Planning the African Cities of the Future – Vanessa Watson

Africa and Asia are currently the world’s fastest urbanizing continents. Predictions are that Africa’s urban population will double over the next 20 years and triple over the next 40, although this is highly variable across the continent. Some 43% of the urban population lives below the poverty line, 62% live in slums and 60% of jobs are informal.

African city governments are frequently under-resourced and under-capacitated, with urban management tools more often than not taking the form of planning and regulatory systems inherited from a colonial era and entirely inappropriate for dealing with current urban crises. Given ongoing poverty and unemployment, the majority of urban populations have little choice but to provide their own shelter and services, inevitably falling foul of urban laws in their attempt to do so.

A more recent and even more serious threat to African cities comes from an upsurge in interest in urban land from international property development companies, who see Africa as ‘the last global frontier’ in which to make quick profit. Responding to demands from a rapidly-growing consumerist middle-class, as well as politicians and government officials keen to see African cities ‘catch up with the west’, property developers are selling images of possible future African cities which are replicas of Dubai, Singapore or Las Vegas, rather than any kind of development which speaks to the particular needs (social and environmental) of the African context.

The scramble for urban land, at least in Africa’s larger cities, is marginalising and excluding poor and informal populations, and thus giving rise to conditions of social and spatial inequality which can only have devastating outcomes in these cities’ futures. It is not surprising that the 2014 World Urban Forum, organized by UN Habitat, will focus on the question of urban inequalities as the current greatest threat to cities of the global South.

It is in this context that the network called the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS), established in 1999, has taken on the task in recent years of considering how urban planning professionals can be educated differently to deal with these issues. With a membership of now 51 planning schools at Universities across Anglophone, Lusiphone and Francophone Africa, and in partnership with other pro-poor global networks (such as Slum Dwellers International, or SDI, and WIEGO – Women in Informal Employment Globalising and Organizing), AAPS has been developing course toolkits, model curricula and new approaches to learning.

Most successful here have been the community-based planning studios in which a planning school and an affiliate of SDI work together to expose students to the realities of informal environments. In conjunction with community-based organizations, students learn how to plan up-grade strategies with communities, learning from communities rather than only being the dispensers of expert knowledge. This ‘experiential’ approach to learning changes mind-sets far more effectively than many hours of classroom lectures. As well, ‘community professors’ lecture students on what it is like to live in poverty, and what planning needs to do to respond to locally-identified priorities.

The 2014 World Urban Forum and the post 2015 Development Agenda both recognize that ‘the market’ will not address the deep inequalities in global South cities (and in fact more often than not serve to exacerbate it) and that some form of public intervention is required to do this. Addressing urban socio-spatial inequalities is a central task for the urban planning profession but unless there is a major shift in their education it is not clear who or what will take on this task.

Professor Watson has recently published a report, written with Babatunde Agbola, entitled “Who Will Plan Africa’s Cities” – click here to view & download the report from the Africa Research Institute.

3 thoughts on “Planning the African Cities of the Future – Vanessa Watson”

  1. I have witnessed it in Kenya where its cities are growing very fast and its urban population almost double after every five years so serious planning needs to be put in place! to avoid more informal settlement coming up.

  2. this is an interesting piece about urban land. very insightful and topical. africa will go along way if only we plan properly and have the necessary resources


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