The Global South is coming up with a new type of urbanism

But are urban planners ready to listen?
Children pose outside of a railway station in Jakarta, 2009. Migrants from Indonesia's rural areas have not simply replicated their villages in an urban environment. (Rei and Motion Studios/Shutterstock)

Urban planning is a comparatively young discipline — much younger than architecture, for example. The history of many cities is far longer than that of urban planning.

This is why European urban planning and urban design always have alluded to practices from the Middle Ages or even the Greco-Roman civilizations. Likewise, in the first half of the 20th century, urban planners regularly drew inspiration from utopian design concepts of the 19th century.

But what is the repertoire of concepts, ideas and visions that inform the work of urban planners in the Global South — in Asia, Latin America and Africa? Are they still under the spell of their colonial and postcolonial masters? Or have they developed their own ideas and their own yardsticks, commensurate with the respective culture of their country and region?

This is a very pertinent question at a time when we are witnessing a resurgence of urban planning and urban design at the global level. Indeed, that resurgence is coming about after decades in which planning had fallen into disrepute due to the dominance of neo-liberalism. Evidence of this new focus on planning can be found in the New Urban Agenda, adopted last year by governments across the globe. Among other things, the agenda contains a staunch commitment toward urban planning and urban design with an eye to promoting compact, mixed, integrated, polycentric and balanced urban development.

So amid this resurgence, what can we expect from the concepts, ideas and visions that inform the work of urban planners in the Global South? Let us first look at Asia, which has hosted many ancient urban cultures. In the Indian subcontinent, for instance, one can still visit the magnificent pre-colonial cities of Rajasthan. But oddly, this urban design tradition has not become a source of inspiration for Indian planners. Rather, their mindset is informed by cities such as Mumbai, whose entire layout bears the mark of its colonial past. Or they follow the precepts of modernist urbanism — in other words, Western concepts.

[See: In India, training the next generation of urbanists]

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the layout of Chandigarh, the first Asian “New Town” to be founded in the early 1950s shortly after Indian independence, was designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, one of the figureheads of modernist urbanism. Only a few years after completion of the first housing blocks in Chandigarh, it became evident that the plan had disastrously disregarded family cohesion in Indian society, as well as the everyday routines and practices in their living quarters and inside the houses — for example, how meals are prepared.

To some extent, the early failure of Chandigarh was understood by some Asian planners as a warning. Some of the younger planners wanted to depart from the European debate, and there was a sense of optimism among some Asian planners in the postcolonial period — even the conviction that urban planning could change society.

Malaysia’s New Towns

I witnessed this new creative drive in the early 1970s, as a young volunteer planner attached to Malaysia’s Department of Town and Country Planning. At the time, the newly independent country was plagued by a severe rural-urban divide, and the spatial disparities fell in line with ethnic divisions. It made sense that these were some of the issues that young intellectuals in the country were fiercely discussing.

“The inhabitants of informal settlements have developed a hybrid lifestyle that blends urban and rural practices. And one facet of this newly emerging lifestyle is a new type of urbanism.”

So, a team of committed young planners translated this core problem into a spatial strategy: Urbanizing the rural (predominantly ethnic Malay) population was seen as leverage to eradicate poverty and bring about social justice. Consequently, a team of committed planners busied themselves with designing New Towns in the remoter parts of the Malay Peninsula, in regions that hitherto had been covered with primary or secondary forest.

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

These New Towns were essentially agro-cities for settlers from other parts of the country, who were allocated rubber or oil palm plantations for cultivation. But in contrast to the Malay villages in the rice-growing areas, these New Towns were to be provided with urban infrastructure such as secondary schools, vocational training colleges and hospitals from the beginning. There also were designated areas for future industrial development.

So 45 years later, what has happened to this ambitious urbanization programme? Recently I had the opportunity to visit one of my former Malaysian colleagues, and I reminded him of our discussions in those early days. Had the New Towns taken off as anticipated? And even more importantly, what had happened to the goal of overcoming the rural-urban divide by means of spatial planning?

As it turns out, all the New Towns were functioning well, and all urban infrastructure had been provided. But the towns were somewhat boring, he told me, and moreover, most of the plots for industrial development were still vacant. For this reason, the future of the New Towns appears to be dimmer than anticipated a generation or two ago: The children of the first generation of settlers did not stay in these areas, but rather had migrated to Kuala Lumpur, Penang or other cities immediately after graduating from secondary school

Thus, my colleague sadly concluded, the expectation of overcoming rural-urban disparities by means of urban planning had remained a beautiful but unattainable dream in Malaysia.

