The state of urbanism in Africa and its responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

Francois Bredenkamp of Boogertman + Partners discusses the state of 'Guerrilla Urbanism' in Africa and the opportunities this pandemic has brought for innovation.

by Francois Bredenkamp Published on : Sep 25, 2020

The word ‘urban’ is derived from early 17th century Latin word urbanus where urb is 'city', bringing the meaning as 'of the city'. The term urbanism  originated in the late 19th century with the Spanish engineer-architect Ildefons Cerda, whose intent was to create an autonomous activity focused on the spatial organisation of the city. However, African urbanism manifests at all scales and densities and brings into question the traditional definition of what ‘urban’ means.

Four hundred million people in Africa live in poverty and 200 million of them in various manifestations of slums and informal settlements. It is estimated that by 2030 over 50 per cent of Africans will be living in cities. At these scales it is difficult to manage any overarching infrastructure system effectively and economically, which accommodates the formal and informal strategies for living in African cities.   

  • The city of Casablanca, Morocco, North Africa | Morocco | STIRworld
    The city of Casablanca, Morocco, North Africa Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons
  • A tannery in Morocco, North Africa | Morocco | STIRworld
    A tannery in Morocco, North Africa Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons

Opportunistic and survivalist strategies, a type of 'Guerrilla Urbanism', defines the state of African cities. It creates an opportunity for innovation and evolution. The perceived external view of chaos in these urban environments neglects the characteristic self-governance and structure within them, which mobilises a specific response to the COVID-19 pandemic and many other health related challenges African communities face.

I think there are many nuances that relate to a Euro-centric approach to the coronavirus pandemic responses, however, for our African cities - densities, culture, religions and economic framework require a different approach in certain instances. How we work, travel and live at different scales will create opportunities to respond to this. Africa is characterised by the cultural nuances between countries and differ vastly per region. The influence of colonial doctrines and the traces of multiple sub-cultures within tribal ecosystems co-exist in our cities, which makes designing within them a rewarding challenge.

Social distancing and de-centralisation of city centres

The strong relationships between the rural village constructs and the formal city differentiates the movement patterns of people. These historic tribal systems, which are central to the many religious viewpoints and host over 2,000 traditional languages and dialects, create a dualism in its relation between the past and the future. In many ways African cities have a temporal and transient nature that manifest differently in the physical built form.

 Konyo Konyo Market, Juba, South Sudan. Juba, the capital and largest city of South Sudan, is situated on the White Nile and also serves as the capital of Central Equatorial State | Konyo Konyo Market | STIRworld
Konyo Konyo Market, Juba, South Sudan. Juba, the capital and largest city of South Sudan, is situated on the White Nile and also serves as the capital of Central Equatorial State Image: Silvano Yokwe, Courtesy of Juba in the Making: A documentary project

The low-density urban morphology of rural tribal lands allows for social distancing practices but face the challenges of immediate social services and associated infrastructure. A hybrid lifestyle already exists as people have family and traditional roots outside of the city and a transitory engagement with a city context, dependent on income and profession. Hence, the concept of a localised move to the perimeters and outskirts of city centres to adhere to social distancing and work closer to home may not be the need an African city fulfills.

  • Konyo Konyo is the main market of Juba, where thousands of residents purchase their daily food supplies, cooking utensils and many other items | Konyo Konyo Market | STIRworld
    Konyo Konyo is the main market of Juba, where thousands of residents purchase their daily food supplies, cooking utensils and many other items Image: Silvano Yokwe, Courtesy of Juba in the Making: A documentary project
  • Konyo Konyo Market, Juba. Konyo Konyo means congested or mingling in Juba Arabic | Konyo Konyo Market | STIRworld
    Konyo Konyo Market, Juba. Konyo Konyo means congested or mingling in Juba Arabic Image: Silvano Yokwe, Courtesy of Juba in the Making: A documentary project

The corporate office is dead

The socio-economic differentiator of scale and culture forms the initial challenge of African urban interventions and projects. The local business environment engages at a micro scale and large corporate conglomerate structures are not common. These small business communities and their constant entrepreneurial approach is fuelled by a sense of ambition and aspirational values. This aspect creates a robust defense against the post-pandemic economic challenges that many archaic business models cannot respond to timeously.

Small office clusters and co-working is the relevant African corporate scale that characterise the formalised business environment. At this scale the pandemic limiting measures are ideally mitigated and could address the disruptive operational nature of these factors. This physical manifestation of the micro business approach will be an agile response to economic challenges and adaptable to technological advancements for the future. 

Omdurman, Khartoum, Sudan: Boogertman + Partners designed a mixed-use masterplan for development on the banks of the Nile | Morocco | STIRworld
Omdurman, Khartoum, Sudan: Boogertman + Partners designed a mixed-use masterplan for development on the banks of the Nile Image: Francois Bredenkamp

The need for healthier and safer retail typologies

Informal markets are a retail typology already incorporated into the African urban fabric, which respond to the micro business opportunities. They transform African city streets into vibrant urban markets at street level while the conventional, more modern buildings hover above. The open-air nature of these environments responds to our climate and questions the relevance of enclosed retail centres with artificial lighting and recycled air challenges. 

  • Masterplan for Khartoum Mixed Use Precinct - Sensitivity to the low-density urban morphology of the surrounding lands and the need for accessible centralised pulbic health and government facilities is accommodated in the design | Omdurman, Khartoum Masterplan | STIRworld
    Masterplan for Khartoum Mixed Use Precinct - Sensitivity to the low-density urban morphology of the surrounding lands and the need for accessible centralised pulbic health and government facilities is accommodated in the design Image: Courtesy of Boogertman+ Partners
  • Masterplan for Khartoum Mixed Use Precinct - lower public services buildings have been placed on the edges of the proposed new city node leading up to the higher rise more commercial hospitality, retail and offices spaces | Omdurman, Khartoum Masterplan | STIRworld
    Masterplan for Khartoum Mixed Use Precinct - lower public services buildings have been placed on the edges of the proposed new city node leading up to the higher rise more commercial hospitality, retail and offices spaces Image: Courtesy of Boogertman+ Partners

In many ways Africa does not have the historic industrialised heritage that challenges the implementation of future urban design concepts and deployment of technologies. We can leapfrog these challenges and fearlessly embrace a sustainable future by designing for pandemic scale solutions.

Africa has many difficulties and challenges ahead, but the potential in these opportunities allows for a new young Africa to innovate and inspire us all.

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