Viewpoints: The informal as the “city” in urban Africa: Experience from Kampala

Shuaib Lwasa
Makerere University, Uganda

shutterstock_129730406 (1)Cities in developing countries have grappled with spatial planning, infrastructure, housing and, more recently, fragmented and “runaway” development. Spatial plans largely remain at a strategic level and less at the neighborhood scale, where there is a disjuncture between the envisioned urban layout and the actual development (Lwasa, 2013). The coupling of these multiple challenges has rendered planning a failure, resulting in a continued organic development of “informal” cities with diverse infrastructure and services that contrast with centralized systems used as the benchmark for measuring progress of a formal city. In this article, I postulate that the “informal city” is actually the city. From housing, diverse infrastructure, innovative livelihoods, patterns of growth and sprawl, economy, labor market, industrious innovativeness and social differentiation, these “informal” settlements are largest sections in many African cities and offer careers and lifetime experiences to many people in Africa (Ernstson et al., 2010). Often measured by the proportion of people living in slums and infrastructure access, these measures not only give inappropriate description of cities in sub Saharan Africa, but have influenced spatial planning to promote symbolic architecture, infrastructure systems and a formal economy. This article counter-argues that informal is the city. The informal has sustained livelihoods, provided opportunities and challenges that create compelling reasons to rethink the city in sub Saharan Africa (Lwasa, 2014).

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