Home |  Contact UsSitemap


Cities III


The Future of African Cities in Practice: New Cities / New Practices?

Gary White and Amira Osman in Conversation with Geci Karuri-Sebina


In March 2019, SA Node’s Dr Geci Karuri-Sebina got to host an exciting conversation with two eminent architects and intellectuals. Urban Designer Gary White had produced an article which is featured on FFD this month – “Cabinda: The New City and the Battle for the Butterfly” based on his award-winning development of the city of Cabinda in Angola, significant in its location in a province that is home to some 70% of Angola's oil reserves.

Professor Amira Osman has been contributing critical reflections on the future of African Cities, such as her recent contribution at the Cocreate Design Festival 2019 on Resilience Thinking for the Next Generation of Designers.

It was a fantastic opportunity to engage the two practitioners to explore their mutual or divergent ideas about the future of African cities, and the role of our practice(s).


Geci: Gary, maybe because you instigated this conversation with your article - I'll ask to go first: What do you think are the key questions about the future of African cities?

Gary: You have to start off with trying to understand what the big questions are and identifying the problems. There are two things I think that really stand out: scarce, natural resources, and the second one is population growth and how the population moves around and starts moving to cities. We all know what the benefits of densification are.

Solutions should focus on public transport, densification, and investments. Investments from abroad, from governments in terms of infrastructure, economy and social structures. Investment into Africa is really what's going to be the key.

Amira: I’ll raise two issues related to scarce sources and population growth that post challenges for us as designers. First, I’ll quote Nabeel Hamdi where he speaks of “places that happen and happen to work, and places that are designed don't”. That raises a very big dilemma for us in design. What design decisions do we take, and what do we delay?

The second issue is: how can we design spaces that accommodate everyone? How can our cities accommodate the street trader on the pavement as well as big developments, and how can those be balanced?

Geci: Both of your inputs are a nice lead into the next question I had, and that was about the beautiful normative visions we have for what cities should be. Gary began to engage some of those concepts – ideas about compactness and densification and the idea that cities ought to be walkable and liveable and friendly. We all have these ideas in the built environment professions. Amira then raised the other side of that, which is that there are urban dwellers who carve out or fashion their own cities. What is the future of these normative planning ideals, relative to this other reality of people and the city that people make?

So I'm pushing further into your last point Amira – about design that accommodates everyone. What are the chances of finding that balance? And what are the ways one begins to pursue that?

Amira: I think we have a great opportunity as designers to show that there are tools for achieving that, that allow for accommodating everyone. There are design and financial tools as well as alternative delivery mechanisms in the built environment that are more inclusive. There are design processes that allow for that and I don't mean that only in the simplistic interpretations of participation. I mean it in a much deeper way in which participation is built into our designs and built into what we implement so that participation becomes an ongoing rather than once-off. The way that I think about this is that we have two levels of the built environment, and I think Gary in his work on Cabinda has mentioned something similar, though he might use different terminology. There's a level that is permanent and fixed, but within that there is also another level that accommodates for change and diversity. There are ways and systems to achieve that allowing for more players to participate in decision-making in the built environment.

Geci: Gary, do you want to pick up on that?

Gary: Yes I agree a hundred percent with Amira on this. I think that the word that comes to mind for me that goes with the participation is incremental. We tend to start off with the idea of a city and as some sort of complete entity, but if you just look back at what Rome was before, what Pairs was... Rome was a city built out of mud with just a few marble buildings in between, and see what it is today. How many times was Rome built over and over again?

Now we build something and we think it is the be all and end all of it. And when we design, we know that we design a certain street and it's going to be a certain width and what the buildings next to it should be. They need to be say four or six stories high so it looks a little bit like Paris or Barcelona. It's is a nice environment to be in, but the resources are not there for it, the needs are not there, and the density is not there.

So we must understand that if we do the street properly, and you design it so that it can be that one day, that maybe it will get there – but for now, it's only maybe a one-storey building that's there, or a single dwelling building that’s there. And over time it, will change. We've got to allow for that change to happen. That change is incremental, but that change happens with what we don't see in terms of participation. So over time people will start participating and they will do things and they will change over time. But we're very impatient in terms of this.

Geci: I like that. We always say that “Rome wasn't built in a day,” but you're also saying that Rome wasn't only built once.

Amira: As Gary has mentioned many cities has been rebuilt many times, but there's something in the structure of the city that remains. He refers to that in his article as “the bones.” And one thing that really resonates with me, and that I very much agree with, is that the buildings become secondary in the structure.

Geci: This “thing” that remains and what's important to the city – sometimes we pitch the environmental considerations or the ecological issues as being opposed to the social issues and what matters to people – particularly in our contexts of significant poverty and inequality.

What's your experience about whether that's a real tension, and is that a future tension as we think about the future of the African city? Or does the regular person on the street corner actually care about sustainability?

Amira: One of the things that I can raise in relation to the question is getting the densities right and getting the functional mix right. One thing that we need to understand is that we can’t have small business development if the densities are not correct. And I think Gary also mentions issues around public transport and so on. It's incredibly important and it is a design issue. So, when we speak about small business development or functional transport systems, the design of the city and the densities are what make it happen or fail. Flourishing of small-scale industries and initiatives can only happen if we get the densities and functional mixes correct. If this is achieved, it increases people’s resilience and their capacity to adapt to change and disruptions. This allows the “person on the street corner” to be empowered and encouraged to inhabit the city in more sustainable ways.

Geci: Gary do you want to come in here, and maybe touch as well on regular people's awareness or consciousness of these issues, and also for an environmental perspective?

Gary: I think that the consciousness might be there. I'm not too sure about that… But in terms of what Amira just said, if you get the densities right, that it is basically about the social responses, the business and development responses, and environmental responses. But if you get things that you do see right, and you get the public transport right, then those things can work in a coordinated way.

But what happens if you start eliminating sprawl? So immediately you've got a town or city, and you've got the hinter land and you've got a place where you can grow vegetables and food. But now what we do is that we don't get that right – we don't get that mix right. We just get the spread – housing units or shopping centres out in the periphery. And that is what is detrimental to the environment. So people always think that by making something very dense you are taking away stuff, but you are not! You are actually adding space where you can actually do urban agriculture, rear cattle, or anything like that in terms of food production. Does that make sense?

Geci: Absolutely! And it's a good segue again to my next question then as you’re both making a strong case for what our design decisions are, and what positive outcomes they could achieve. The question becomes: can we afford good design?

And I raise this in terms of time and cost, but maybe also politically. What's your sense about whether African cities feel they can afford the time and the cost to pursue these ideas, and if we have the political will it would take to make good design choices for the long run, and to get good designers in?

Gary: I think in terms of the affordability of good design, I would rather first try and define what “good design” is. Good design doesn't need to cost you a lot of money. Good design for me within the city is where you can give everybody equal opportunities. That's what good design is. So what do you need to do? As I’ve mentioned in my article, you need to concentrate on providing access to people, and that's access to all users of the city. You've got access to schools, different types of housing, social amenities, economic opportunities – all of those things. Plus then you've got to give people choices. If you create that sort of environment, which is the mixed-use or multi-use environment which was referred to just now, then I think you’re a good designer, and your design should be solid.

And that doesn't cost anything more. As a matter of fact, it's actually cheaper because now all of a sudden you densify, which means your public transportation system works. Economic and social structures become viable.

Geci: Amira, do you agree that this is good design, and that it might be cheaper? Do you think people think that?

Amira: I think that we spend a lot of money on the built environment in many places anyway, but it's a question of how we use the money; how we can use funds differently. So you know if I look as an example at the South African housing program, massive funds are expended. And if those funds were used differently, we might end up with a very different kind of product or intervention. So sometimes it is a question of money being unavailable, but a lot of times it's a question of how we can use available funds differently.

For me the biggest question then is how we can use resources that we have in such a way that accommodates for everyone, and accommodates variation in income and income levels to be accommodated in the same spaces. That's an innovation or an approach to creating equitable and mixed neighbourhoods and cities that accommodate everyone irrespective of income level – I haven't seen any interesting work being done this.

I'm curious about something Gary, in terms of where you say [in your article] that we need to understand the context and we need to understand that there is a big gap between workers and management and class differences, and how can we accommodate for that – You say on the one hand that we have to provide for a high income group and then within this group it was also split into high density – high income, low density - high income, et cetera et cetera. Do you not think that we might be reinforcing difference?

And I’ll use an example we have from Khartoum (Sudan). We inherited a system from colonial powers which still separates Khartoum into first class, second class, third class and fourth class areas. And it's causing incredible problems up until today. So, for example, there are certain densities and building materials that are acceptable in one class or one category and not in another, which immediately starts creating a stigma around alternative building materials or traditional building practice, as an example. Do you not think that by reinforcing these differences in Angola that we are reinforcing difference and what can we do as designers to address this?

