand in hand with sustainability plans at a national level. Urban environments remain interconnected to multiple spaces, whether rural, international, and ecosystems; therefore simply constructing an urban SDG will not provide solutions unless the network connections are recognised. Sustainability in Dar es Salaam requires looking at where people are migrating from, and what influences the decisions on building new housing in peripheral locations.

Photo: Alf Storm

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