Increasing the Relevance of Urban Planning Education in African Cities

Posted on julio 30, 2013


Nancy Odendaal
School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics
University of Cape Town
Cape Town, South Africa


The Ibadan-Lagos expressway in Nigeria is host to an interesting spectacle of West African urbanity. Between charismatic churches, loudly claiming their spiritual allegiances in bright and colourful signage, are small shops and clusters of footloose traders selling their wares to the many truckers and busloads of people making the journey between these two important urban centres. Ibadan is a low-density sprawling urban village, until 1970 the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa, established on the ruins of the ancient settlement of Eba Odan in 1829 (Lloyd, Mabogunje, & Awe, 1967). Lagos is a teeming metropolis of 10.5 million people, where 40% of residents live in overcrowded shelter and only 25% have access to adequate sanitation (UN Habitat, 2008), conditions that contribute to its showcase as the apocalyptic future of African mega cities. The journey between these two cities is 150 kilometers but can take up to 4 hours by car. Congestion is not just a frustrating traffic feature of this road; it robs commuters of many hours in an urban sprawl ill equipped for the conditions that define early 21st Century urban life.

(Odendaal, 2012: 174)

The image of urban poverty in African countries is a familiar sight in the popular and academic media. Unlike the conditions that underpinned early industrialisation in Western Europe, urbanisation in Africa is hard to predict and overwhelming for many under capacitated city governments. Unlike Latin American countries, the end of colonialisation occurred relatively recently (in the mid 20th Century) and its influence is still discernable in the shape of cities and the laws that govern them. This extends to urban planning. The instruments that are intended to create livable urban environments are in many cases still based on Northern paradigms. Urban planning legislation and frameworks derive from previous colonial regimes and have, in many cases, not been replaced with contextually relevant instruments.

The UN-Habitat’s Global Report on Human Settlements: Planning Sustainable Cities (2009) provides an exceptionally clear exposition of this dysfunctional internal management of cities, especially in Africa. It is a view widely reflected in the academic literature. The report emphasizes the role of urban planning in addressing this as one of the many challenges facing cities. It also stresses the unpreparedness of many urban planning systems and the graduates that work within them in rising to these challenges.

African planning schools operate in a context in which urban planning practices, national planning legislation and planning curricula remain largely inherited from their older colonial past, and continue to promote ideas and policies transferred from the global North. As such, many of these ideas and practices are inappropriate in contexts characterized by rapid growth, poverty and informality. In order to confront the urbanisation pressures on the continent in all its unique dimensions, fundamental shifts are needed in the materials covered in urban training programs and in the methods used to prepare practitioners.

To this end, the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS) a network of 50 universities across African that teach urban planning degrees, have embarked on several projects aimed at revitalizing planning education. This paper provides an overview of this initiative and what it could mean for the future of African cities.

An Urban Future

It is now a well-established fact that practitioners need to prepare for a future in Africa that is urban. UN Habitat predicts that the increase in urban population in developing nations between 2007 and 2025 is to be 53 million, compared to 3 million in the developed world; 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, most of them in the Global South (UN Habitat, 2009). Intervention in urban spaces in these regions not only needs to contend with the backlogs reflected in inadequate service infrastructure and housing backlogs, but also rapid urbanization within a context of climate change and global disparities in economic distribution. This is not the urbanity and industrial development that informed the evolution of the urban and regional planning profession in the early 1900s, but a less predictable and more volatile unfolding that many policy makers on this continent find overwhelming and threatening (Pieterse, 2010).

Economic life in African cities is not predictable. Livelihoods for the many unable to find work in the formal economy or permanent homes rely on a range of strategies to survive. Informality as manifested in informal work and trade and settlements is a visible feature of urban life for those at the margins. Inadequate access to shelter, work and land causes many to rely on marginal livelihoods. In many Sub-Saharan African cities, this constitutes the majority: 62% of the urban population live in slums and 60% work in the informal sector whilst in Francophone Africa alone, 78% of urban employment is informal (UN Habitat, 2009). The policy context is often uncertain, planning systems are ill equipped to deal with the informal economy in particular and official intervention is unpredictable, causing many to work in insecure condi­tions (Skinner & Hunter, 2003). The threat of evictions and harassment by authorities are burdens traders contend with on a daily basis (UNHabitat 2007). Harassment is le­gitimized through being labeled as unofficial and illegal. The working poor are often cast as temporary and transient resulting in inappropriate or limited policy responses (Brown, 2006). The trend towards more collaborative planning approaches that moves away from rigid legislative frameworks is simply not accommodated. Planning legislation in many parts of Africa render the informal as unofficial and therefore illegal.