[See: Assessing the New Urban Agenda’s ‘new concept’: Integrating the city and countryside]

In hindsight, one might add that despite their good intentions, the Malaysian planners from the start had engaged in social engineering and planning from above. They had never asked the future residents about their needs and their preferences. Thus it should come as little surprise that the new urban residents have voted with their feet — if not immediately after the completion of the New Towns but one or two generations later.

China’s rediscovery

While in Asia, it’s impossible to forget about China, which has a very long urban tradition. Not only is this the world’s most populous country, but over the past three decades it also has experienced a migration push toward the urban centres unprecedented in human history.

But the way that hyper-urbanization — in Guangzhou, Beijing and many other Chinese megacities — has dealt with centuries’ worth of built heritage does not speak in favour of the urban planners’ regard for the country’s urban design traditions.

[See: Historic cities already embody sustainability principles]

By today, for instance, most of the legendary “hutongs” in Beijing have been demolished, to be replaced by concrete blocks. It was only very late — nearly too late — that planners, architects and NGOs started to protest against the demolition of the last hutongs.

As it turns out, those protests have met with some success. This rediscovery of the traditional building culture has brought to the fore the social qualities of the hutongs — for example, the intrinsic value of life in an extended family. Outside the mainstream, there now appears to be a renewed interest in China’s own urban design history among younger planners, who do not wish to simply continue copying Western modernism.

A Beijing “hutong” undergoes redevelopment. (Forum Arbeitswelten)

At the same time, concepts of “smart cities” and sustainable urbanism are being discussed among Chinese planners. Whether this debate eventually will be the starting point for a distinctly different urban development strategy, which combines regard for Chinese traditions with meeting the challenges of the urbanization process, remains to be seen.

[See: Between Habitat II and III, China changed everything]

For now, the country continues facing the enormous challenge of providing decent housing to its 250 million migrant workers in the cities — let alone housing the additional rural-urban migrants, who are likely to move to the cities in decades to come. Just three years ago, the Chinese leadership promulgated a new urbanization plan, which provides for the creation of a large number of new megacities over the next two decades. Among professionals at least, the rediscovery of the country’s own urban history has started, but in the face of the coming construction boom, it will not be easy to return to human scale in China’s urbanism.

Latin informality

In Latin America there is hardly any settlement continuity dating back to pre-colonial times. All metropolises (and the small and medium-sized towns, as well) are of colonial origin and were planned according to Spanish-Portuguese renaissance design patterns.

“The creative drive of the inhabitants of the barrios of Caracas or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro has transformed the urban landscape in all Latin American countries.”

This history has informed urban planning across the continent until today. Over the past two decades, there has been an unprecedented building boom from north to south, from Mexico to Chile. Thousands of new middle-class neighbourhoods are coming up, many in the form of gated communities. And nearly all of them display an uninspired and uniform rectangular street pattern, somehow replicating the colonial tradition.

[See: ‘We managed to kick off a paradigm shift in São Paulo,’ mayor says on leaving office]

To be sure, Brasília, the first postcolonial city founded in the southern hemisphere, is different in that it is not a replica of colonial street patterns. Its brilliant design combines prestigious visual axes with regard for the topography of the location. But the urban design of Brasília did not embrace any indigenous traditions but rather was part of international modernism. Moreover, it has not inspired Latin American urban design culture across the continent — unlike Latin American architecture, which has created a distinctly different style of modern design.

The most important impulse for urban development in the region has come from the numerous informal settlements. The creative drive of the inhabitants of the barrios of Caracas or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro has transformed the urban landscape in all Latin American countries.

Nearly 50 years ago, the British architect John Turner first described the intrinsic qualities of “self-help” housing as the intimate link between the needs of a family, architecture and urban design. This diagnosis, although perhaps a bit overly romantic, nonetheless holds true up to the present day. And it is no coincidence that these days, middle-class families in Rio find it fashionable and convenient to move into favelas — albeit those that have been modernized and legalized.

[See: 5 groups awarded for self-built, self-managed housing projects]

Self-help housing and settlements, which started informally, provide a host of useful lessons for urban planners, most of them still untapped. These include, to name just a few: compactness, mix of land uses, close proximity of living spaces and workplaces, and the multiple uses of public spaces.

Bahir Dar

Africa is the least urbanized continent of the Global South, but it is currently experiencing the fastest rates of urbanization. This applies not only to the megacities but also to many secondary and tertiary towns.

Let’s take a quick exploration of Bahir Dar, a fast-growing town on Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands and currently the country’s third-biggest city. A generously planned avenue with shade-giving trees leads from south to north, to the lakeshore. Bank branches, a few department stores, car dealers, restaurants and Internet cafes are lined up along this main street. Most of the buildings are four- or five-storey concrete blocks; there is no fanciful architecture, no façade that sticks in the visitor’s memory.

