Planning education gets a makeover

Urban planning in Africa is a moving target with ever-changing challenges — not least the question of how African cities can break free from frameworks developed in and for European and North American cities. While addressing concrete issues in cities across the continent, African planners and activists also have to evaluate their own formation and background.

These considerations gave rise to the Centre for Urban Research and Innovation at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning in 2007. This initiative was born out of a frustration with the widely prevailing cookie-cutter approach to planning education, and consequently planning, says Jacinta Mbilo, a former student and later full-time researcher at the centre.

The centre’s initial projects revolved around Nairobi’s informal settlements. The first one was a collaboration with the City of Nairobi, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, and an NGO called Practical Action, focused on improving water access in parts of the Mukuru Slum. It resulted in significant water upgrading paid for by the City. More than five similar projects followed and additional informal settlements in the Mukuru and Mathare areas received notable upgrades.

Mbilo, who was involved in mapping the slumdwellers’ water needs and presenting improved designs as a student researcher, explains that the project has had effects on the community beyond mere physical upgrading.

“Working with the communities, reassuring them of their entitlements as citizens, has caused demands, has caused them to ask for the services that other parts of the city are receiving,” says Mbilo.

According to Mbilo, universities are in a unique position to engage with residents of informal settlements. The civil society organizations active in those areas, often strongly involved in community organizing, are wary of government officials and watch over their communities carefully. The impartial third-party position of CURI’s researchers meant that these groups, and as a result the residents, embraced the projects and became involved from the beginning.

For students involved in CURI’s projects the on-the-ground research experience is invaluable. “We never would have learned how to deal with informal settlements in school. The work is more hands on; you learn things you can’t learn from books,” says Mbilo. “Interacting with communities in this way has added a lot to my practical thinking and made me a better planner.”

And how will African city planning profit from these endeavors? For one, understanding informal settlements, a key feature of most African metropolitan areas, is a complex and challenging task. The formal and the informal interact in these settlements, where corrupt officials support and enable the water cartels that operate inside the slums, Mbilo says. Land tenure is another complex area.

“The issues around land tenure [in this context] require business plans, potentially require litigation, and in the end we try to unveil the mystery behind all these informal connections and come up with better urban and business plans and solutions that work,” she says.

The most recent project CURI got involved in is a large interdepartmental collaboration including the Akiba-Machinani-trust (a civil society group), Strathmore University (a business school), Katiba Institute (an NGO specializing in constitutionalism), and the University of Nairobi’s Law School. Planning, financial and legal frameworks come together for real urban research, and it looks promising.

With regards to planning education, CURI has been concentrating on developing “context-specific planning education.” Many planning schools in the East African region are eager to change their curricula to be more practice-oriented and CURI has already organized two conferences on the topic. The centre is striving to become a hub for joint action in the region and tie its efforts into the work of the African Association of Planning Schools (AAPS), which has been working on organizing planning education continent-wide.

“Right now, we are in the process of forming a Kenyan chapter of AAPS, and together with UN Habitat coordinating studios across the East African region,” says Mbilo. These advances are taken further through an East African think tank around planning education, incubated recently by CURI and so far incorporating researchers from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Within the University of Nairobi, the curriculum review has led to the formulation of a new master’s course, which is awaiting finalisation. Going beyond the boundaries of the university, CURI has also been offering professional development courses, teaching GIS and technological skills to Nairobi planners.

Based on the multitude of activities that have emerged from these encounters between planning academia and informal settlements, it looks like breaking down the walls of departments and disciplines is having a fertilizing effect on planning in Nairobi and hopefully beyond. This approach might just highlight the path toward more pertinent ways for tackling African cities.


Maitagorri Schade is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net. She is an urban traveler and scholar who is working toward her master’s degree at UC Berkeley and has a passion for informal transportation and community development in the global South.

Image: Mathare Valley Slum by Claudio Allia via Wikimedia Commons.


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