What role then do future urban planners play in this dynamic? Many on the African Continent will work in a legislative environment framed by outdated colonial legislation (Berrisford, 2011). Others will work in a context where political wrangling renders planning decisions irrelevant. Planning has traditionally assumed strong intervention and more recently in the north, decentralization of planning functions to local government. Many African countries share a legacy of limited decentralization (mainly implemented under pressure from bilateral and donor agencies), limited autonomy in local government and generally a weak state bureaucracy (UN Habitat, 2009). Limited human and financial resources are put to managing outdated and ineffective Master Plans, inherited from colonial regimes (Watson, 2009).

There is of course variation across such a vast Continent, with influences ranging from temporal informants such as the political status of the moment and colonial remnants to the status of the profession and the principles that inform its functioning. Planning has become increasingly complex globally; in Africa it has a number of intricate layers to address, not least the plight of the urban poor. Unfortunately in many cases the liberal basis of planning to act in the public interest has given way to a narrow instrumental rationality that chooses regulation over facilitation. Where pro-poor values are indeed stated in policy and delivery frameworks, such as the South African context, implementation is fraught with local politics.

Despite these dystopian visions, planning in Africa offer many opportunities for creative intervention, meaningful engagement with livelihoods and the chance to make a difference. The UN Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements concludes on what is needed for planning to work. Reformed institutional and legislative frameworks are crucial in creating a frame for planning to be enabling and facilitative, rather than controlling and undermining of the urban poor. There is a need to address pertinent pressures such as climate change, poverty and informality.  This entails moving away from the anti-urban bias that pervades. Governance fragmentation needs to be addressed in planning systems in order to build a stronger relationship between planning, budgeting and implementation. Broadening consultation and allowing for collaboration between actors is essential to ensure participation, but important also, to aid delivery on plans.

The Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS) and Urban Planning Education

This could be the profession’s moment. Innovation and commitment to the initial ideals of the profession – acting in the public interest and upholding the interests of the disenfranchised – can make the difference needed. Preparing future planning graduates for this future is essential. This has been the mission of the AAPS. Of the 71 planning schools in Africa, 50 are members of the AAPS. The network was established in 2002 but began functioning effectively in 2008 when it had its first meeting in South Africa. It is a member of the Global Planning Education Associations Network (GPEAN). The network consists of mainly Anglophone schools; Francophone schools are members of APERAU, the French planning schools network that is also part of GPEAN. Recently, three Francophone schools have joined the network.

Addressing the relevance and efficacy of planning education in relation to contemporary urban trends in Africa is a core part of its operational activities. From 2008 to 2010, the Rockefeller Foundation funded two AAPS initiatives in this regard[1]. The first project, entitled ‘Revitalising Planning Education’ sought to address curricula reform and resource access. The second concerned case study research. Work on the form and relevance of planning education was however the central concern of this project and culminated in a workshop held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in October 2010 (AAPS 2010). A third grant (from 2011 to 2013) has enabled work on knowledge co-production and undergraduate education.

One of the outcomes of the first grant was to jointly formulate a post-graduate curriculum, based on prior work done on the evolution of planning education and a review of approaches globally. The AAPS component entailed using substantive themes as conceptual entry points in considering more contextually appropriate planning education. Five themes were formulated, based on the discussions at an all-schools meeting in 2008, the literature on African cities and subsequent discussions. They are: informality, land access, climate change, actor collaboration and the relationship between spatial planning and infrastructure.

The AAPS theme ‘actor collaboration’ was formulated to explore the implications of a broadened range of role players in the planning process. Negotiating these in-between spaces where agency energies intersect and often collide, is difficult. In his paper, Oranje speaks of the need to reassert space as a shared platform for debate; a frame for talking through substantive developmental priorities. In an interdisciplinary environment, the planner has always maintained the distinction of being able to conceptually integrate, and to put in spatial terms, the needs and desires of multiple stakeholders. For the planning graduate this requires a need to move beyond ‘drawing space’ to ‘talking space’ – communicating with different stakeholders by incorporating local knowledge and other ways of seeing.

