The Kilamba City controversy: What can African cities learn?

The Kilamba City controversy: What can African cities learn?

In 2012, Kilamba New City located 30 km out of Luanda made global headlines as Africa’s first ‘ghost town’ constructed by Chinese companies. Following the intervention of the Angolan government to make the constructed housing affordable through subsidies, the occupancy rate of the newly built city rose, debunking the ‘ghost town’ narrative. As much as the controversies were extensively covered in media, the debate also extended to academics. In the academic journal, Environment and Urbanization, a University of Cape Town Professor Vanessa Watson, refuted the socio-economic sustainability of the new city. In her paper, African urban fantasies: Dreams or nightmaresshe argued the unaffordability of the housing to most Luanda residents. This has been a characteristic of most financial investment-driven projects, detached from the realities of urban Africa, urban poverty. Following this publication, a year later was Allan Cain, the Director of Development Workshop, with a direct rebut. In his article, African urban fantasies:  past lessons and emerging realitieshe argued how African governments are drawing from past experiences to make their dreams a reality. He referred particularly to the Kilamba city’s increasing occupancy rate as progress in socio-economic viability of related projects.

Ever since the story of Kilamba city took a new twist from a ‘ghost town’ to a town with considerable occupancy rate, the controversy has lost the momentum. In the whole Kilamba City controversy, however, one dimension of the argument has been missing (at least in the same spotlight). The environmental sustainability of recent Chinese-constructed projects and other allied projects. The poor environmental sustainability emphasis for most new urban development projects demonstrate a critical case of ‘putting the money where the mouth is’. Housing provision and affordability is the most critical challenge facing African cities given the large backlog of urban residents seeking housing. As a result, other consequences of housing provision that pertain environmental sustainability such as urban sprawl, peri urbanisation and automobile dependency do not get critical attention in comparison.

The Kilamba City

Located 30 kilometres outside Luanda, Angola’s capital, Nova Cidade de Kilamba was built by state-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) on 5 000 hectares’ piece of land. The USD3.5 billion social housing project which was financed by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) the first phase was developed over a period of two years from October 2010 to October 2012.  The project is regarded the largest social housing project in Africa comprising of 710 buildings of different heights and different apartment sizes. As a predominantly residential city, Kilamba consists of 20 002 apartments, 246 shopping units and to provide education services the city has 24 kindergartens, 9 primary schools, 8 secondary schools.  It also have municipal services that have 2 electricity substations, 1 sewage treatment plant and a water treatment plant.

The New Phase of Kilamba Housing project

The construction being completed in 2012 and the satellite town sought occupancy, apartments selling for USD 120 000- USD 200 000 each. This has been a contributing factor to its low occupancy rate given that majority of Angolan urbanites live on less than USD2 per day. In efforts to ensure the new housing affordability to Luanda residents, the government subsidised a rent-to-purchase scheme. Three percent were offered on mortgages and cuts were made to the smallest apartment units from US$120 000 to US$84 000. With increasing occupancy, due to reduced prices and long-term mortgages, the Kilamba social housing is gaining occupancy. The prevailing debates now focus on the efficiency of Angolan government in allocating the apartments and managing the subsidies.

An Aerial view of Kilamba Kiaxi

The globalisation of American urbanism

Cities around the world in their urbanisation process are emulating the worst and best of American urban planning. Andres Duany at a conference in 2015 once highlighted on European cities and Asian cities that wants to be American more than American cities themselves. China in its hyper-urbanisation process is no exception. One of the distinct characteristic of American post-World War II urban development was housing provision sprawling in nature and mass housing for the poor in forms of blocks, entailing density without urbanism. American cities have also been characterised by modernist architecture that promoted the proliferation of skyscrapers, a contested typology sustainability wise.  Thus, there has been proliferation American style of urbanism in its best and mainly worst form, suburban sprawl connected by superhighways and dense low-cost housing without walkability.

These imported urban forms have the capacity to alter the existing urban forms. Benazeraf and Alves in 2014 highlighted the challenge of Chinese urban plans based in China that do not comply with local planning standards in Angola. Hence, in the narrative of Contractors and development financiers intervening in urban development it is critical to foster development control that enable new settlements to integrate into existing urban fabric. This takes a participatory approach of urban stakeholders be it top-down, middle-down or bottom-up.

The sustainability of financial Investment-driven urban development

The intervention of China in African urban development such as infrastructure and housing development has been driven mainly by the resources-for-infrastructure deals (oil-for-infrastructure in case of Kilamba). In these deals, resource rich countries (mainly oil and minerals) access well-financed urban development in exchange for their resources. Such investments prove to be effective in easing housing provision that chokes most African cities. Nevertheless, without the intervention of the government to subsidise the housing, unaffordability may restrain access to the housing market by low-income earners. Environmentally, the sustainability of financial investment-driven urban development does not receive adequate attention. Without adequate checks and balances (development control) from urban planning authorities and allied stakeholders on environmental sustainability, their urban form can create detrimental environmental effects. This has been so for investors will be concerned with financial viability of their investments in shopping malls, road construction and housing units without much consideration of their functional sustainability. This has been particularly the case with cities that seal their urban boundaries with condition of not providing off-site infrastructure (water supply, sewer reticulation, road network) to developments beyond the boundaries. The intervention by financial investors in urban development who are willing to provide such services beyond the urban boundaries weakens the tightness of urban boundaries and promote further sprawl.

