New forms of urban planning are emerging in Africa
Rapid urban growth and an increasing number of climate change-related disasters, such as the recent floods in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, highlighted the importance of good urban planning in Africa.
Urban plans are considered the key to achieving inclusive, safe and sustainable cities. But urban planners have argued for decades that for plans to be effective, we must deviate from the traditional way of doing things. This requires moving away from a top-down approach – general planning – and opting instead for targeted, flexible and participatory strategic forms of planning.
There are good reasons to advocate for this change. Master plans are often seen as colonial legacies, modeled on modernist visions of utopian urban futures. Strategic planning, on the other hand, responds more directly to local needs and realities, particularly in the context of cities in the Global South.
In a recently published article, we recognize these criticisms of master planning. We also wonder why it has persisted – even proliferated – from the early postcolonial era to later years in urban Africa.
By tracing the trajectory of African planning over time, we show that spatial planning has served the intertwined interests and ambitions of international and local actors in Africa. The mainstream Western narrative ignores this. This story successfully explains why master planning, once dominant in the West, has been supplanted by strategic planning approaches. But this does not take into account the diversity of practices on a global scale.
In particular, he does not observe the persistence of master planning traditions in East Asia (China, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere) and the Middle East. Nor does it say anything about the influence of these regions on other parts of the world. This includes urban Africa.
We conclude that these practices are not simply a return to an earlier era. On the contrary, they serve the real interests, political or functional, of national and local elites.
Post-colonial development in Africa
Colonial-era planning left a significant mark on African cities, in urban segregation and regulatory systems such as land use management (such as zoning). But colonialism ended without leaving a tradition of integrated master planning. Nevertheless, in the post-colonial years, the master plan, focused on shaping the future, became an important instrument for asserting national identity and development.
A series of master plans have been prepared for existing and new towns. They involved a wide range of expertise, actors and international partnerships. Among them were Greek, Croatian, Hungarian and Japanese planners and architects.
The 1980s were a relatively quiet period for corporate planning, as World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs dominated. Then, in the 1990s, international development agencies like UN-Habitat tried to introduce more strategic and participatory approaches to planning.
These were important. But they also had limitations for rapidly developing cities where strong guidelines were needed for land management and large-scale infrastructure placement.
Resurgence of master planning
During the first two decades of the 2000s, there was a resurgence of urban planning in Africa. This happened for both new and existing towns. In our article, we identify more than 20 new urban developments across the continent. The master plan here is about design on an empty canvas and has been undertaken mainly by major international architecture and design firms.
These new cities reflect the ambitions of individual politicians, a growing middle class with new lifestyle demands, as well as the increased interest of foreign investors in urban Africa. For example, one of the main promoters of new towns in Africa has been the Moscow company Renaissance Capital, through its Rendeavor property developer.
Much more complex is the master plan for existing cities where there is no empty canvas but rather a complex set of local and international actors and interests. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is an important player, having prepared master plans for cities in Lilongwe at Cairo.
that of Singapore Surbana Jurong is another actor. It has obtained contracts or drawn up urban planning master plans for the Rwandan capital, Kigali and Burundi Bujumbura among others. The Chinese are not directly involved but have a strong demonstration effect in the many study tours to their planned cities. Large companies based in London, New York, Tokyo, Beirut, Dubai, Cairo and Johannesburg are also involved in the preparation of the master plan.
International interests in overall planning can be geopolitical as well as economic. For example, they may be pursued in the hope that by preparing a master plan for an African city, there will be downstream opportunities for infrastructure investment.
National and local actors have different interests, although there are sometimes synergies with international actors. They support urban planning in the hope, for example, of securing foreign investment, mediating difficult local disputes, managing growth or imposing urban order.
The language of master planning has persisted from its heyday in the mid-twentieth century to the present day. But is the practice the same?
Close examination suggests that contemporary master planning in Africa is complex, representing a diverse range and layering of multiple actors, visions and interests – both old and new.
Most master plans do not fit neatly into the prescribed interpretations of ‘master plans’, as they incorporate some participatory elements and hybridize with strategic planning approaches. Many of these so-called blueprints offer solutions that are more progressive and more contextually informed than the term blueprint suggests.
In other cases, master planning and new approaches such as strategic spatial planning coexist, each playing a different role. Despite the active role of international actors, examples of Accra, Cairo and Kigali signal the emergence and increased affirmation of Africa-based planning visions, actors and expertise with local civic engagement in planning processes.
This mix of approaches and practices indicates that planning in Africa is very much alive and part of a complex planning palimpsest that includes master planning, even though this has become unfashionable in other parts of the world. To develop plans that are better able to respond to Africa’s challenges, we need a better understanding of the politics and dynamics of contemporary planning practice.