Reasserting territorial planning as an effective tool for service delivery and meaningful change is an issue that informs more recent emphases on strategic spatial planning and action plans. In the African context, in particular where donor funding and bilateral aid funds as well as the private sector in some instances are engaged in large infrastructural investment, spatial planning often occurs in isolation from infrastructure planning and delivery.  The latter is often determined by funding arrangements between governments and donor agencies, or by line-function departments, which are not integrated with spatial planning. Traditional approaches to spatial planning assumed that infrastructure would follow spatial (master) plans, but it rarely does this. More recent thinking on spatial planning argues that it should be more closely linked with infrastructure planning (Todes, 2008). This requires planners to develop skills in understanding infrastructure planning and development, and more strategic forms of spatial planning. This issue also relates to the relationship between planning and implementation; how planners are able to engage with plan making as well as delivery. An understanding of how infrastructure shapes space more broadly, how that interfaces with more normative dimensions such as sustainability and inclusivity and insights into the governance and financial systems that underpin delivery, are necessary.

Thus the interplay between technical knowledge and interpersonal communication remains important. The line between the two has blurred considerably. Planners can no longer see space as a value-neutral container into which their plans are drawn and (sometimes) implemented. Agency interests are many, and the planner is not necessarily in control of these. The theme of ‘actor collaboration’ therefore, is not a mundane homage to ‘participation’, it is acknowledgement of the fact that planning processes and the spaces within which they play themselves out, are informed by a multitude of agency interests, to be skillfully negotiated.

Being prepared for the realities of urbanization in diverse regional contexts requires an engagement with what is perhaps one of the most profound manifestations of rapid urbanization in Africa – informality. Informal settlements and the growing importance of the informal economy are discernable and fall outside the ambit of traditional planning. In fact, most planning systems on the continent reflect a blatant disregard for those pursuing livelihoods in the absence of housing and employment opportunities. Many African cities are now predominantly informal and this is unlikely to change in the near future.  Quite how planners accommodate and address the externalities associated with these pressures remains unclear. It has important implications for the training of planners given the predominance of planning frameworks ill equipped to address informality.

The proliferation of slums on unstable and unsuitable land is largely due to limited access to land for shelter. The constraints go beyond the physical, as land tenure arrangements are complex and regionally distinctive. There is often limited understanding of how to knit together the traditional land tenure systems that underpin many African urban areas, and modern systems of land tenure and management. Different land tenure systems exist in different countries, thus, planning issues will equally differ. Perceptions of spatial planning by the poor will be equally affected by land tenure and land registration systems. Land security and effective and transparent methods of land development are important, yet they often impose costs and processes that are impossible for poorer people to meet. The war against poverty cannot be addressed without consideration of factors that inhibit the poor from accessing land. Methods of dealing with alternative tenure systems and limited insight into land histories frustrate delivery. Moreover, there is often poor linkage between directive plans and the realm of land administration, leading to limited implementation. Thus, the land question plays a far-reaching influence on the kind of planning interventions that are possible.

Making land accessible for development, as well as understanding and responding to informality are associated with the normative goal of enabling inclusive cities where the poor can survive and belong. In addition to tenure insecurity, those at the margins are increasingly affected by global forces such as the impacts of climate change on food security and climate. Natural disasters affect the poorest most profoundly in the absence of adequate shelter and location on marginal land.

‘Climate change’ emerged as an important theme also, recognized in many disciplines but not systematically mainstreamed into planning curricula. The impact of urbanization on the natural environment is known but limited work has been done on the impact of global warming on African cities and what that implies for the training of planners. Implications for Africa in particular are profound. The potential impacts go beyond the urban, as rising temperatures and increases in natural disasters threaten food security. Planners require the technical literacy necessary to understand the underlying natural processes as well as the strategic skills to intervene in the most appropriate way in this regard.

The five conceptual themes provided a useful frame for understanding the limitations of planning curricula within the current African urban context. Planning education reform will not be enough however. The mismatch between plans and reality is embedded in an institutional and legislative framework that, in many cases, is simply not supportive of the urban poor. The lack of adequate urbanization policy at country level essentially means that there is no overall strategic guidance. The use of legislation that criminalizes more than half of economic activity and settlement in many African urban spaces makes meaningful intervention difficult. Outdated Master Plans are simply inadequate and in largely irrelevant. Selective application of more detailed land use management plans marginalizes the poor even more. Where planning systems have been overhauled, such as in the South African experience, the relationship between spatial planning and meaningful intervention remains difficult.

