How can Africa’s universities help urban planners?

How can Africa’s universities help urban planners?

“Most urban development in sub-Saharan Africa is occurring in a completely non-planned and non-transparent manner,” say Professors Vanessa Watson and Babatunde Agbola of the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS).This is a situation needing to be fixed.

While urban planners discuss the various possible solutions, they would do well not to overlook the key role being played by universities, which could be enhanced even further. As the breeding ground for future urban planners and managers, African universities have a responsibility to train students in up-to-date, Africa-specific theory and practices. At the same time developers need to properly heed the socioeconomic dynamics presented by such large institutions if they are to fully capitalise on the opportunities presented by the latter, from infrastructure to services and everything in between.

The issue of outdated curricula

Many African cities are operating according to outdated urban plans, some of which were set into motion in the colonial era, when city dwellers which much fewer in number and the poor mostly lived in separate and/or rural areas. Many current university curricula mirror this past reality, teaching outdated theories and principles.

Another problem is the emulation of Euro-American models of urban planning. When African cities try to fix their problems according to, for example, successful Nordic models, they fail, as the socioeconomic and physical climates are just too diverse. What Africa needs is inclusive and pro-poor urban planning, which also takes into account the unique climate and geography of each specific area.

Unfortunately fanciful models of urban planning and rejuvenation that do not take into account the specifics of a particular city often win awards, even though their attention and solutions to Africa’s poor and the slums are often half-hearted at best.

Forgetting for a moment what is taught in universities elsewhere, as this is not within our purview, African universities’ urban planning curricula need to be reassessed, refocused and revitalised. Encouragingly there are universities throughout the continent that are in the process of doing just so. In 2013 the University of Zambia, for example, was the first university to commence with a Master’s degree that fully incorporates the issue of informality.

According to AAPS – a knowledge network of African institutions begun in 1999 that aims to educate and train urban and regional planners – there are five major themes that need to be incorporated into all African universities’ urban planning curricula if they are to be relevant and help effect needful change:

  • Informality
  • Access to land
  • Climate change
  • Collaboration between planners, communities, civil society and other interested parties
  • Mismatch between spatial planning and infrastructure planning

The role of universities in urban prosperity

Universities are major business. They gather together top academics, professionals, support staff, and many of the great minds of the next generation. Furthermore they generate the need for housing and various other buildings and facilities (think lecture halls, libraries, sport fields, art studios and laboratories), financial services, supplies, transportation, food, entertainment, and the list goes on.

Urban planners have observed how a university can regenerate a depressed, no-go area through its influx of people and public and private capital. The University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, for example, is extending into Braamfontein, promising that long rundown portion of Johannesburg a new lease on life.

Universities also integrate individuals of different backgrounds, aiding in social integration and tolerance. They are centres of innovation, creativity and experimentation, therefore able to reshape a city (and we’re not just talking here of the urban planning student population).

Importantly universities create opportunities for entrepreneurs to start SMMEs to cater to the needs of students and staff. They offer numerous long-lasting and stable employment opportunities.

Universities therefore need to be taken into consideration by urban planners, as the location of a university within the city will have far-reaching effects. The economic ramifications can be powerful.

Call to action

Urbanisation is occurring at an unprecedented rate in Africa – today a third of Africans live in cities, but that figure is expected to rise to half by 2030 – but problematically the cities are not equipped to manage it. Urban sprawl, informal settlements, overcrowding, congestion, and inadequate sanitation and waste removal facilities are just some of the major issues increasingly plaguing African cities.

If we agree with Watson and Agbola that “Planning is the single most important tool that governments have at their disposal for managing rapid urban population growth and expansion”, then legislators, investors, professionals and other stakeholders should be encouraged to support the various means of achieving good urban planning and management, which includes prioritising the upscaling of curricula and supporting targeted development of Africa’s universities.

Africa’s Education System: the impact on our Society and Corporate environment

The International Literacy day is just around the corner, what has been the fate of Africa’s booming young population with regards to quality education? Is the system crumbling? If yes, how can we (both government and private stakeholders) revive it?

KPMG’s Yunus Suleman will be our guest on ‘Lunch with Our Leaders’ on Thursday 4th of September and will be facilitating a Q&A session with the theme ‘Africa’s Education System: the impact on our Society and Corporate environment.’

Time: 14:00 – 15:00 (CAT)

In case you can’t join us for that hour and you have a question or comment, simply send it in an email to and we’ll help ensure the question/comment is posted on your behalf.

David Okwara

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