Building Sustainable Urban Places Should be the New Urban Planning Agenda

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The building of sustainable urban places has been catered for by the Sustainable Cities Programme under the auspices of the UN Habitat after the Earth Summit in 1992. It came into recognition because of urbanisation and that current cities are leaving behind a huge ecological footprint hence the need for new planning agenda. But we are still way off the sustainable cities mark.

The goal for sustainable cities is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. It reflects growing recognition that human development depends on how well urbanisation is managed. This new agenda is to address the issues that could not be addressed by the traditional master planning approach, which mainly concentrated on infrastructure and their physical appearance of cities leaving behind, the crucial elements of reducing the ecological footprint of urban activities. Therefore, if there is a continuance in the traditional master planning to address current urban problems, it is not only inappropriate but it will exacerbate these problems which include growth of slums, improper disposal of waste, inadequate housing and increase in urban poverty. These are complex, rapidly changing and dynamic problems which needs to be addressed by a new urban planning approach especially in the 21st century.
The current city planning approaches are resulting in increased and intensified urban environmental problems and socio-spatial marginalisation. This was mainly because this approach to planning was top-down, technocratic, bureaucratic and is done by ‘technical experts’ and Zimbabwe largely by politicians with the exclusion of other stakeholders or the beneficiaries of the planned cities. These “plans” have not passed through any elected body and often reflect a high modernist vision that justifies large infrastructure projects and excludes attention to citizen priorities. For example; in Zimbabwe in 2013 the ruling party during its campaigns cancelled all debts that were owed to the local authority without ZANU PF making any payment to the local authority. This made it difficult for the local authority to deliver on their services without revenue. Furthermore, this had been intensified by political feuds between the local authority and the parent Ministry, corruption and poor governance within the local authority and lack of adequate funding to implement planning programmes. As a result, this gave prominence to urban problems in Harare like: emergence of settlements in hazard prone areas (wetlands); occupation of areas that were initially left as breathers for residential areas; failure in the collection and disposal of solid and liquid waste and inadequate supply of treated water to residents. Besides, the majority of countries face water scarcity, a challenge that has been exacerbated by climate change. Yet, little has been done to avert this challenge except water rationing which also exacerbate water borne diseases like typhoid and cholera. Overall, the central problem to unlocking equitable opportunities in African cities remains politics. In today’s competitive multi-party environment, leaders make political calculations that privilege short-term horizons to win votes over long-term solutions to urban problems. Most critical, many urban planning problems are the result of power struggles and, in particular, the capture of “public goods” such as land or transit routes for certain interests.

An example of good practices in the past with specific regards to housing delivery in cities in Zimbabwe, was through the local authority, which would service the residential stands and then allocate beneficiaries to build. Of interest was the fact that, this servicing would layout a plan and allow for the provisioning of their services and most importantly setting aside land for green spaces, breathers and land which was not suitable for construction (wetlands). However, in Harare (Zimbabwe), the extensive growth of ‘slum’ settlements has been a product of the parceling out of residential land by the ruling party without involvement and consultation of city planning. These unplanned settlements therefore give little regard to sustainable cities principles. This paves way for urban environmental problems that includes inadequate water supply and sewer connection, and this only provides a platform for future disasters. This is happening at a time when urban planners are calling for urban greening and this undermines the achievement of a sustainable city.
As a result of the emergence of slum settlements in Zimbabwean cities, treatment and disposal of solid and liquid waste remains a major challenge not only for the residents but for the local authority. One key fact for these unplanned areas is that, they cannot be serviced by the local authority since they do not make any payments to the local authority. This has seen many residents in these areas build blair toilets and water sources (well or boreholes) within their residential stands of 150-300 m2, giving rising to the risk of water contamination and water-borne diseases as has been the case with typhoid cases since end of 2016. Therefore, the local authority cannot waste its limited resources to service residence who are not making payments to them at the expense of other planned sections of the city. Yet, problems arising from improper treatment and disposal solid and liquid waste will not only affect planned settlements and planned settlements as well.
Building sustainable urban places through the new urban planning agenda should take over the urban planning process in cities. In fact, for it to be a success especially in Zimbabwe, it should be free from the political feuds that hinder development and service delivery. Essentially, the new urban planning agenda should be strategic as there it is based on prioritisation of solving urban environmental problems and these priorities differ with needs and demands of that specific city hence the flexibility.
In this system of urban planning all stakeholders need to be involved in the decision making process (participatory and inclusive), with solving urban environmental problems at the core.
For example, there is consultation of stakeholders in compiling an environmental profile for a city, which provides all data as to the resource, severity of the environmental problems and an environmental management information system.
With the use of the new urban planning agenda, there need for a shift from government to governance, decentralization and democratization of the urban planning system so as to address the needs of every citizen in a particular locality. The priority on issue governance and decentralization results in the division of big scale urban areas which are difficult to manage, to smaller units which are easy to manage and improve efficiency for service provision. The above mentioned factors of the new urban planning agenda are not the ultimate answer to the urban environmental problems but it presents an effective criterion which could prove to be useful in the solving of these urban problems both in the developed and developing world. But, it is also important that while we think about these approaches, the biggest challenge is politics.

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