Knowledge Co-production

The emphasis on a pedagogical approach that enhances students’ experiential engagement with the context within which they’ll pursue their careers is important. Planning curricula for the 21st century need to introduce new ‘sensibilities’ and values to students, and ultimately professionals. Planners are required be more ‘enabling’ rather than control-focused; able to do creative problem solving rather than just applying the rules; more flexible; more empathetic and open to (cultural/economic) difference. All of this requires a revised sensibility that sees planning through a lens that departs from entrenched professional traditions. How to entrench this as part of the curriculum goes beyond content. Interaction with civil society and exposure to the realities of life on the margins for the urban poor is necessary. To this end the AAPS has forged a partnership with Slum Dwellers International (SDI), a network of community-based organisations of the urban poor in 33 countries.

The collaboration with SDI is being piloted in month-long planning studios at six universities and essentially entails a process whereby students work together with slum dwellers on informal upgrade projects.  The aim is that this experiential learning process shifts the mindsets of students whereby they begin to understand the realities of life in informal settlements, and the importance of producing plans that build on these everyday needs and capacities (Watson and Odendaal, 2012). The aim is that the studios will begin to nurture relationships in these locations between planning schools, SDI and informal communities (as has already happened in Nairobi in Kenya and some other cities). The overall objectives are lasting engagements and pedagogical shifts (Ibid.).

Thus far three such initiatives have been implemented in 2012. Preliminary indications are that these initiatives are strongly reliant on buy-in from the Universities in terms of accommodation such studios in their curricular programmes. Students are required to be well prepared and briefed, and SDI-affiliate members need to be organised accordingly. Indications from at least two of these studios are that ongoing collaboration in future is possible.

Looking to the Future

The renewed interest in planning as a tool for poverty relief and meaningful physical intervention is poignant in the African context. Urgent urbanisation pressures, severe inequalities and physical degradation are reminiscent of the Dickensian conditions of early industrialisation that led to the establishment of the planning profession in the early 1900s. Meaningful intervention in the public realm and protection of the public interest are more urgent than ever within a context of climate change, environmental degradation and immense inequality. The problem is that the tools, procedures, methodologies and instruments that African planning graduates are equipped with are limited in their application. For planning in Africa to be effective, it requires a reformulation and deeper engagement with context.

The AAPS experience confirms much of what is said in the literature about the mismatch between plans and what is on the ground. The five conceptual themes provided a useful frame for understanding the limitations of planning curricula in this regard. There is variation however. Curricula content is informed by the training backgrounds of staff, research interests and relationships with other schools in the north and south. More broadly, it is influenced by the institutional and funding context for higher education. When there is little incentive to do research, when staff members are constrained by heavy teaching loads and where small salaries necessitate consultancy, little time is put towards curriculum reform and the research needed to make that relevant. Furthermore, efforts to implement reforms are curtailed by outdated library resources and limited Internet connectivity. Many universities simply require more staff, funding and better infrastructure (Odendaal, 2012).

Exchanges with AAPS member schools reveal a number of tensions that speak to the complexity of planning. Whilst there is general agreement on the integral role that informal shelter and trade play in livelihoods for example, there is still, in some instances, unease with the way it manifests and contradicts formal land allocation processes (Odendaal, 2012). There is recognition that plans are often not implemented, yet there remains a (sometimes blind) professional devotion to technical procedures and instruments. Much of this is understandable given that the legislative and institutional contexts are in many cases unchanged from colonial days. However, it also speaks of the continued conceptualisation of planning as a means to control, as the technical domain of the expert planner.

Planning is not value neutral; it is the terrain of contested interests. Quite how to translate that into a system that works for the urban poor, is the subject of continued work of the network and others working in African cities. Reform is required at a number of levels but may take time. Policy reform needs to be accompanied by appropriate legislative frames. The instruments of planning best serve the urban poor if they are enabling rather than controlling. This requires recognition that African cities do not follow the trajectories of cities in the global North. Planners and urban policy makers are better served by looking at knowledge exchange between institutions of the global South. Urban planning tools have been used to great effect in cities such as Curitiba in Brazil and Bogota in Columbia. A critical engagement with these city cases will yield a more fruitful exchange. Incorporating such learning in planning curricula has potential for raising the consciousness of future planners and enabling them to build on post-colonial, endogenous innovation inspired by cities of the global South.


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