Why the compact city model is not appropriate for Africa?

The last Newsletter of “Ville en Développement” (N ° 102 – February 2016) entitled “The Urban Peripheries of the Cities of the Global South. The challenges and means of achieving managed urban growth” devotes an article to Nouakchott (Mauritania), where the demographic explosion has led to unbridled growth in peripheral zones.

The document produced by “AdP – cities developing professional Association” raises two main issues in this article: Dense or sprawling cities: what future for the peripheries of the cities of the Global South?  Jérôme Chenal, Head of the Urban and Regional Planning Community at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), considers that the challenge facing African cities does not lie in the existing city or the city center but in the outskirts.

For him, the compact city model is no longer applicable in Africa because these models of compact cities, less predatory resource, are applicable in the cities where networks are complete and where median salaries are high enough to allow the population to benefit from almost unrestricted travel for their work or leisure.

The evacuation of rainwater in compact cities, need to always find an optimum between very low and very high density which ‘depends on the morphology, geography and climate of each city’, explains Jérôme Chenal. It is therefore to understand how to tailor the density to each case rather than unilaterally giving a one-size-fits-all response for every urban area.

In the case of peripheral zones, five questions are raised by the specialist. It is necessary to provide answers “to understand what actions to take in a given area, but also, and above all, to have the capability of designing the city of tomorrow”, he said.

– Firstly, we need to examine the concept of density and compact urban form. There is one essential issue, that of legality – or illegality – and therefore that of the widest possible access to the property market. In most of the Cities of the Global South the population does not have access to property because even a bare plot is out of their financial reach. If we take the view that, the poor have, as much right to live in a city as others, the only way they can do so is to set up home on the fringes of the city center or in the outskirts. Thus, we are faced with a paradox in relation to the concept of the compact city as these groups that do not have access to the official property market because of their poverty set up home as far as possible from the planned city, as this enables them to remain in place for the longest possible time before they have to move again. It is therefore important to find ways of dealing with this phenomenon, which once again raises the issue of land ownership and private property. For 40 years, we have been building housing estates, and after 40 years, the problem still subsists.

– Public transport creates urban sprawl by segregating the poorest social groups. The city of Rabat in Morocco provides an interesting example of this phenomenon. The authorities built a tram system, but it was much too expensive (ticket prices have since been reduced twice). However, the arrival of the tram or metro lines increased rents and hence land and property prices. Those living near the tram, who were potential users, were gradually forced to move further away because of the rise in property prices. When they moved out they were replaced by wealthier groups who preferred to travel by car. The mechanisms were doubtless more complex than this in reality, but the outcome nevertheless remains the same.

-The work of NGOs in outlying districts is also responsible for urban sprawl. By helping the poorest individuals and providing them with various services in order to improve their living environment, they tie them to the most far-flung outskirts. The aid, which is legitimately given to the poorest social groups considerably, reduces the possibility of creating a compact city.

-The issue of means of subsistence imposes other constraints. When a housing development is designed in a peripheral district, urban farming is a necessity and important, particular for individuals who are “under house arrest”. It is worth providing such individuals with housing developments that are large enough for them to keep livestock and engage in farming.

– Climate raises another question. In wet climates, the size of the plots needs to be considered, as the seepage of storm water into the ground is an important issue.

In view of these questions, we need to ask ourselves the following question: why create dense urban areas in the sub-Saharan Africa of today? The pressure to create density, which may provide a solution in the cities of the North, is copied more or less successfully and often erroneously in the cities of the Global South in general. Our starting point should not be the theoretical model of the sustainable city, but the situation in the place in question, both with regard to physical and climatic aspects and the practices of the people who live there. The creation of housing developments should take account of the population’s lifestyle, the physical context and the way individuals live their daily lives, their travel practices and their strategies and tactics. The resulting city will be designed quite differently. In the context of the city of tomorrow, which is sustainable and inclusive, the housing development will continue to be a basic element, but it is imperative to question it!

Complete newsletter is available here and also contains an article about Burkina entitled: ” Mapping and measuring cities, a preparatory step prior to urban planning: the example of Ouagadougou”