An interview with Nancy Odendaal, project coordinator of the Association of African Planning Schools

Urbanization is growing at an incredible pace in the global south, but urban planning isn't keeping up. Many planning schools in Africa still promote ideas transferred from the global north. (The master plan of Lusaka, in Zambia, for instance, was based on the concept of the garden city.) As a result, these programs often fail to prepare planners for the problems they will encounter in African cities, such as rapid growth, poverty, and informality — that is, people who pursue livelihoods outside formal employment opportunities.

In 2008 the Association of African Planning Schools, a network of 43 institutions that train urban planners, began a three-year effort to reform planning education on the continent. Nancy Odendaal, project coordinator for A.A.P.S. and a planning professor at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, offers a progress report on this effort in an upcoming issue of the journal Cities. "In order to confront the urbanisation pressures on the continent in all its unique dimensions," she writes, "fundamental shifts are needed in the materials covered in urban training programs and in the methods used to prepare practitioners."

Odendaal recently answered some questions about what these shifts entail, and what they might mean for the future of Africa's cities.

The aim of A.A.P.S. is to help urban planners in Africa respond to the "special circumstances" of African urbanization, according to your paper. Broadly speaking, what would those be?

African urbanization does not follow the "conventional" patterns of industrialization and concomitant job creation in the North, where rapid urban growth was first experienced. Rapid urbanization [in Africa] is simply not matched by the job creation required to secure livelihoods, and public intervention is not keeping pace with the demand for shelter and land.

You write that too many current planners in Africa have based their knowledge on Western/colonial planning strategies.

The most common instrument used is the "master plan," after the British tradition embedded in the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. This blueprint approach simply does not have the built-in flexibility to accommodate the diversity of livelihoods pursued in a typical African city. Conventional urban plans typically criminalize the informal economy, for example, where street vendors are harassed by police and have their incomes curtailed. This is often done in the name of "urban planning."

Can you give an example of a planning strategy embraced by A.A.P.S. that has helped (or would theoretically help) an African city address its problems?

At our meeting in Dar es Salaam, in 2010, the A.A.P.S. formulated a curriculum frame flexible enough to accommodate local conditions yet respond to issues fairly generic to African urban space (and much of the Global South). An example is the notion of informality. We recommend that this be mainstreamed into the usual planning subjects taught, such as Land Economics, which would entail broadening the usual scope to incorporate informal land exchange and community tenure processes, for example.

In addition, an actual course on informality is necessary to explore specific debates, while the concept needs to be incorporated into practical courses (or studios) to equip students with the skills to intervene in this context. We are currently piloting this approach with the University of Zambia, in Lusaka, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Here at the University of Cape Town we run a studio with Slum Dwellers International in an informal settlement in Cape Town, which was a profound learning experience for staff and students. We'll be doing the same at five other planning schools in the rest of Africa, working with our colleagues there.

A.A.P.S. has identified five themes as critical to reforming urban planning curricula in Africa. These include informality, climate change, and access to land. What are the biggest challenges to making sure these themes are emphasized by African planners and incorporated into city efforts?

I think many of our academic colleagues agree that these are pressing issues, some more so than others. The problem is at the interface between planning education and practice. There are two dimensions to this. Planning legislation and policy, together with the usual bureaucratic actors, are not necessarily in agreement with this approach. The notion of planning as control, rather than enabler, is entrenched in many country policy frameworks.

The second dimension refers to the profession itself. I am not sure the professional associations, accreditations bodies, and institutes are ready for such a paradigm shift. Some view it as a threat to the professional credibility of planners.

Once the curricula of African planners is improved, they must be given the chance to put their knowledge into practice. What can be done to increase their role, so African cities can benefit from the best available planning knowledge?

My sense is, when listening to my colleagues, that planners play a small role in what are essentially political processes underpinned by many actors. I do not think that is unique to Africa, actually. For planning to become relevant it needs to find creative and relevant solutions to complex issues. It entails political savvy, insight into the space economy of the city, and a literacy that enables planners to engage with the many actors that contribute to the ongoing evolution of urban space. It is a tall order, and it starts with a paradigm shift that moves away from physical determinist and control-centered approaches to ones based on values of inclusivity, multiplicity, and sustainability.

If African planners fail to adapt their methods in the manner you suggest, what will that mean for African cities in the future?

A widening gap between practice and theory, and a further reduction in the relevance of the planning profession; inaction and neglect, occasionally interrupted by bouts of inappropriate intervention; and a sad ignorance of the creativity and resilience of individuals and small groups that seek more inclusive cities.

Photo by Luc Gnago/Reuters

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