The risk of densification without urbanism

In the sustainability of urban areas, densification is regarded as the better form of land use efficiency against urban sprawl. Nevertheless, absolute densification poses challenges as well. How much density is enough before it becomes vertical sprawl? How sustainable is density without walkability? These are the questions that arise from the case of Kilamba city where mobility in the dense urban settlement is facilitated by cars. Other than the spatial form, the modernist architecture that is intensified by the mega urban development projects is of critical concern. The skyscrapers (particularly buildings with more than six floors) experimental typology has been well regarded as not sustainable. As Leon Krier characterise them “the dinosaurs of an ending fossil-fuel age and synthetic culture”. A controversial issue with modernist architects justifying skyscrapers based on high urban population demands. On the contrary, classists and post-modernists rebut by disqualifying evidence for population bust (except Hong Kong) and attribute skyscrapers to energy inefficiency and vertical sprawl as speculative practices by property developers.  China has been the most well-known country constructing mega skyscrapers on justification of its population. However, the trend by virtue of Chinese contractors working in African cities modernist architecture is proliferating African cities that had an earlier urban form inherited from British, Portuguese and French urban form as post-colonial cities. Thus, it is critical for planners and city architects to determine the type of urban form they deem sustainable for mobility, energy use and land use efficiency of the city during engagement with contractors.

The stagnation of urban environmentalism in Africa

As a movement born out of protest, urban environmentalism in Africa, has been mainly focusing on preservation of environmentally sensitive areas and nature sanctuaries within the urban areas. These include wetlands, birds’ sanctuaries, and many forms of pollution in urban areas. While American urban environmentalism is criticised for focusing on preservation of wilderness, African urban environmentalism is failing even to protect the wilderness from urban sprawl and peri-urbanisation. It is also, not integrated adequately into the urban design process to assess the environmental impacts of urban forms beyond greening the city.  These impacts encompass the pollution from automobile dependency caused by suburban sprawl and densification without urbanism. Other than protection of environmentally sensitive areas, environmental proofing of urban designs seldom receives their attention. Thus, urban environmentalists in African cities need to improve their tools and advocacy to ensure the urban form created by urban development projects in their mega sizes is less detrimental on environmental sustainability.

The greenfields development – dormitory towns dilemma

Of recent, development of new towns is a trend in Africa. On justification that inherited post-colonial cities have exceeded their carrying capacity, a wave of proposals and development of new cities has emerged. This particularly followed the headlining of Africa as the ‘last development frontier’, luring investors to venture into African market.  Thus, most of the mega urban development projects focusing on housing and commercial areas are abandoning the regeneration of inner cities and proceed to greenfields developments. Kilamba city is one such project located 30 km out of Angolan capital, Luanda. Given that Kilamba was planned to accommodate approximately 160 000 inhabitants, the limited sources of employment in the new town may lead to the urban settlement functioning as a dormitory town. The functionality of a settlement with dormitory attributes entails that Kilamba in its full capacity will be characterised by residents commuting to Luanda for work. This will lead to automobile dependency and higher traffic congestion during peak hours. Faced with such traffic challenge, there is always a tendency to develop superhighways that connect the town with the major city which worsens sustainability of urban mobility yet economically beneficial to financial investors and contractor. Faced with such a challenge it is critical to consider development of polycentric urban form that eases mobility in cities and distribute economic development from the centre evenly.

The essence of forward planning and placemaking

In Chinese development, there is a notion of “build and they will come” a speculative approach to urban development. Urban development in the 21st century has been that of building cities in their final form drawing from the forms of best planned cities observed by prominent urbanists such as Jane Jacobs. However, the neighbourhoods that the likes of Jane Jacobs praised were not planned and built from scratch in their final form. They emerged from long process of incremental development and retrofitting over hundreds of years. Now, mega-sized urban development projects such as Kilamba City, planners and developers are replicating these praised neighbourhoods to the smallest detail of manicured landscapes particularly their final form without understanding and integrating the process they went through in their evolution. Thus, they have been developing neighbourhoods meant to stay the same forever. This regard of urban development has promoted the neglect of existing cities and decaying inner cities as beyond repair and too expensive to renew. As a result, the new cities paradigm and greenfields developments have gained momentum in Africa. In this whole practice of building neighbourhoods and new towns in their complete form, questions of planning and placemaking remain critical to be interrogated. How will the automobile dependent cities avoid choking after the end of cheap oil? How will the mega skyscrapers sustain their energy use in post fossil-fuel age? How can residentially-orientated new towns evolve into polycentric centres of mega cities of the future that their metropolitan region will become?

This article was published by the African Urban Development Institute

Categories: Urban Development

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