Africa’s cities are growing and changing extremely rapidly. Without appropriate planning they will become increasingly chaotic, inefficient and unsustainable. Yet in many African countries the planning legislation dates back to the colonial era (with some amendments since) and hence is entirely inappropriate for dealing with current urban issues. Moreover, the curricula of many university urban and regional planning programmes are equally outdated as many lecturers believe they have to train students to plan according to prevailing planning laws and norms. Some countries have no planning schools at all. It is a vicious cycle.
There are no quick-fix solutions here. Past problems of deep poverty, a lack of services, unhealthy living conditions and weak governments with inadequate and inappropriate planning tools are set to continue. But new problems are now compounding these. A degree of selective economic turnaround, giving rise to a rapidly growing middle class, is causing socio-spatial inequalities to escalate and putting unprecedented pressures on land and development. As the poor are increasingly excluded from access to urban opportunities, and as congestion and unregulated formal construction take over the cities, governments are even less able to respond. New satellite cities, as middle-class enclaves, attract the wealthy and politicians alike, all keen to escape traffic, decay and rising crime. Inevitably urban development is more often the product of corruption or political vote-banking than any kind of rational planning. Such outcomes are simply not sustainable: socially, politically or environmentally.
Most African countries have only one or two planning schools and there is probably a limit to what they might do to change planning approaches within their country. However, if 50 or more planning schools across the continent come together in a strong and vocal network, then governments are far more likely to sit up and listen. If this network of schools links up with other continental and global networks, all pushing in the same direction, there is even more of a chance they will be heard.
This is exactly what the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS) has tried to do. From small beginnings in Dar es Salaam in 1999, the network has grown to 50 Anglophone, Lusophone and Francophone schools, has had three major conferences, has established links with other like-minded global partners, and has launched a number of projects and initiatives aimed at changing planning education and hence producing better planning professionals. AAPS has also allocated funding to kick-start a planning law reform initiative on the continent, so that in future planning educators may not have to teach their students how to operate outdated and inappropriate planning systems.
AAPS has felt that it was critical that students are able to get out of the classroom and see first-hand how the poor live, rather than learning this from textbooks which usually, anyway, reflect a Global North perspective. The "experiential learning" approach is well known in planning and usually takes place through live studios in which students and staff engage directly with a community to look for solutions to built-environment-related problems. AAPS was fortunate to be able to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2010 with the NGO Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) which links community-based organisations into a global network. SDI felt that planners in Africa were one of the main stumbling blocks to achieving inclusive cities and bottom-up upgrade processes in informal settlements, and hence were keen to try and influence their education.
The MoU laid the ground for running joint studios between planning schools and SDI community-based affiliates. Four have now been completed and they have underscored the belief that this kind of learning process shifts the mindsets of students (and staff) such that 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. After the studio in Malawi, one student commented: “It has been such an awesome experience working with the community. I have been learning it in class but to actually participate in it has been amazing. I have realised how much the communities expect from us as students or even professionals and how much I as a student can help create a better Malawi and be a better citizen”.
Importantly, such studios should be a two-way learning process which recognizes that poor communities understand how to live in poverty far better than do professionals and experts. In some of the studios ‘community-professors’ have been invited into the classroom to lecture to the students and in some cases students present their work to community members for comment and feedback. Both ‘local’ knowledge that community members bring with them and the ‘technical’ knowledge which students are taught need to come together to shape more appropriate approaches to planning in African cities.
Changing university curricula in Africa is a long and slow process, as is changing attitudes of politicians and urban professionals who still imagine that Africa’s cities can be neat, orderly and devoid of shacks, informal traders and poor people. Future planners in Africa will be faced with a task unequalled elsewhere in the world, but unless some degree of transparent, equitable and context-appropriate planning is brought to bear then, certainly in some places, the urban future will be bleak indeed.