Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity

How can the Global South implement the New Urban Agenda with colonial-era curricula and little investment in training? Now, Zambia offers a new model.


Most cities in the Global South face feeble economic development, persistent conflict, environmental disaster and weak institutions, as well as legal provisions that are disconnected from the realities of their urban experiences.

Much of this is well known. Yet there is a major looming gap that is far less discussed — and which becomes particularly important as the United Nations works to finalize a new 20-year strategy on urbanization, under the auspices of the Habitat III process. Poor skills and knowledge, attributed to outdated curricula and limited financing for training and retraining, will make it extremely difficult for authorities in developing countries to implement that strategy, which is known as the New Urban Agenda and is to be finished in October.

Further, cities in developing nations continue to experience knowledge gaps in dealing with spatial dynamics and urban development, particularly around informal-settlement upgrading but also around geospatial analysis infrastructure, revenue collection and more. When these are coupled with outdated planning education and instruments, the result is quite straightforward: Many cities simply are unable to address the challenges they face.

Meanwhile, many planning schools in these countries are still offering curricula informed by urban trends of the 1970s. This creates a clear mismatch between planning graduates and the urban environments they face. Urban development planning frameworks are divorced from the realities of cities in the developing world.

[See: In Uganda’s small but fast-growing cities, ‘one planner is not enough’]

As a result, planning-related regulations typically seek to disallow the majority of the urban population (particularly in slums) from enjoying certain rights. Many planners do not consider the integration of informal activities — for instance, informal labour or alternative construction materials — in urban development frameworks and policies. Thus, in much of the world, planning remains a relatively less useful tool for ensuring sustainable urban development.

The mismatch results is a skill set that cannot meet the needs of the New Urban Agenda in many countries. We urgently need to focus attention on improving capacity, so that authorities can identify and explore new ways to promote sustainable and inclusive urban development.

Fast-tracking ‘unlearning’

The backdrop of this skills crunch is quickly growing more concerning: By 2050, more than two-thirds of the world’s population is likely to live in cities. This creates an urgency to ensure systemic readiness to respond both in terms of challenges and opportunities. After all, this massive population increase will take place in urban contexts where needed knowledge is minimal and statistics are not robust enough to guide strategic planning.

“If there is one overriding change of mindset and approach, it is this: Planners will need to acknowledge and engage with the lived realities of the cities of the Global South.”

Urban planners of the future must act creatively — and differently. The most critical aspect of urban transformation will have to involve a change in the skills and attitudes of built-environment professionals in the cities of the developing world.

If there is one overriding change of mindset and approach, it is this: Planners will need to acknowledge and engage with the lived realities of the cities of the Global South. Issues of urban informality, outdated legal frameworks, the negative effects of climate change and increasing land-based urban conflicts — planners will need to address all of these urban dynamics. Yet in many cities today, planners tend to wish away the existence of urban informality, poverty and political systems that give no room for professional practice.

[See: Finding a truly common vision for African cities]

Aiming to fill this gap, the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS) collaborated with the University of Zambia to introduce a postgraduate degree programme in spatial planning for Zambia in 2013. The curriculum emphasizes urban problem solving and focuses on issues of informality, climate change, access to land for all and building partnerships around urbanization challenges. (The programme has admitted 48 students so far, the first of which will graduate in December. Of these, 28 are experienced planners in various government authorities.)

The programme emphasizes experiential and practical learning for future planners. Under a five-year agreement, Slum/Shack Dwellers International through the Zambia SDI Alliance called  People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia created a platform for partnership-based planning projects. Under this, partners teach students using real-life projects that can make a practical contribution for those living in the informal settlements of Lusaka, the Zambian capital.

This approach could be a useful tool in re-orienting the planning profession in the Global South more broadly. Research participants said the studios fast-tracked the “unlearning” of certain entrenched traditions in planning — for instance, the colonial-era disregard of the informal sector.

Economic life in African cities will remain unpredictable, so if planning is to make any difference in urban lives, it must begin to recognize and treat the informal sector as an integral part of African cities. Yet even many of the planners that went through the AAPS studios expressed the belief that informality is not part of a planners’ work in Zambia. Indeed, some went far as to say that efforts must be made to erase informality from urban areas altogether.

Students who worked with the government even expressed discomfort about the work in the Lusaka informal settlement of Kalikiliki, demanding to know why the project seemed to be promoting illegality and disorder. The majority of the class wanted the studio project shifted to a green field.

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize participatory urban development]

Over time, however, these views changed. Through their deep involvement in Kalikiliki, the students began to appreciate the need to engage with urban informality. Following these studios, students indicated that they had learned not only about new software and other technical issues but also about communication skills, particularly in terms of building consensus in a socially divided community with conflicting interests. Above all, they strengthened their ability to listen and mediate, to facilitate discussion to engender community development.

Further, the local authority, the Lusaka City Council, worked with the project and used the reports produced during the engagement processes. This indicates that the programme is proving useful in shifting the mindset of built-environment professionals and local governments on issues of informality, service delivery and urban poverty.

Beyond ‘drawing space’

The programme is reinvigorating the planning profession in Zambia by exposing future planners to the real challenges of towns and cities. In an interdisciplinary environment, the planner has always maintained the distinction of being able to conceptually integrate the needs and desires of multiple stakeholders, and to put these in spatial terms. For the planning graduate, this requires moving beyond “drawing space” to “talking space” — communicating with different stakeholders by incorporating local knowledge and other ways of seeing.

“Many planning schools in developing countries are still offering curricula informed by urban trends of the 1970s. This creates a clear mismatch between planning graduates and the urban environments they face.”

This formed one of the key objectives of the planning studio project. Students were required to show proof of effective collaboration with all stakeholders, particularly around incorporating community anxieties and desires about their space. Thus, the interplay between theoretical and technical knowledge on the one hand and interpersonal communication on the other remained vital at all stages of the project.

Of course, students also received a glimpse of what they should expect upon graduation, including a recognition that planning is an inherently conflict-ridden activity. Future planners need to understand that space is no neutral container into which their plans can be poured — to simply be drawn and then implemented — but rather a contested fabric of social, economic, environmental and political issues.

To bring much of the New Urban Agenda into being, too, planners will need to sharpen their skills to listen, initiate and softly direct community debate, and to skilfully manage mild conflict. And in developing countries, they will also need to engage in perhaps the most profound manifestation of rapid urbanization today: informality.

[See: How do we ensure broad buy-in to the New Urban Agenda?]

For planners to reposition themselves as necessary players in national economies and to be relevant in contemporary urban scenarios, particularly in Africa, they must remain true to the ideals of the public good and be committed to inclusive city development. This calls for planners to be accommodating to the needs and aspirations of all urban development actors.

To successfully implement the New Urban Agenda, educational and training institutions that work with local governments also will need to be pushed to include innovative, integrated thinking in their capacity-building curricula for built-environment professionals.

And all of this will require significantly strengthened investment in research and training institutions. We also will need to invest in urban research, in order to generate solid data to inform the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Finally, research and training institutions throughout the world will need to intensify collaboration as they prepare governments and private sector institutions for implementation of the New Urban Agenda at the global scale.

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Gilbert Siame

Gilbert Siame is a lecturer in the University of Zambia’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, where he directs the Centre for Urban Research and Planning. He is also a PhD scholar in planning and architecture at the University of Cape Town.

Muchimba Maggie Muvombo

Muchimba Maggie Muvombo is a student of spatial planning at the University of Zambia.