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Fresh from a trip to East Africa, Louise Brooke-Smith wonders whether it’s a formal planning system or the social and political forces that influence planning that actually create places.

I am a travel junkie and, given an opportunity, I am off – boarding pass in one hand, suitcase in the other. This time it has been to Tanzania and Malawi. These are nations that saw a post-colonial independence euphoria in the 1960s, new flags waving and promises of riches beyond dreams. Inevitably, this was followed by the realisation that the vision was more difficult to achieve than they expected.

I could wax lyrical on the influence of the British Empire (or the French, Belgian or Portuguese) but I’ll leave the history lessons to another day. 

I’ve been more interested in how different governance and political controls have influenced the shape of where and how people live. Thirty years ago, I had the opportunity to study first-hand how urbanisation and planning regimes in East Africa had been affected by tribal and colonial land rights, and then how independence had taken Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania respectively forward.

I arrived in the 1980s at the British High Commission in Nairobi to ‘register’ and explain where I would be working, only to be told that they couldn’t confirm my safety.  So I gamely ventured by rail, VW Kombi* and hitching, and had the experience of my life. 

In addition to seeing civil war up close in Uganda, I saw the return of the many East African Asians chucked out by Idi Amin a few years earlier.  

Kenya was also seeing continued tribal unrest mixed with land rights disputes and clashes with white farmers over land ownership all coming to a head – a pattern to be repeated later in Zimbabwe.

So what of the cityscape and urban form 30 years on? It’s clear that Kenya and Tanzania have seen some impressive investment, be it new Chinese-funded railways or well-planned public bus services.

But beyond the shiny lights of big cities, the poor are still poor and, while the impact of 4G might mean that everyone has a smartphone or two, drainage, power supplies and the roads are as bad as ever.

“Most commonwealth nations retain some semblance of the mother ship that was the 1947 act” 

Village life is still tough. Land rights remain the cause of unrest and tension. And ‘town planning’ hasn’t really moved on since the adaptation of the UK’s 1947 Town and Country Planning Act into Swahili in each of these countries.

The publication Why Planning Does Not Work by Tumsifi Jonas Nnkya caught my eye in the airport bookshop at Dar Es Salam. It looks at land rights, land use planning, community involvement and housing programmes in northern Tanzania. 

Countless scholarly hours have been given to writing up every theory under the sun to explain land use strategy and how to make it work for all elements of any community. But, in the end, people respond to basic human needs: a roof over our heads, access to clean water and services, and proximity to transport, schooling and local markets. 

Everything else develops with affluence or investment: the bigger house on bigger, smarter plots with elaborate gardens in the right part of town; space for private cars; shopping and leisure malls. A ‘Milton Keynes’ for every part of sub-Saharan Africa – or so some would like. 

As for planning? Most Commonwealth nations retain some semblance of the mother ship that was the 1947 act. Many have spent time and money on top-down strategic development plans that are waved through at a regional or local level but rarely enforced. Instead, a mix of market forces, common sense, clever legal argument and political influence rule the day. Not so different from the UK.    

*Kombis: a widely used form of public transport in East Africa  

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a partner at Arcadis LLP and UK Head of Development and Strategy Planning
Image credit | Shutterstock 


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