THE INTERVIEW Runyararo Muzavazi
RM: How do you rate the state of urban planning in Zimbabwe?
PT: Urban Planning in Zimbabwe was traditionally strong, but there are new challenges: The rate of urbanisation in the country has been rapid and the profession has now lagged behind. Africa is the fastest urbanising region in the world today. We are, however, the poorest region economically. This means our urbanisation thrust is now backed by relevant resources to upgrade infrastructure, create employment, and provide decent housing. There are also capacity challenges that have arisen over the past decade. The region has suffered brain drain as many competent professionals have left for greener pastures. Meanwhile, the political isolation of the country has also meant that our planners do not have many opportunities as our peers in neighbouring countries in terms of attracting capacity-building programmes.
RM: City councils have literally contributed to the chaos in most cities, especially Harare as they have been lenient with kombis and pirate taxis that have turned CBDs into jungles. What can be done to restore order in the public transport sector? What’s the best prescription?
PT: It is true that the public transport system in our cities is in a chaotic state. This is caused by two things, policy framework and day-to-day management. In 1992 when the urban transport sector was deregulated, we opened up without developing a futuristic policy that should have guided investment in public transport. As a result, our cities rely up to 90 percent on small 16-seater kombis. This is the beginning of our congestion and chaos. We need large carriers that transport many people at a time so that our roads can be de-congested. We should have also learnt that it is difficult if not impossible to manage many different disjointed small operators. I have always said Harare is the only city of its size that relies entirely on a small informal public transport system and still expects efficiency. Public transport is a combination of railway system, mass bus system, complemented by small carriers such as kombis.
RM: In cities like Harare and Gweru for example, vendors selling vegetables and roasting mealies and meat for sale right in the CBD have taken over pavements. What can councils do to get rid of these illegal activities?
PT: Firstly, we must accept that the structure of our economy is shifting from a previously large-scale formal economy to a largely small-scale informal one. These call for new solutions that unfortunately our urban managers are refusing to explore. It is not necessarily a problem that vendors are flooding the streets, how we react to that and the solutions we offer are what will create a win-win situation or our environment deteriorates. We cannot wish the informal sector away, but we can plan for it to function more efficiently. An example is the Old Mutual facility being developed with the small-scale sector in mind. That is the way to go. Let authorities invest in harnessing the potential of that sector. Only then will order be restored. We must agree as citizens of cities what type of city we want and how it accommodates different sectors. It is not an easy task but with engagement it is possible. Our problem is we want good solutions but no one wants to invest in the effort.
RM: Recently, Water, Environment and Climate Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri lamented over the increase in open defecation in various residential areas. This is a clear sign of poor urban planning as people are building where there are no sewer infrastructure, road and piped water. How can urban planning be improved?
PT: The Environment minister is right to be concerned, I sympathise with her because she is passionate about the environment and how to develop and protect water bodies. There are measures that should be taken to avoid that. In the construction procedure manuals, the first facility that is developed before building anything on a stand should be a temporary toilet which is really a toilet. This should ensure that as people begin to be active on site, there is a facility to take care of nature. So true, it is lack of following proper development procedures that there is open defecation.
RM: What problems are caused by urban expansion and poor urban planning?
PT: Urban development is about creating an artificial environment. This can potentially upset the environment as originally created by God. A lot of care must therefore be taken to ensure that this is done in a sustainable manner. It means we must plan our urbanisation. This is about creating the right balance between housing, employment, recreational, institutional, food, sanitation, environmental and transport needs. That is not an easy task that’s why our planners, engineers, economists, social workers and other urban development professionals must work together to come up with liveable cities. One problem we have is almost all our towns are using old expired master plans and local plans. The problems that were there when these were prepared have since changed. You cannot solve today’s complex problems with yesterday’s archaic solutions.
RM: Most residents are furious over uncollected garbage and non-availability of water in many parts of the country. How can cities better plan for such?
PT: Water and sanitation are the most important amenities in an urban area because they determine a city’s state of health and environment. We must not just strictly maintain existing water and sanitation infrastructure, we must upgrade and invest in expansion. Our cities are growing and they will continue to grow.
RM: Where do you see Harare in the next 10 to 15 years in terms of availability of housing land? Will the city have enough land? Is it time to build upwards?
PT: Harare is expanding outwards in a rapid and unsustainable manner. Over the past 20 years the city has eaten into the farms that used to provide horticulture and dairy products. We are threatening other critical needs and cutting off our survival supply lines. The old 1993 Master Plan that Harare still uses had already proposed that we develop vertically and density in terms of all developments. This has not been done. Too many people still aspire to get a large plot, this is unsustainable. Land is a finite resource. We must ensure the densification policy religiously for the sake of our future.
RM: How have other countries dealt with housing land shortages. Or even for those with enough land, how have they saved what they have for future generations?
PT: It is best practice to re-develop. We must go back to old areas of the city, re-plan for more compact modern developments. We should also be moving away from single zones and coming up with more robust zones with mixed uses. Many empty buildings in Harare should be converted fully or partially to residential. This has other benefits: Firstly we reduce on transport costs and its carbon foot-print; secondly we bring life to the city. Other cities are vibrant 24 hours because the buildings are never abandoned.
RM: Lastly, tell us about your work at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.
PT: The centre seeks to find solutions to the many urbanisation challenges affecting African cities. This was born out of the realisation that African problems may not be solved by Western solutions coming from Europe and America, but through the development of a strong intellectual pool of academics and professionals grounded in the African experience.