STATE OF PRACTICE
THE DIVIDE BETWEEN
DESIGN PROFESSIONALS AND BUILDING USERS IN EMERGING AFRICAN CITIES by HK Mokwete, RIBA
frican cities are growing at a phenomenal pace fueled by a growing middle-income population, rapid urbanization, and improving political stability across the continent. Some 40 percent (400 million) of the African population now live in cities and this is expected to grow to 57 percent by the year 2020 (UN World Urbanization Prospects, 2014). This growth presents some critical challenges to the aging postcolonial urban infrastructure across much of Africa, especially the sub-Saharan region. Demand for space and new buildings, both public and private, means the built environment is seeing both growth and pressure alike, making this an interesting emerging market for international developers, architects, and engineers. Multiple countries are investing in new city expansions, innovation hubs, housing projects, and other ambitious urban development initiatives. This has attracted international firms such as New York City based SHoP architects, who have been pursuing projects in Kenya’s and Botswana’s new Innovation Hubs. Other firms, such as AECOM, have long been slowly opening opportunities using its multidisciplinary approach. AECOM acquired one of Africa’s leading quantity surveying outfits (2010), Davis Langdon, giving it unique access to further opportunities in the market.
had to approve of you being their neighbor and hence part of the community. This process that ensured neighborhoods maintained close relationships that went beyond just sharing boundaries. These groupings, for example in Botswana, formed patlelos which could be equated to neighborhood blocks. A collection of these blocks would form a kglotla, which has certain governance, identity, and a sense of place. These hierarchies of spatial and place relations are what developed into villages and townships, built around community relationships and collective living. The post-colonial planning systems adopted by all African systems largely ignored and abolished these traditional place making practices. The standardized urban planning and design done by "professionals" excluded communities from participating and collectively deciding the growth of their neighborhoods and depended on foreign planning concepts with no relationship to how people actually live and use land. Urban designers laying out new urban neighborhoods did so in isolation from the communities and as commercialized practice, a system owing to, in large part, the increased disconnect between communities, building users, and the urban neighborhoods.
Despite the above positive potential of industry growth, there remains a growing divide between industry professional services and its appreciation, reach, and/or implied added value to the majority of Africa’s populations. This increasing divide is evident in the number of people living in large informal settlements and lacking basic amenities to shelter across sub-Saharan cities, which are now home to about half of urban dwellers. With so many living on the fringes of urban developments, this divide and disconnect between designers and building users is at a critical state. Although there are many aspects contributing to this situation, the following points encompass the historical challenges of this disconnect. The conflict of commercialized design services with traditional/ vernacular building systems and methods Traditionally, across much of sub-Saharan African communities, building design is both a community activity and a ritual process that connects place, building, and the inhabitant. The process of building a house/home, although varying across cultures, shares core processes that are underlined by a collaborative and participatory spirit. This has always been the anchoring relationship between one’s home, its design/building, and the neighboring community. This process typically involved variations of the following activities: Home place finding and neighborhood building In villages, and much of rural Africa, land is tribally owned and managed. Therefore the process of identifying your land/place for your new home is a collective process involving the village’s traditional leaders and potential neighbors. Most importantly, you not only chose your neighbors, but they have to choose you, too. The consultative process of choosing a location means your neighbors 42
THE ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN JOURNAL OF THE YOUNG ARCHITECTS FORUM
Collective traditional house-building process Many of the traditional houses across African villages are a result of a collective and participatory process involving male/female identifiable roles, neighbors, and local skilled individuals who provide specific services. The result is a house/home that embodies traces of multiplicity in building as a shared activity such as the Erbore community house building activity; neighbors formed the core of the labor activity involved in building the hut. Other advantages of collective building included community bonding and integration of the new settler into their new neighborhood. The shift from this fluid, collective, and participatory process to a commercialized and professional-led system means that the social bonding of the community through building is lost. Paid professionals will largely give their concern to the paying client, rather than neighborhood building. On top of this, whereas traditionally one did not have to hire a professional (architect/designer, contractors) to build a home, now building consumers need to afford the costs associated and must also understand and be informed of the roles and responsibilities of professionals involved in making buildings. Above Left: Collective Building process; Image: Designboom & cité des science et de l'industrie, paris Above Right: Thatched House building, South Sudan; Image: Jan's Jottings-Snippets and Snaps of Life in South Sudan Opposite Page: Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya.