In many African cities, where central and regional governments have failed in supplying water and sanitary infrastructure, local residents find their own ways of dealing with the everyday shortages. Like here, in the suburban outskirts of Angola’s capital Luanda, where a woman fills her cask at a community managed water access point. Photo: Cristina Udelsmann Rodrigues.

Urban planning – not just for civil servants and local politicians

Rapid urbanisation across Africa poses challenges for governments and local authorities. Cities grow faster than urban developers can plan, and many people find themselves living in slums without basic services. These and many other aspects of the continent’s urban future will be discussed at a public NAI event on 12 May in Finland.

A large part of Africa’s urban population live precariously in slums with few or no services. Residents’ income levels are normally low; diseases such as malaria and cholera more likely to occur; education levels are low; and social tension and criminality are considerably more common than in city centres.

“All these factors create huge inequality between centre and periphery. However, every city centre is depending on people living in the periphery or in the slums to come and do simple and manual work, and the periphery depends on the opportunities that exist in the centre. In this sense, among many other things, cities must have comprehensive responses to varied needs, like providing public transport or ensuring sanitation to avoid cholera outbreaks”, NAI urban researcher Cristina Udelsmann Rodrigues explains. 

Dealing with slums – two different views
Currently two views dominate in how to deal with precarious neighbourhoods. One is based on gentrification or resettlement. Slum dwellers are convinced to leave their homes – or forced to, since they often lack legal titles – in exchange for compensation or after selling their houses. The whole area is then demolished and rebuilt. Afterwards, however, few of the original habitants can afford to move back, since rebuilding skyrockets prices and rents. According to Udelsmann Rodrigues, it is a way of expelling the poor from those areas.

The other view deals with slums from a different perspective. Instead of forcing people to leave, the slums are gradually improved. For instance, attempts are made to resolve water and sanitation issues, and provide schools for children in these areas. It is not about transforming slums into luxury neighbourhoods, but simply upgrading them to decent living areas for the inhabitants. However, this model is more costly and greatly depends on the current political ideology. Moreover, since most of the people living in slums more or less invaded the areas without paying for their plots, some think it is not fair to give them any benefits at all.

“The main problem is that the slums are not planned and lack infrastructure. Therefore, an upgrade only works up to a certain point. If authorities want to resolve the slum situation through this system, people need to be resettled in other areas during the rehabilitation. Then it is a political decision if the area is turned into houses for the wealthy or a low-budget alternative”, Udelsmann Rodrigues remarks.

Local politicians sideline planners
NAI researcher Patience Mususa is researching urban planning in Zambia. In many cases, she has observed, local politicians hijack the whole process of urban planning and prevent civil servants from doing their job. All land provided by the state in Zambia is leased, but when the bureaucratic process of obtaining land is slow and cannot meet increasing demand, parallel systems appear. One example is when local politicians sell land illegally to people who build their houses on plots where civil servants have planned urban development. 

“Systems for sewers, water infrastructure, roads and garbage collection, among others, are difficult to solve once areas are already inhabited. In that sense, the politicians are sidelining the work of urban planners”, Mususa states. 

Bring the planning to the residents
According to her, one way of dealing with this situation, without contesting the whole political system, is to bring urban planning to local residents in the communities. The urban development department’s role then becomes more of an educational one and the central question is how to equip city planners to disseminate their knowledge on how to build and organise houses and suburbs.

“It doesn’t need to be very costly. Public seminars, video clips and field visits might be sufficient. After all, people living there are motivated and are most keen to make improvements really happen”, Mususa concludes. 


NAI-researchers Patience Mususa and Cristina Rodrigues will be discussing and giving advice to policy makers on the challenges of basic infrastructural requirements in a workshop on Africa’s urban future in Helsinki on 12 May.

TEXT: Johan Sävström,

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