From and Towards the South: Rethinking Urban Planning

Urbanization in emerging and developing countries is today an irreversible trend of the transformations that shape the world, and this regardless of the country where one looks, and whatever the city concerned. Driven by mass migration of rural populations to urban centers and by natural growth that is still very strong, sustainable urban development is a question that confronts all cities, in priority in Africa and Asia, and in all small and medium-sized cities of Southern countries, with identical problems: organizing the planning of territory in continuous demographic and spatial expansion, and, in parallel, doing its best with limited financial and human resources. If the very large cities, national capitals or economic and political hubs enjoy comparatively more marked attention from governments and funders, the smaller sized agglomerations remain neglected and almost invariably face a multitude of glaring necessities, with no real means to respond to social demands for investing in infrastructure and community facilities that match the identified needs. These questions remain unanswered, addressed mainly in an emergency or according to the allocations provided sporadically by national governments or by foreign financiers.

This urban context of great insecurity and uncertainty about the future of these small and medium-sized cities allows us to speak of “poor cities”, not only because a large part of their citizens actually live on the edge of destitution, but also because urban authorities are poorly equipped in means to assume the investment that would be needed to improve the daily life of all residents.

In this context, urban planning must be completely rethought and taken out of the patterns of development models that were designed for completely different environments, being for the most part the simple reproduction of defined standards and rules implemented in Western countries by specialists whose credentials are totally foreign to global South. The major risk in this situation is that of projecting these cities on a basis that will serve only the interests of a minority of citizens, favoring the most advantaged in economic and territorial development, and leaving the modest population on the margins, those living in informality and in the most underserved neighborhoods. But it also represents an extraordinary opportunity to think about the future from what exists, taking into account the real resources, not only financial but also social, to devise and implement urban planning with the goal to fight against poverty and invest in equipment that has a sustainable impact on the living conditions of the poor.

As such, the analysis carried out in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, is very instructive. Provincial capital at 100 km from Ouagadougou, Koudougou is a commercial and political center of a large rural area, but it has also long been considered as a rebellious city, unwilling to obey the requirements of the Burkinabe central government. In Koudougou, as in many intermediate African cities, the urban planning process is exogenous, not really consistent with the requests of the people, nor with the human, material and financial resources of the city, and therefore rarely applied.

This is easily explained when we know that urban planning in its design, is initiated as part of a collaborative framework between the central government and foreign donors. The initial diagnosis is made by quality professionals but who are disconnected from local administrative and social realities. In fact, it is a census of all needs to be met, but without a guidance manual! How then the facilities to be created whose costs are more than ten times that of the annual municipal budget reserves? In fact, plans produced in this context do not serve to guide local authorities in the current and future development of the urban territory. Neither are they an instrument of dialogue between the said authorities and the population. On the contrary, any consultation with the community that does not result in expected and desired deliverables will strengthen the distrust, or even defiance towards public, political, and administrative powers. At best, the plans, losing their principal essence, become promotional tools, pure marketing products, a catalogue of intentions of penniless communities at the mercy of the donors’ desideratum, whether they be State or foreign cooperation agencies.

With a population of nearly 400,000 inhabitants Montes Claros, in Brazil, with much more resources than in Koudougou, cannot be described as a poor city, but the urban population is highly segregated; one third of the city’s population is poor. This fragmentation of the social fabric is also reflected in the more than 140 unregulated neighborhoods. In addition to these socio-economic and territorial disparities, a major problem exists: the lack of regional integration of the municipality’s rural hinterlands. These areas, where services and telecommunications are still rudimentary, are gradually being excluded of urban and regional planning.

Today, the municipality is facing the issue of social exclusion, with an increasing proportion of the urban population living in economic insecurity and relative marginalization, both geographically and socially. These are key issues for a comprehensive urban plan whose aim is to not only act spatially. This ongoing process, which will determine the guidelines for future planning, is primarily focused on the more urbanized areas of the city.

This distortion of urban planning is dangerous, since it destroys any coherence in a more regional perspective, both in establishing priorities in infrastructure and equipment to realize, in the economic and social sectors to be favored, as in the implementation timeframes, without any possible guarantee that things will be done on time, potentially creating more long term disorganization than anything else.

Urban planning in developing and emerging countries must be entirely reconsidered. The essential point—too often overlooked—is to begin from a participatory diagnosis in which the actual situation of the city is examined in its various dimensions, both demographic and spatial, infrastructural, but also economic, social and environmental, permitting all the stakeholders to position themselves. This information, cartographic, as well as documentary and anthropological, will serve as the foundation for the establishment of a database that can then be fed in real time, facilitating the monitoring of “urban development” and a collaborative, up-to-date decision-making process. In parallel is the question of establishing priorities, in terms of structures to be built, but also in terms of standards, rules and plans tailored to the context, with regard to the needs identified by specialists, to requests from the different social actors, as well as the available resources, both local and from external sources. Two principles should guide this work: first, that urban investments be directly or indirectly involved in the fight against poverty; second, that an overall coherence guide the specific actions in the short, medium and long term. These precepts can only be applied if the framework conditions are respected: local and regional governments must be given the human competencies and financial resources enabling them to act. And it is not impossible if the political will is there, and is based on a legitimacy in the eyes of the population. And this inevitably involves consultation frameworks that will animate the dialogue between representatives of the population, public administration, political powers, industry professionals and other special interest groups (private sector; social, religious, and political groups; NGOs; etc.). Training plays a key role, as does communication and dialogue. And it is these same guidelines that should guide implementation. Here too there is room for innovation, starting with the social practices and deployed human dynamics, beyond any formalism, on the local and regional levels. While it is clear that it takes the technical know-how of experts of the city and businesses, we must also remember that the own inhabitants did not wait to take the place of these players—too often absent—to build their houses, build community facilities, to better manage their neighborhoods.

These vital forces should neither be overlooked, nor marginalized; they are the center of a participatory process that is not limited to the consultation but goes from conception to action. They must be integrated into the planning process and thus contribute concretely to the implementation of decisions taken collectively. Communication is also a key issue. How to learn from other cities via the Internet and increasingly frequent global exchanges on urban matters. Whether we look at the frequent international summits on these issues by the United Nations or at visits of municipal delegation between continents. If, as indicated by Campbell (2012), we learn from near and far, and learning is no longer unilateral from North to South, but also from South to South and South to North. There nevertheless remain three reservations in this regard: first, urban technological innovations, even from emerging countries, are first found in the largest and richest agglomerations; in return, small and medium sized cities remain on the margins of these innovative processes and rarely have the opportunity to apply them, for lack of means; the question of precarious housing and urban poverty is generally treated as a problem, without utilizing and applying in similar contexts the lessons learned from this situation. These views are not so arrogant as to believe that all problems will now magically be solved, but rather that we are breaking out of a vicious circle in which urban planning is not playing its role, totally disconnected from a complex and changing reality. And put forward, as an innovative alternative, a more realistic vision, more pragmatic, based on what exists and focusing the efforts of all the citizens in favor of a gradual improvement in well-being for all, giving priority to the most deprived urban citizens.

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