Zimbabwe needs to rethink its Town Planning
Zimbabwe is turning a new page. We have newly elected councillors. Their new 5-year mandate however is going to be a rough road as they face some of the toughest urban problems. In this piece, I go beyond the state of the economy and bad governance. I raise nine issues critical to the revival of cities countrywide.
- Regulate the Town Planning profession
Zimbabwe is one of the few countries where town planning is unregulated. Without recognition and regulations, so many investments are wasted by poor town planning practices done by unqualified personnel. Just like engineering and architecture, town planning regulation is critical if the country is to build cities of worth.
In small urban and rural authorities, it is worse. Civil engineers have been conducting both public works and town planning without a town planner, a practice that is ruining reputation of engineers and potential success of towns countrywide. The lack of recognition has disfranchised planners, some of them have lost regard for serving public interest which is the core mandate of the profession.
Town planners and policymakers well-intentioned nevertheless also have a bone to chew about some of the decisions they are making which are not utilising the country’s precious resources efficiently.
- Stop selling land, they are not making it any more
Countrywide, land selling spree to individual housing seekers is prevalent as municipalities seek to maximise their revenue. Cities need to beware however, it is not economically efficient way of doing business. The role of town planning has been beneficiation to land through urban design. This generate more revenue for municipalities rather than selling ‘raw materials’, land.
Not unique to African cities. When European and North American cities were developing in the 19th century, they had vast cheap land and no money to build but used beneficiation approach. Convert land into premium real estate that property developers can buy for a premium. After the French Revolution, Napoleon rebuilt Paris without using tax money but by increasing value of land before selling it. Selling land to every housing seeker is like selling raw gold to jewellery customers, it does not benefit either of the parties efficiently and will not create an urban way of living.
- Introduce tight urban boundaries
Urban densification in Zimbabwe has been around since the 1980s. The City of Harare for example has been pushing for densification by selling infill stands and promoting cluster houses. Our cities’ urban boundaries are not tight enough however, and that is a challenge which threatens peri urban farmland, and cost of providing infrastructure. In Harare historically, Harare Drive was known as the tight urban boundary.
The current plans are set to renew urban boundaries after every 10 years. Regardless of the plans being overdue for updating, the boundaries need to be tighter than 10 years. Fifty to 100 year-urban boundaries otherwise cities will not achieve any reasonable density. All we will be doing is making peri urban farmers millionaires by converting their land into stands so easily.
Developing housing in such a sprawling way might be deemed cheap. In the long-run however it is way more expensive. The cost of providing water, sewer, electricity, roads, public transport, even police not to mention the poor quality of life generated by such places as residents will spent hours commuting to work daily.
- We need less new towns and more urban renewal
In October 2015, at the Institute of Architects of Zimbabwe (IAZ) Conference, a heated debated emerged, should we renew dilapidating cities, or build new towns such as in Mt Hampden. New towns were lucrative to some planners yet renewing the dilapidating cities is still critical for they determine the success of new towns.
The fear that urban renewal is more expensive, and gentrifying is blown out of proportion. The middle class and businesses might take care of themselves by moving to the suburbs. Our city centres though will remain inhabited by the urban poor who are disempowered and frankly cannot afford to pay taxes. Creating new towns in response will be such a poor approach to address the problem as current cities have not reached peak of urban ‘moulting’.
The prosperous cities around the world which we aspire to be went through hundreds of years of urban moulting. In the 19thcentury, London, New York, Paris had slums, open sewers, cholera outbreaks and pigs roaming in their streets. Some of them were bombed in World War II yet rebuilt and prospered.
If town planners cannot revive the dilapidating cities to become vibrant again, entrusting them to develop new towns will be such a gamble. It will not only put the country’s resources to poor use but might eventually humiliate the town planning profession itself. The reason being, continuous dilapidation of existing cities pushes their inhabitants outwards towards the new towns and end as one metropolitan area in 50-100 years to come. When that happens, the achievement in developing new towns will be insignificant.
- Stop the myth of mixed -use development
Since 2011, there has been a hype of businesses that are leaving dilapidating CBDs moving to nearby suburbs. Planning authorities responded in Harare by expanding the CBD into Eastlea, Belvedere and regarded it keeping up with latest trends of new urbanism where businesses operate in residential areas. While this was a pure market reaction, planners need to think hard about their response as it is not new urbanism or trendy at all.
