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  • Beyond the cacophony of the immediate and towards a preferable future:transformation of urban 'planning' in Africa
  • Paul Jenkins (bio) and Garth Klein (bio)


Following up a recent article in this journal (Klein and Jenkins 2018) which examined urban planning education in Brazil and South Africa, in this opinion piece the authors take a wider look at what we call urban 'planning' in sub-Saharan Africa and how it needs to be transformed. We argue that the current planning procedures are still dominated by those developed in the global North and do not keep up with the dynamic of extremely rapid urban expansion and densification in Africa, and that these procedures are also increasingly coming to benefit the growing middle class in the region, as well as the elite, to the detriment of the actual and projected urban poor majority.

Our engagement with 'transformation' in the South African context visà-vis planning education is thus widened and deepened here, as we reflect on how African urban dwellers have for centuries managed land and environmental resources through embedded governance mechanisms which are based on socio-cultural structures and agency. We argue that only by understanding how these (at times ancient) practices have evolved and, in modified form, govern most urban physical change – especially the so-called 'informal' – can urban 'planning' be decolonised from its global North 'specialist' approach and thereby be re-embedded as a socially legitimate form of governance of land and environmental resources in the realpolitik of Africa's fast-growing cities. [End Page 190]

Thus, looking beyond the 'cacophony of the immediate' – typically that of decrying the dystopic nature of urban change in sub-Saharan Africa – this opinion piece argues that urbanisation is here to stay and is creating new forms of urbanism as well as manifestations of urbanity. These need to be seen not as problems but as solutions with which urban planning needs to work.

Urban planning as we know it: seeing the present more clearly

What do we mean by 'urban planning'?

Urban planning generally refers to state regulation of use of urban land and environmental resources, in principle in the public interest. While forms of planning towns and cities have existed for millennia, the origins of 'modern' urban planning can be found in the beginning of the twentieth century, largely as a reaction to rapid urbanisation in the global North and reaction to the impact of poorly regulated capitalist endeavour (especially industrialisation, but also land and housing markets and associated necessary services for the latter). While initially focused on planning urban expansion, the state began to reserve stronger powers for wide regulation of land and environmental use after the Second World War in the UK, in the USA through the New Deal, and in Europe through the Marshall Plan. In all cases, despite the generally capitalist economies, all contexts were characterised by a period of a strong state and growth in regulatory capacity.

Urban planning as a profession developed initially through architecture – where 'civic design' emerged in the 1920s in the Western world – although by the mid twentieth century, urban and regional planning (otherwise known as 'town and country planning' and/or 'physical planning', depending on the context) became a profession in its own right. This was naturally associated with control of education, as with other professions, and also the growth of university education, with a professional body exercising oversight under government statute. In this, the profession of urban planning followed the tendency in the second part of the nineteenth century for specialisation in education, and the post-Enlightenment 'capture' of the 'high ground' for knowledge by academia. As such, by mid twentieth century, other routes to education such as apprenticeship were dropped in favour of academic training – sometimes criticised both for the subsequent ignoring of other valid forms of knowledge (Illich 1977) [End Page 191] as well as for the subsequent academisation of valid knowledge (Shipman and Shipman 2005). In more recent decades the field of planning has diversified into specialist areas, including that called development planning, often with an economic developmental focus within what are seen as historically 'underdeveloped' contexts.1

While covering an increasingly widening and complex professional field of...


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pp. 190-208
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