How we can achieve a social mix in urban planning

Vincent Kitio, the chief of the urban energy unit at UN Habitat, talks to Sunday Times’ James Karuhanga about the plight of poor urban communities and what can be done to right the wrongs.
Vision City luxury apartments in Gasabo District. Nadege Imbabazi.
Vision City luxury apartments in Gasabo District. Nadege Imbabazi.

Vincent Kitio, the chief of the urban energy unit at UN Habitat, the United Nations agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development, made a presentation on strategies to integrate sustainable city planning into a roadmap of a sustainable energy future for East Africa, this week, the final day of the first Sustainable Energy Forum for East Africa 2018, in Kigali.

He talked to Sunday Times’ James Karuhanga about the plight of poor urban communities and what can be done to right the wrongs. Kitio shed light on UN Habitat’s five principles for new urban planning, and especially the principle of social mix, availability of houses in different price ranges and tenures in urban neighborhoods to accommodate the poor and rich together.

The excerpts:

First of all, being an expert in urban planning what critical issues do you see in our cities today?

We, the East African Community countries, are living in a rapidly urbanising world whereby we have rapid population growth which is, in Africa, estimated at 3.5 per cent, annually. What does that mean? In every 20 years, our national population doubles. But the issue here is rapid urbanisation.

You particularly put emphasis on the lack of adequate urban planning…

Yes. People are moving to cities in search of greener pastures; jobs, services and others. But unfortunately as they alive in the city there aren’t enough houses for everybody and urban planning is lacking. That’s why we see this phenomenon of expanding city slums and informal settlements. People go where they can afford and that’s how they end up in places with poor access to services. Today, 60 percent of urban dwellers in Africa are poor, compared to other places. They don’t have access to things such as water and energy and even for what they get they pay more for it compared to what the rich pay. These are the people that, for example use charcoal for cooking…

Vincent Kitio during the interview. / James Karuhanga

As regards solutions, UN Habitat has five principles for urban planning. Please shed some light on this.

What we are saying is that because we already know that the urban population is increasing rapidly, let’s plan in advance! We start by answering the question; how do we allocate spaces? And we came up with the first principle, which is to have 50 per cent allocated to public space; meaning roads, gardens or parks and streets. And the other 50 per cent has to be built.

What’s the importance of this principle?

You end up having space for transport. You have roads. Most of our cities don’t have enough roads and that’s why we are experiencing this traffic jam. The streets are also very small and there isn’t enough open space. There are not enough public gardens and other spaces which, for example, will be used to build the drainage system, power cables, the gas line, which are all necessary. If you don’t allocate space for these, tomorrow you’ll break.

What about the second principle; mixed land use combining economic and residential activities?

This is very important also because you see, at the moment if I have to go to the public office, for instance, to sign some papers, I travel long distance. What we are saying is that we can combine and make sure that instead of having a zone for industry in one part, commercial in one part and administration in another, we try to mix or integrate them so that you have a residential and some commercial activity and also some light industry. You can put the heavy industry far away but the light ones can be mixed with residential, office and commercial activity.

There is this other principle; the social mix, which I found interesting. What do you mean by social mix anyway?

That is one of the principles people have been arguing most about; saying, no, I cannot stay with him, and then at the same time, in my daily life I need the poor. We need people from the bottom of the pyramid, for example, the house help, the taxi driver, and others. You don’t need to separate poor people from where the middle and the high class live. You can allocate spaces for them because when you fail to integrate them in the planning they will go where they can afford and this means they will create slums. What we’re saying is, let’s look at a mixed city. I’ll give you one example, in Paris, when you look at the buildings you realise that the rich will stay in the first and second floor, the middle-income person in the third and fourth floor and, the housekeeper and all other people with lower incomes stay on the top floor. When we say social mix, we are just saying that when you plan for the new real estate development, also plan such that there are infrastructure that hosts the other people in the society. Otherwise, you would create a problem.

Much as I like this seemingly impressive Paris example, I’d like to know whether the environment in France, or elsewhere in Europe, is something we can really replicate in our east African context. Does it fit our environment here? Our situations are different…

Of course it does fit. Let me just take one example; when you go to a hotel, here we have five stars and if you cannot afford a five star you go to that where you afford. So, what we are saying is that since it is the public authorities distributing land, they can request for it and also have apartments with basic services so that the common citizen can afford to buy a room. And also integrate the social houses, those which are subsidized by the government so that the guys who cannot afford, for example, the police, teachers and others, can have a home to stay. They are also providing services and may not have the same salary as big business people, but you need to start thinking of the social mix. We want people to start thinking that lets not start segregating. When you go to the village you stay together with all the family but when you come to the city, you wonder; why can’t we have that same mixed city that is in our African tradition context replicated in the city?

In a nutshell, are you saying that a developer in Kigali should develop a certain area without separating the rich from the poor?

Yes, not separating the two because separating them is where you create the insecurity problem in cities. The poor will go where he can afford and even people who are idle will go where they can afford. You need to have houses with different costs in the same area so that they [the poor] don’t have to travel far. Those are the people traveling two to three hours per day to come to your work place, and sometimes they come late. All of us in the city are paying taxes. So, we just need to think about that and that’s why the social mix is very important if we want to address some of the issues of injustice. We all talk about inclusiveness. How come when it comes to [urban] planning, we don’t? Of course there may be places in the city where the land value is very high and we may say that for this we put some activity so that the municipality gets revenue. But not very far from the city centre, you can have space for a residential area but you also have to make provision for the social mix and not just one level of the community.

When you say ‘not very far from the city centre,’ how far would that be?

Not 10 kilometers away or not even five kilometers away because, at the end of the day, the municipality decides what to do with land. But, again, the point is; it’s important for us to have the social mix to avoid some of this wastage of resources, like transport. In fact, the last principle is about connectivity.

What has connectivity and linking city spaces got to do with all this?

As you plan for new city spaces you have to bear in mind how you connect one neighborhood to the next. Ease of movement; first of all planning for infrastructure, and also the fact that you want people to walk. In the African context people are not walking, people aren’t cycling. And it is a health hazard. We are all becoming sedentary and that’s why we are having lifestyle diseases.

A Vision City luxury apartment in Gasabo District. / Nadege Imbabazi


And within this connectivity we also avoid high transport costs because if I can design my neighborhood and make sure that my kids go to school by walking rather than taking a public bus it will be very important. All the five principles go into the national urban planning policy, which is a document we’ve also prepared.

The other principle is what you call adequate density and compact patterns. What’s this?

The forum we’ve just concluded was about sustainable energy in cities too. Compactness; you know, when you have the sprawl, horizontal development of cities, it is a wastage of resources. Imagine you need to bring water to all the citizens and need a lot of piping; you need a lot of cable in terms of electricity; in transport you need to move people from one place to another. So, compactness or density is very important because that is where you see that just one level [floor] of a building isn’t enough considering the high population growth. We are advocating for a minimum of four floor areas. Maximum five, because with this maximum of five you don’t need an elevator. What we also advocate for is that for each hectare of land, you can accommodate 150 family units. If you do that for a city of two million, you notice that you actually have the land. And, again, all these five principles go together.

If you look at Kigali with its many real estate developments where you have just one floor, that’s fine at this level. But, Kigali in 20 years, what is going to happen when the population doubles? Where are you going to put all these people? You can keep the bungalows, for now, but for the new neighborhoods that the government is putting in place, we need density. And the social mix principle is very important. You know, during the colonial era, there was a city for Africans and a city for the Europeans. The equivalent today is a neighborhood for the rich and a neighborhood for the poor.


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