At the heart of mixed use development and new urbanism is walkable communities where daily needs are within a walkable reach. Evidently, our CBDs are overdue for urban renewal and businesses are eating into scarce housing already.
- It’s not a town house if the place is not a town
In August 2017, the former president raised the need to maximise urban land, a concern that was followed by City of Harare receiving a municipal bond worth $100 million to build high-rise flats. In Zimbabwe however, flats/townhouses are less popular. People prefer the spacious suburb houses. We have seen flats that have gone for years without being bought even by the people with the buying power.
In these instances, urban planners have the obligation to create incentives through making the flats/townhouses neighbourhoods walkable, with daily needs within walking distance and a vibrant street life that makes a place a town not a suburb. A person with buying power to purchase a spacious house in the suburbs should be incentivised to willingly opt for a town house instead. Without such neighbourhoods, when every resident gets to afford a car, the city will implode with congestion, a trajectory we are heading towards.
- Regulate the influence of global capital
Global capital is upon us and we need it to finance urban infrastructure. Of recent the country has been awash with proposals to develop grand shopping malls and office parks. While this is welcome development that cities have been desperate for, it needs to be put to checks. Without checks and balances the cities will be flooded with shopping malls, office parks and other investments that are known to cause dependency on cars and will create even more problems in the future. Decades of mistakes in American cities should teach us, some investments in the cities are costlier in the long run.
- Think smart about traffic congestion
Congestion has been regarded alarming in cities. Due to poor industrial activity, the majority is heading to the city centre for informal retailing and service provision.
There have been many proposals by well-intentioned professionals to address such traffic congestion through introducing Bus Rapid Transit, widening of roads and building elevated highways (which became popular as ‘spaghetti roads’ during the election season). While these grand proposals are appealing, they are also problematic in the current state of our cities.
Such proposals will put huge investments to waste as instead of solving traffic congestion, widening of roads in fact worsens traffic congestion eventually. The construction of elevated highways that seek to bypass cities also comes with more challenges. It is as disastrous to property and real estate values as developing a small nuclear plant in the CBD. Our cities need to think smart about ways of cutting or even eliminating travel distance for majority of residents as the ultimate solution.
- Develop clear urban visions
In 2017 when we were discussing the City of Harare’s 2025 vision to achieve a ‘world-class city status’, one city official remarked, “we thought we should aim for the moon if we fail we will land on the stars.” While well-intentioned professionals developed the vision, the problem was not only that it was far-fetched.
The vision aspired to have a status that does not exist as a benchmark hence I could say they were well-intentionally shooting just at the sky instead. Prosperous cities known as global cities have themed visions that made them become global hubs. Be it Paris the tourist hub, New York the financial hub or Washington DC the diplomatic hub.
We inherited cities that were specifically themed. Harare was (and still) known as the ‘sunshine city’ seeking to be a tourism and services hub, Kadoma the city of gold was a town developed as a mining town. To prosper in improving competitiveness of our cities, adopting themed visions focusing on a particular strength will be more progressive than being generalist in our aspirations.
Which way forward?
The neglect of the town planning profession is most unfortunate. Town planners have the ability to turn a million-dollar piece of land into a prime multimillion-dollar real estate ready for the market. If unregulated as in the current state, prime urban land has been put to such a waste.
The new government has the challenge, to regulate the profession with codes of conduct and an act of parliament. If it fails, the Zimbabwean urban society will be subjected to a lifetime of ‘spatial massacre’ and this does not exclude the rich and influential from being victims of the planning atrocities.
While town planners need to fight for their space, (together with property developers), they also need to be vanguards of their practice which has been unsatisfactory. If the country continues the same trajectory, the next generations of town planners might as well spend their entire careers repairing the damages that current and previous ‘planners’ have been making.
As the newly-elected councillors and prospective mayors assume office, their understanding of town planning issues is expected highly and essential to the success of their tenures. Without collective commitment of councillors and central government, Zimbabwean cities are bound to be in trouble perennially.
This articles was first published by Business Times