A New Approach to Reforming Urban Planning Education in Africa

While Africa's cities have been changing, many planning schools have been slow to adjust to the new reality and rely heavily on traditional approaches that exclude informality. The Cities Alliance is supporting an initiative that seeks to make planning education more responsive to the urban transformation in Africa.
A New Approach to Reforming Urban Planning Education in Africa


[6 August 2013] -- Africa’s cities are among the fastest growing on earth. While this massive demographic transition means millions more people in cities, it also means that African cities themselves are changing on a social, economic and spatial level. 

Yet while Africa’s cities have been changing, the approach to urban planning has not. Many planning schools have been slow to adjust to the new reality, relying heavily on traditional, Colonial-era approaches that do not take informality or community participation into consideration. 

With the bulk of Africa’s urban residents living in informal settlements, outdated urban planning approaches are of little use to city mayors and managers. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 62 percent of city residents live in slums; and of the remaining 28 percent, many live in informal settlements without permanent structures or proper titles, according to UN-Habitat’s Global Report on Human Settlements 2009. 

Given the situation, there is an urgent need for urban planning education reform in Africa so that planning can be more responsive to urban transformation in Africa. 

In 2008, the African Centre for Cities (ACC) and the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS) began an initiative to revitalise urban planning education in Africa, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. The initiative focused on two main components: content of planning curricula taught in African schools, and expanding the AAPS network. It also addressed urban planning law reform, since academic institutions are required to incorporate prevailing planning legislation in their curricula. 

As a starting point for reviewing the planning curricula, the AAPS identified five main themes that are not part of current planning education:

  --  Informality.  Even though many African cities are mostly informal, conventional planning frameworks tend to disregard informality completely and are ill-equipped to address the issue.

  --  Mismatch between spatial planning and delivery. Throughout Africa, spatial planning often occurs in isolation from infrastructure planning and delivery. Closer links between infrastructure and spatial planning are needed.

  --  Climate change. The implications of global warming for African cities are profound. Planners need to understand the underlying natural processes and have the skills to intervene in an appropriate way.

  --  Access to land. Complex land tenure systems often prevent the poor from accessing land for shelter and affect what types of planning interventions are possible. Planners need skills in negotiating this difficult issue.

  --  Actor collaboration. Planning today is profoundly political, with many different actors—including civil society and communities—becoming more involved in the process. Planners need a better understanding of negotiating the inputs and needs of various stakeholders and how to manage civil society.


AAPS held workshops in 2008 and 2010 to discuss these five themes, which eventually became the foundation of a framework for curriculum reform. Over these two years, the AAPS network grew significantly, becoming a real facilitator of interaction and information flow among member schools. The association was able to produce education toolkits and teaching studies, and launch an initiative to change national planning legislation. 

Following a successful initial phase, the ACC and AAPS approached Cities Alliance and the Rockefeller Foundation for funding in 2011 to expand their urban planning education reform efforts and build on the momentum already achieved.

With Cities Alliance support, the AAPS held a major all-schools workshop in October 2012 in Nairobi to refine a draft undergraduate planning curriculum based on the five themes above. As a direct result of the discussions, Makerere University in Uganda agreed to pilot the curriculum in 2014.


A partnership that is changing attitudes on city planning

Cities Alliance funding has also helped AAPS promote community collaboration in planning education through partnerships with advocacy networks. In particular, AAPS was keen to further develop its budding relationship with Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI). 

In 2010, AAPS and SDI entered into a formal agreement to work together to promote initiatives, plans and policies that encourage inclusive cities and benefit the poor. The idea is that planners play an important role in either facilitating or hindering the inclusion and improvement of informal settlements and slums, and that their understanding, responses and practices are shaped by their education. 

The SDI-AAPS partnership is developing into a significant and unique collaboration. One of its main vehicles is the urban studio, in which members of slum dweller federations work closely with planning students and take them out into the field to help them better understand the realities of planning in informal settlements and the key role of communities. 

Students work with federation members on community enumeration processes and data collection, and then participate in analysing the data and compiling it into reports that the communities can use to obtain funding and/or services from municipalities. 

These studios are proving to be a very powerful way to change attitudes on upgrading and the relationship between planning professionals and communities. Students who participate in the studios are deeply impacted by their experiences and their interaction with both federation members and communities, and the communities in turn can learn from the students’ skills. 

“Working together with the community and Homeless Federation members has opened me up that I should not undermine the poor people’s input when planning their settlement and finding solutions to their problems,” noted a student who participated in a studio in Malawi. “The in-situ upgrading approach is one thing that amazed me because it really works well … it complements the efforts of the poor to solve their own housing and settlement problems.” 

So far, three studios have been held – one in collaboration with Makerere University in Kampala and two in Malawi through the University of Mzuzu and the University of Malawi Polytechnic with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. An additional three studios are planned, and a number of AAPS schools have expressed interest in conducting studios. These studios were showcased at the AAPS’ 2012 workshop, where they generated considerable interest.


A work in progress

After four years, the urban planning education reform initiative has made great strides. The AAPS has expanded to some 50 members, and schools are increasingly sharing information and ideas. A draft curriculum more in line with contemporary African needs has been produced, and the network is building innovative partnerships that are bringing a new element of community participation to planning education. 

Nonetheless, reforming a decades-old urban planning curriculum and establishing a continent-wide network of planning schools are both a long-term efforts, and much remains to be done. Funding continues to be a challenge; many schools are unable to contribute financially to become part of the network, and as such the AAPS remains reliant on grant funds as it seeks to expand. The network is also seeking to scale up its strategic partnerships, such as that with SDI, so that it is better able to lobby for a proactive planning agenda on a citywide scale.

The Cities Alliance believes strongly in the value of initiatives such as these to create more inclusive cities. As such, the Cities Alliance remains a strategic partner in the ACC-AAPS efforts to reform urban planning education and establish urban research centres on the continent. A recent Cities Alliance strategic meeting in March served as the inaugural gathering of the African Urban Research Initiative (AURI), an initiative implemented by the ACC that aims to ensure that analytical and applied research in Africa reflects its key urban priorities.

While developing countries contain more than 80% of the world’s population, they have less than half of the world’s planning schools. Of the 550 planning schools in the world, 69 are in Africa (39 in Nigeria alone). -- UN-Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements 2009

“We have learned a lot from the students and they also have learned from us … We are glad that the university has promised to continue working with us. We want to change our lives and the environment.” -- Community participant in Malawi


Bringing students and communities together in Malawi

In Malawi, the SDI affiliate Centre for Community Organization and Development (CCODE) built on its existing relationships with the University of Malawi-Polytechnic and Mzuzu University to conduct two studios: one in the Nancholi settlement of Blantyre, and a second in the Salisbury Lines settlement of Mzuzu. CCODE had already undertaken enumerations in both settlements, making them ideal candidates for studios.

Each studio began with all participants sitting together and establishing expectations. Priorities were set by the communities – in Nancholi residents wanted to focus on circulation, water and sanitation, while in Salisbury Lines they identified water and sanitation, poor transport infrastructure, and inadequate access to electricity services. 

Students worked alongside federation members and residents to profile, enumerate and map the settlements. After the field work, they all met to analyse the information and develop proposals for solutions. 

The studios were an eye-opening experience for both students and the communities. Students were able to understand firsthand how communities in informal settlements connect with the city, and how existing policies and planning approaches do not reflect the reality of daily life in the settlements. 

The communities in turn were able to learn mapping and technical skills from the students, broader planning issues, and that it is possible to work together with planners in a constructive way.  In addition, the data collected during the studio can be updated and used by communities to leverage funding for additional projects.   


Download a booklet on the Malawi studios


Related Information

SDI Website

AAPS Website

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