Kampala hosts first Urban Thinkers Campus in Africa

Event, hosted by the African Union of Architects, emphasized local and historically based urbanization strategies.

KAMPALA, UGANDA — After tackling the extraordinarily complex issue of slums during the first Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC) to be held in a developing country, African architects are urging that Africa return to its roots.

“You can’t bring back the past. But you can learn from it and develop from it new techniques for building with the aim of making sure we have an identity that’s unique,” said Flora Runumi, who chaired the event. “We don’t have to copy or import; we have to value our own heritage.”

Dozens attended the campus, held last week in Kampala under the umbrella of the African Union of Architects in Kampala and hosted by Uganda’s society of architects, the Urban Development Ministry and the capital’s metropolitan authority.

The Kampala UTC, which focused on slums, is the first of several dozen stakeholder events scheduled to take place around the world in coming months. The events are aimed at gathering broad input into the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of next year’s Habitat III conference on cities.

The campus was the first of several to be held in Africa, and the first to be held in a developing country. Allan K. Birabi, a lecturer and architectural conservator at the Department of Architecture at Kampala’s Makerere University, challenged the participating architects to “infuse their designs with African architectural semiotics, which is what our forefathers used to do” and to “maintain a high sense of African identity”.

“You can’t bring back the past. But you can learn from it and develop from it new techniques for building with the aim of making sure we have an identity that’s unique.”

Flora Runumi
Chair, Kampala Urban Thinkers Campus

Governments and others should promote design competitions for architects with more meaningful “local-culture-driven architecture”, he proposed.

Habitat III will be a good opportunity for Africa to remind the world of the importance of heritage more broadly, Christine Auclair, project leader of the World Urban Campaign at UN-Habitat, said.

“Architects are more aware when they design a building about identity than heritage,” she said. “Africa will remind us all about the importance of keeping a link to the rural and integrating the rural into a new urban paradigm for the 21st century.”

Others are also keen to make sure that the multiple global discussions on development currently underway are built around account local contexts. Tokunbo Omisore, the president of the African Union of Architects, called on Habitat III to identify the specific needs of developing countries and provide sustainable guidelines.

He points out that one of the new Sustainable Development Goals, to be finalized next month, urges countries to “Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage”. But that leaves open differences between one community’s cultural values versus another’s, he said.

“The different cultural values will become extinct if classification of what is to be retained is not reviewed, discussed and promoted over time,” he said.

Sense of place

Africa today has the highest urbanization rate of any continent. Thus, it offers a particularly focused laboratory for the new strategies that may be included in the New Urban Agenda.

Auclair said this urban context leads to an innate sense of place and identify for Africa. Yet she expressed concern about the priority that planners and officials have given to public space across the continent. Public space should constitute at least 40 per cent of all land, Auclair said, but in Africa this figure stands at only around 11 per cent.

The continent also needs to undertake real work on the interaction between urban and rural areas, she cautioned.

“In the last 40 years, governments in Africa have claimed the importance for UN-Habitat to consider rural settlements,” she said. “We should not ignore this considering, however, that the prosperity of nations is highly correlated with urban development.”

Meanwhile, Uganda’s urbanization experience mirrors that of many other fast-growing developing countries, in Africa and beyond. Around a fifth of the population currently lives in urban areas, but that number is growing at some 5 percent per year, said Joseph Pade, an assistant commissioner at the Urban Development Ministry. From an urban population of around 6 million in 2013, this figure could more than triple to 20 million in 2040.

Pade said such projections are being met with serious concern in his ministry’s offices.

Ugandan solutions already include strengthened decentralization and reformed land policies. But Pade said there needs to be a move toward integrated rather than sectoral planning, by bringing all stakeholders on board in urban development.

Practical solutions needed

Beyond the specifics of the discussion in Kampala, how did the organizers and participants view the Urban Thinkers Campus format as an approach to gathering stakeholder input?

Runumi said her impression of the framework has been positive but that it could use some work to strengthen outcomes.

“We’ve had several large meetings and numerous small meetings in the UN-Habitat, but very few people propose practical solutions,” she said. “You keep coming back to another meeting and another meeting, and you find each meeting is reinforcing what the last meeting suggested. But the implementation never happens.”

Auclair said the Kampala UTC “primarily gathered architects and professionals, not so much other partner groups”. In addition, formal recommendations from the event remain a “work in progress”, though she lauded the insightful presentations made during the campus that brought “food for thought on the contribution of architecture and the role of heritage”.

Further, the partnership with the African Union of Architects appears to be promising. That connection “raised the awareness of stakeholders and the architects themselves” and showed that the frameworks “to reach our national leaders” at the international level are in place, Runumi said.

“We must take advantage of this, because the decisions which are made in this forum are the ones that trickle down to us here and impact the way we implement urban decisions,” she said.

Input by stakeholders and professionals “is necessary and vital for Habitat III,” she continued. “They must engage even more vibrantly within the available fora.”

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Amy Fallon

Amy is a freelance journalist based in Kampala who works regularly for AFP and Inter Press Service.