Published on July 26th, 2016 | by admin0
URBAN PLANNING MUDDLE
NAMIBIA NEEDS SENSIBLE PRO-DENSITY REFORMS IN URBAN PLANNING TO STEM MESSY URBAN SPRAWL AND DELIVER BETTER SERVICES AND IMPROVE QUALITY OF LIFE FOR URBAN RESIDENTS, WRITES DIETRICH REMMERT
As much as it is impossible to anticipate and comprehensively plan for the direction and scope of urban development anywhere, it has become strikingly clear that Namibian urban planners, especially in the major urban centres, are not up-to-date on more sensible approaches. An issue paper by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) from 2015 states that: “Urban planning can be defined as a decision-making process aimed at realizing economic, social, cultural and environmental goals through the development of spatial visions, strategies and plans and the application of a set of policy principles, tools, institutional and participatory mechanisms and regulatory procedures.” The worldwide trend of increasing urbanisation and the growth of ever bigger towns, cities and metropolitan areas highlights the crucial importance of getting urban planning right to ensure sustainable socio-economic development and well-being of urban residents. According to the UN-Habitat report ‘The State of African Cities 2014’, development in Africa from an urban growth perspective is particular challenging. Urban areas on the continent suffer from “significant shortfalls in urban institutional capacities”, in other words, urban planners on the continent are way in over their heads. Coupled with high rates of rural-urban migration and insufficient state resources, African urban issues include slum proliferation, poverty and inequality, segregation and a significant lack of housing and infrastructure. Namibian towns are no strangers to rapid urbanisation and its many associated challenges. Jacques Korrubel, who lectures on town and regional planning at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST), notes that the rural-urban population will likely hit 50/50 in 2018, meaning that over one million Namibians will soon be living in villages, towns and the capital city. This development puts into context the many challenges that local authorities and municipalities face in the country. According to Korrubel, since independence authorities have employed two strategies to try and manage rapid urbanisation and its many negative effects. Firstly, government has sought to develop rural areas by building infrastructure and providing services to improve living conditions and opportunities to make rural areas more attractive and discourage urban migration. Secondly, local and regional authorities focus their effort s on developing urban areas in order to address the rapid population influx.
OLD & TIRED
When taking a closer look at urban development it becomes apparent that many of the planning and development efforts by authorities in urban areas are limited and hamstrung by lack of funding, poor technical capacity and severely outdated regulations. Writing on land use planning in the recent published book ‘Environmental Law and Policy in Namibia’, Felicity F. !Owoses-/ Goagoses states that the current town planning system in the country is still dominated by the objective to control residents as opposed to conscious socio-economic development. She notes that “market forces, such as demand for land and land prices, carry more weight than provision of land as a means to improve the well-being of the people”. Unfortunately, this assessment rings true. For example, most of the laws and regulations applicable to urban planning and development stem from the 1960s and 1970s when Namibia was firmly ruled by South Africa’s apartheid government. Architect and trustee of the Green Building Council Namibia (GBCNA) Nina Maritz is particular critical of these outdated regulations that in her opinion still dominate town planning today. According to her these rules still emphasis expansive roads, low-density occupancy (i.e. few people per km2) and strict zoning of urban areas according to economic activity (industrial, residential etc.). However, this conceptualisation of urban spaces does not take into account modern urban residents’ needs at all and neither does it consider Namibia’s sensitive natural environment. She notes that applying this arcane and unsophisticated planning method increasingly leads to urban sprawl. As a consequence urban residents are often forced to live far away from services and places of work invariably leading to lengthy and unproductive trips adding to traffic congestion and pollution. Sprawl also results in high costs of servicing land due to the distances that need to be covered.
… MOST OF THE LAWS AND REGULATIONS APPLICABLE TO URBAN PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT STEM FROM THE 1960S AND 1970S WHEN NAMIBIA WAS FIRMLY RULED BY SOUTH AFRICA’S APARTHEID GOVERNMENT.
Undoubtedly Windhoek is a prime example of this negative development. Traffic congestion, commute times and the risk of injury while commuting has increased significantly over the past couple of years in the city. The ‘Sustainable Urban Transport Master Plan’ report of 2013 – developed for the City of Windhoek (CoW) as part of the Move Windhoek initiative – states that particularly low-income earners suffer disproportionately from the city’s transportation limitations. According to the report, low-income earners spend around 24 percent of their income on transport, money that could be utilised more productively if urban development would be planned better. Favouring motorised-transport over non-motorised infrastructure is just one of the apartheid-planning hangovers that keeps dogging Namibia’s urban development. Maritz argues that the zoning of urban areas needs to be less restrictive and more flexible to enable mixed functional zoning. This would encourage the development of workplaces and businesses closer to residents which would cut down on wasteful commutes. Zoning in effect should move from a simplistic two-dimensional planning exercise to a 3D method that would take into account vertical as well as horizontal development. When approached for comment the CoW noted in a written response that: “Mixed land use developments are complicated as various land uses or activities may not be complimentary to each other on one erf. The idea therefore would be to have areas which can accommodate certain predefined mixed uses under specific conditions. This mixed use approach on a defined area scale is being investigated by the City.” The CoW also notes that it does already allow mixed use of business and residential activity, in for example the CBD, while higher occupancy density is also encouraged for specific areas. While these are encouraging developments it is sobering to note that such internationally proven urban planning concepts are being taken up only very slowly by Namibian authorities. With regards to increasing occupancy density, Nina Maritz is critical of the fact that the re-zoning process to for example allow more dwellings on an existing property is prohibitively expensive, with the result that only really rich people and developers will consider re-zoning. This limits less well-off property owners from gaining maximum benefit from their property. Clearly, this does not sound like a ‘pro-poor’ or even ‘pro-working-class’ policy that the national government is so fond of claiming.
What then would a more sensible urban planning approach look like? Korrubel emphasised that NUST advocates the concept of ‘new urbanisation’ which essentially advocates for compact cities with medium to high occupant densities and clustering of soci-economic activities to create numerous mixed functional centres. Such centres would decentralise services and limit the need for people to travel across town every time they undertook a different activity. In town planning this is also referred to as polycentric developments. To be fair, elements of such development can already be identified in Windhoek and other towns. Nevertheless, many residents are still far removed from their workplaces and services. While future polycentric expansion plans are strongly endorsed in the transport Master Plan it was not clear if this concept was also endorsed by CoW management and councillors. Sadly, little of the CoW’s urban planning vision could be discerned from the response to questions regarding urban planning. The authority was also very sparing with concrete examples, plans or any other
details. Instead, what is far more apparent from the responses is that the city is very sensitive to any real or perceived criticism around urban planning. Asked if the city had established any dedicated platforms for businesses and private persons to engage CoW regarding specific ideas and solutions, the response stated: “Criticism not accompanied by an alternative solution is not welcome.” While the CoW’s highly defensive attitude is understandable, given the many challenges and controversies around land allocation, valuation and use it is hardly constructive. NUST lecturer Korrubel acknowledged that local authorities overall in Namibia did not really solicit input on a formal and regular basis from residents on urban development. Local politicians therefore can make decisions on urban plans without having to even consider the needs and opinions of residents. He stated that South Africa had instituted feedback mechanisms which he considered as a major step forward with regards to more sensible urban planning. Both Maritz and Korrubel advocated for new, innovative approaches to urban planning in the country. The latter emphasised the importance of establishing a new nation-wide urban planning framework, while the former argued that Namibia should adopt sustainable and internationally proven modern urban design methods. At minimum municipalities within the country should be more transparent with their planning and engage with residents in a proactive and visible way.