[See: In Uganda’s small but fast-growing cities, ‘one planner is not enough’]

Over many generations, Bahir Dar’s location on the shore of the largest lake in the Ethiopian highlands has stimulated visionaries, politicians and planners. When Italy occupied Ethiopia in 1936, Bahir Dar was an important intermediate stage of the conquest. The then-military government commissioned the first urban development plan for the city. In the early 1950s, Emperor Haile Selassie even planned to relocate the capital from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar, commissioning a British planning consultant to elaborate a master plan for a lavish new capital.

Shortly afterward, the idea of a new capital was shelved. Instead, a well-known German urban planner, Max Guther, was tasked with coming up with a more modest plan for a modern Bahir Dar. Four years ago, a Canadian planning consultant was appointed to elaborate yet another urban development plan for this medium-sized city. This time, the planners promised to concretize their ideas in dialogue with the local population.

Commercial development goes up next to an informal settlement in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. (Nadine Appelhans/Shutterstock)

So many lofty ideas and plans, but in reality the traces they have left on the ground are limited. This is because African cities evolve differently. One needs only to turn from the tar road into one of the dusty lanes off the posh avenue, or follow one of the gravel paths into the interior of the other Bahir Dar: the city of the migrants from the Ethiopian villages.

[See: Urban planning — linchpin for sustainable urban development?]

At first sight, this other Bahir Dar appears as an unplanned maze of single-storey shacks, multi-storey tenements and small workshops. Between the potholes and the puddles left from the most recent rain, there are kids playing, school children walking to school, men and women driving their donkeys with heavy loads of firewood home, manoeuvring their way between goats, chicken and other animals. In the narrow gaps between the houses, people have planted fruit trees and are growing vegetables.

Even here, nothing is happening without a plan. But this plan has little resemblance to the concepts of urban planning professionals. Rather, it exists in the minds of those who have come from the village to the city, who have searched for a job, who were lucky to find their niche in the informal urban economy, and who are working hard to make their neighbourhood a better place to live in.

In this respect, Bahir Dar is in no way different from other African cities or from the majority of cities in the Global South. What we observe here is the dualism between formal urban planning and informal urban development at the fringes and in the niches within the planned city.

[See: What Bangkok’s crackdown tells us about the multiple roles of street vendors everywhere]

Africa is the least-urbanized continent, but currently it displays the highest urbanization rates worldwide. Moreover, in sub-Saharan Africa, the urban middle class has tripled over the past 30 years. This has given rise to the most recent trend in African urbanization: Private investors, supported by central government planning departments and local government bodies, are planning new satellite towns with multi-storey housing blocks, which do not differ much from parts of Dubai or Chinese Cities.

Konza City in Nairobi, Kigamboni in Dar es Salaam and Hope City in Accra are the latest projects of this kind, for which funding has been secured. They represent the exact opposite of compact, inclusive and functionally mixed urbanism. This suggests that African planners have yet to discover the qualities of informal urbanization as an indigenous tradition in urban transformation.

A new urbanism

Nonetheless, there is reason to look again to the informal settlements of Africa and beyond. But what exactly constitutes today’s informal settlements — are they simply villages within the city? Have the migrants brought over their rural lifestyle, their agricultural production, the way they construct their houses and plan the layout of their settlements?

This is indeed the way some observers have described and interpreted the functioning of informal settlements. But this is only part of the truth.

[See: How a generation of young leaders is emerging from India’s slums]

The informal settlements of Bahir Dar are different from the rural villages in the Ethiopian highlands. Their density is higher, they are more compact, and there is a different mix of economic activities. Likewise, the “kampungs” of Jakarta are not mere replicas of Javanese villages.

In reality, the inhabitants of informal settlements have developed a hybrid lifestyle that blends urban and rural practices. And one facet of this newly emerging lifestyle is a new type of urbanism. To be sure, more often than not this urbanism is makeshift, not durable. But it meets the needs of the inhabitants.

This insight leads to the most important quality of sustainable urban planning in countries of the Global South: Planners need to develop urban planning visions that take into consideration the needs of all citizens, of the urban middle class as well as those of the urban poor in informal settlements. Those visions need to translate these needs into a comprehensive concept plan for an entire city, thus overcoming fragmentation and segregation.

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Einhard Schmidt-Kallert

Einhard Schmidt-Kallert is a retired professor of spatial planning in developing countries at TU Dortmund University, Germany. He has worked both in urban and rural settings in the Global South.