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Learning from Geddes in Kenya


Ron McGill faces many challenges on the Kenya Municipal Programme. Fortunately, he has Patrcik Geddes for inspiration

I recently discovered Biopolis: Patrick Geddes And The City Of Life, a work replete with the aesthetic, spiritual and knowledge-seeking advocacy of Patrick Geddes, the pioneering Scottish-born planner. I considered how his legacy might apply to my engagement in the Kenya Municipal Programme (KMP). What are Kenya’s urban challenges, and is the prospect of relating the ‘legacy’ to the ‘challenges’, meaningful?

Geddes insisted on ‘survey before plan’. He pleaded for understanding of the place to be planned before planning and advocated minimalist interventions and practised ‘conservative surgery’ in medieval Edinburgh (Old Town). He advocated town planning exhibitions – his notion of ‘civics’ – as a process of permanent engagement with citizens. He did a great deal of his work in India and Palestine. He was an internationalist.

Kenya’s urban problems are huge. Since the new constitution became active in 2013, county governments have become the drivers of local development: 45 of the 47 county government capitals (excluding Nairobi and Mombasa) are growing more rapidly than these two ‘conurbations’, another Geddesian word.

The World Bank says 60 per cent of the urban population lives in areas that would be defined as slums under Millennium Development Goal criteria. Buildings collapse during heavy rain, killing people. Others simply drown. Urban violence erupts when, for example, external terrorists destroyed the Westgate shopping mall in 2014, murdering 67 people. Yet already, Westgate has been rebuilt and is working well, a testament to Kenya’s people and their economic resilience.

"Geddes pleaded for understanding of the place to be planned before planning"

Moving from legacy to challenges, what is applicable?

  • Survey before plan. In the past two years, nine new town plans have been prepared, with three more in hand. All have a strong GIS foundation in their surveys; thus the spatial challenges emerge from the start. Town plans are submitted but adoption and implementation remain weak.
  • Development control. The estimate is that only 30 per cent of buildings succumb to DC, perhaps explaining why superstructure collapses during heavy rains. Yet government’s caring approach to informal locations renewal is commendable.
  • Civics. Here, Geddes’ legacy is even more exciting. Planning exhibitions are being proposed for each completed town plan. It is public engagement and the local translation of survey data feeding into a proposed National Urban Observatory, as KMP is exploring the idea of an observatory with the Institute for Future Cities at Strathclyde University.

Ron McGill is special adviser to the Kenya Municipal Programme


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