Saturday, May 2, 2015

Re-think cities to take advantage of urban transition

East Africa is, by recent estimates, the fastest urbanizing sub-region in Africa. Consequently, our cities and towns will face monumental challenges associated with new and incremental demand for food, housing, health services, education, transportation, recreational space, and jobs for a bulging youthful population. 

However, East Africa’s urban age along with a youth bulge growth presents a new beginning. East Africa’s urban age presents an opportunity to turn a new page with respect to solving problems that have festered for too long; lack of access to clean water and sanitation; gender inequality in education; lack of access to clean domestic energy; and, inability of women to take charge of their reproductive health. East Africa’s urban age could be both empowering and liberating.

The real challenge presented by East Africa’s transition to an urban age is unprecedented massive urban growth in a context of significant urban governance failure which, in combination, generate multiple and entwined threats to equitable and sustainable urbanization.

The challenges we face in our cities today: uncontrolled sprawl; expansion of slum settlements; lack of water and poor sanitation; hunger and malnutrition; inadequate public transportation infrastructure; lack of jobs; and, weak institutions for urban governance could derail the unique opportunity and promise of the urban age. In order to keep the opportunity and promise of the urban age on track we need to re-imagine in a radically different way, paradigms and visions for a 21st century urbanism.  

East Africa’s major cities – their form and function – were conceived in the logic of European urban models of the 19th and 20th century. As Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, did in 1961 we must challenge the principles orthodox or conventional city planning. The imperatives that informed the form and function of cities a 150 years ago are incompatible with the visions of sustainable urbanism in the 21st century.  

As Jane Jacobs observed, the intellectual foundations of the so-called modern urban planning suffer from a misconception of how cities actually work. According to Jacobs, livable cities are created by the everyday experiences of the life of its their inhabitants rather than the abstract imaginings of master plans.

In the 21st century, urban living must be informed and constrained by three paradigms, namely: a heightened sensitivity to efficiency; reducing our carbon footprint; and, a determined commitment to creating equitable and pluralistic societies. These paradigms are not met when the dominant logic of our cities privileges urban sprawl through misguided odious investments in superhighways. These paradigms are not met when we don't invest in affordable public transit systems that efficiently connect a surging and talented youthful population to jobs. These paradigms are not met when the growing use of private automobiles accelerates dangerous climate change and makes our bodies infirm.

Moreover, the paradigms of 21st century urbanism are not met when the city of Nairobi prioritizes public private investments to build additional parking spaces in the CBD to for 4,500 cars rather than build a public square, with recreational and performance spaces to build social capital for a vibrant modern city. These paradigms are not served when little planning resources are devoted to creating a city that encourages walking and cycling; a city that liberates its residence from the tyranny of the car. Ubiquitous squalor and poverty that characterizes East Africa large cities could become a defining feature of emerging secondary and small cities. Hence, we must challenge and re-think orthodox urban planning paradigms if we are to achieve a sustainable transition to the urban age. We cannot repeat the failed models of the past centuries.

We are on the warm threshold of a complete and irreversible transition to a predominantly urban society. Our decisions, in response to what are evidently urgent challenges to urbanism must be supple and adaptive to change. As we very well understand, urban infrastructure invariably requires huge capital and can typically railroad urban development along an unsustainable trajectory, which constrains options for adaptive response.


East Africa’s late entry into the urban age is fortuitous. We have so much to learn from the failures of the cities of Asia, Europe and the Americas. There is a real opportunity for us to lead the world in building cities for the new age; adaptive, functional, and efficient. We must begin a debate about the desirable re-imagination of East Africa’s urban transitions.

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