Public space in focus at Africities Summit

The politics of urban planning was brought into focus at the 2015 Africities conference yesterday through discussion on green spaces and how best to value them amid competing needs. Audience members repeatedly raised this issue in response to formal presentations at a session dealing with green and public space in the city.

One audience member from Addis Ababa lamented the ongoing disappearance in his home city of familiar green spaces and asked how to convince people of benefits over utility. A delegate from Abidjan voiced a similar concern, saying that an urban plan was in place but the population did not follow it and built in spaces meant for parks. “So how do you convince them and bring them back to the concept of green space?” she asked. A Johannesburg-based contributor summed it up this way: “Many people don’t have access to land.”

Bukelwa Njingolo, from Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, showed an image in her presentation that crystallised the issue: aerial views of the leafy suburb of Dainfern situated just five kilometres from the township of Diepsloot. She said: “We are dealing with imbalances caused by the previous regime. The north is green but the south is a brown dust bowl, where most of our people live. So we have a responsibility to bridge that great divide and all our programmes respond to it.”

The main concern in the future city is densification and how to make sure green space is not left out in the process, Njingolo added, and political buy-in was part of the answer.

Deep consultations involving all stakeholders were important, as well as building skills and capacity, said Cecilia Kinuthia-Njenga, of the UN Environment Programme. She also advocated the principle of “subsidiarity”, or devolving power to the smallest, lowest or least centralised competent authority. A key problem was urban municipal financing, she added, which did not always see the value of green space and viewed it as a luxury. Integration in urban planning, beyond a single issue, was part of the solution: “We are able to now start valuing natural resources,” she said.

Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, from Conservation International, elaborated on this kind of approach in his presentation, which offered the most practical answer to concerns raised. Conservation International uses “natural capital accounting”, which values natural resources using an ecosystem services model that takes account in its calculations of the whole value chain. Opportunity costs and benefits can therefore be compared and budgetary planning can follow, he said.

O’Brien-Onyeka cited Bolivia’s former debt crisis, when it avoided selling off a significant natural reserve by following a similar model. It is in our own interests to do more about greening, he added, it’s not about doing a favour to nature. “Our approach is to compete money-for-money with the business side. We are not naïve. We know Treasury would rather have development if it brings more money. There is no idealism involved [in this approach].”

José Chong, from the UN Human Settlements Programme, showed delegates a new tool to map and measure public spaces with indicators like proximity, using citizen participation and open-source data. Chong defined public spaces as all places publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable for free and without a profit motive. This included streets, open public spaces and public facilities.

Chong also mentioned the Sustainable Development Goals to 2030, which include for the first time a target for public spaces. A ratio of 50 percent public space out of total space is common in successful cities, he added.

Culture and Agenda 2063

Meanwhile, an earlier Africities session on arts and culture dealt differently with public space by considering how the cultural dimension of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 could be implemented.

Discussion likewise came down to different ideas about valuing the sector, with the audience wanting more detail about cultural projects and the meaning behind them and their community connections.

“We don’t just dance for the sake of dancing. What is behind the dance? What is the message? … It’s about ideas,” said the Mayor of Timbuktu Hallè Ousmani Cissè. He was responding in question time to a presentation by Logie Naidoo, a representative of the Durban Mayor’s office, who called Zulu dance “world-famous” and ended off his presentation with a humorous demonstration. “In the past, there was a suppression of language, religion and culture. Today, we celebrate a rich cultural diversity,” Naidoo added. But although he spoke about rich culture, he did not address the contribution of music in Durban that enabled people to live together better, Cissè added from the floor. “What is the contribution it brings? What is the relationship between music and development?”

Mamou Daffe, a Malian representative of the Arterial Network, told delegates that new cultural and financial perspectives were needed, and presented details on a community-focused organisation. The main factor regarding Agenda 2063 was about local knowledge, he said, “to open up to the entire world without the risk of loss.” He concluded: “Arts opens a door to beautiful things, dreams and what comes after.”

Dreaming about city futures was a common thread, best encapsulated by a Tunisian presentation that showcased projects including Dream City, “to dream about a better place.” Dream City also encouraged an idea of mobility within Africa and knowledge about other places and people. “We must involve people in creating, not only once everything is written, and make democracy live in people’s lives,” said Selma Ouissi, a director of the project.


Kim Gurney is since 2011 affiliated to African Centre for Cities (ACC) as a Research Associate. Kim’s qualifications and experience span international journalism, economics and fine art and her interests traverse similar domains. At ACC she is primarily enrolled in arts-based research surfacing links between space and imagination, exploring new methodologies and narrative forms.

Photo: Artwork installation by the Cool Capital Biennale in Tshwane, South Africa. Lwazi Bengu.

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