Gary: If it was our choice, we wouldn't have looked at it at all like that. And that's something that we always have got to take into consideration where the politics come in. That whole development was funded, or the planning was funded, by the oil companies because they needed to show investments outside of the camps or base, so investments within the local community. When they said they were going to design an open new city, they had consultations with the employees and that was a requirement, obviously from the higher income group. Time and the end of oil production will eventual balance out the the class differences.

I think in South Africa we are starting to deal with mixed income mix social status. Most of the projects we busy with now have a 30% social housing component. The percentages might vary; in a lot of places overseas you'd be looking at about 15%. But generally I think that a mix is the right way forward.

Geci: On this issue about mixed income neighbourhoods – we're obviously speaking now within the constraints of a project in a particular context. But if we look in general at this idea of accommodating everyone – not just in terms of mixed use, but also of mixed income... Are we really seeing any promising steps towards that? Amira mentions that there may not be much yet?

Gary: NewUrban is currently busy with two or three projects that are in the design stages where there are funds available and people are now starting to leverage those funds in order to get developments going. So, for instance, you’ll have an opportunity to do a mixed use building with a lot of units in it, but you have to provide say 30% of the funds or you have to bring something to the table in order to develop it. And that's current thinking with government. It would be a private partnership and you are required to bring something (funds) to the table. So that 30% you can make up by other show funds or going to what's happening that residential units are being taken up by private residential funds.

So with entities being prepared to put up the money, you can actually make headway through public private partnership and through providing social housing and housing and mixed use within that. It's just another avenue where we now see some of the money's and interest is moving towards.

Amira: If I can speak on that because one of the biggest dilemmas I think is the stigma that I mentioned. This very visible difference between income levels in our cities and enighbourhoods, and also that these differences that are still spatially-determined. Usually if there's a particular housing development in a particular part of the city and it looks a particular way, you can almost immediately say “oh, that's probably someone that maybe has a regular income,” or doesn't, or earns R3,500 a month, or maybe more – based on the typology and the location, you can tell a lot.

Now what I would like to think about is: can we have cities where those differences are not so evident? Like one Dutch architect says, you’re a boss behind your own front door but once you leave your front door you share space with everyone else. Is there a way that we can achieve this variation of income within the same settlement with people sharing the same spaces and not being so separate? Is there a way to break down those visual divisions?

Gary: I think Amira there definitely is, but it's got to do with a few things. I think the first issue is how compact you make the cities, and then also how well you design your streets and public spaces. But then the next thing is how you design your building – and we've really come up with some suggestions here.

Within this, when people talk about “smart cities”, what do we tend to think a smart city is? “Smart cities” are just as smart as the people who use the city. And smart cities are just as smart as the buildings we are buildings and the smart parks. Everything else is actually smart within it. It's a whole lot of small things that make up a smart city. Within that you need to provide a smart building. And for us, the definition we've got to make – and we've done some examples just as a concept – is that every building that you build going forward actually serve four functions: either producing energy, or dealing with waste, or food production, or providing social space. The streets are a form of common denominator, but a use can also be a common denominator. So if we have to produce food within a building, I think things like that will allow us to increase the spectrum of the incomes and social status within a development.

Geci: I think this is a big discussion we could have - because of people’s fears of the unknown, and the dystopic ideas we hold about what this all would look like. There are bits I think people may not argue with – what a building might look like, whether having a park is a good idea, or whether food production could be included and be pretty... People may agree on the elements, but I think people often have a very poor visual or experiential sense of the whole. What these ideas of mixed income settlements would look and feel like at scale if you were to achieve it, particularly in an African city. Is it all going to look like Mumbai? But another day for this conversation.

I'd like to just move us along to a key issue that your particular Cabinda project raises Gary, which is this idea of developing new cities away from the existing city. This is a hotly contested issue in many rooms where I am, and I'd be very keen to hear what both of your perspectives are on the sides of the debates.

You know, this idea that we need to build away from the core because of XYZ, versus the idea that we should actually be dealing with the existing challenge that we're faced with in the core. Maybe I'll ask you to go first Gary because you've got the project and you made reference to this, and then we can take a perspective from Amira?

Gary: I think there's different reasons for that. I think each case is different and should be looked at on its own merit, some of these cities happen because of people's ego, either some political figure or political party or it might be an economic entity or anything – you know, there's certainly some political or economic underlying motif – is what causes it. Some might be for certain legal reasons and others – like what happened in Angola was because of the war.

Twenty-six years of war, and when peace returned they couldn't find any legal papers of which buildings belonged to whom. Luanda was designed for 450,000 people, and by the end of the war I think it was 4-6 million people staying there, with all the services and all of the legal aspects of it being in turmoil. In cases like that, when big companies come in, like the oil companies which are obviously supposed to produce a big injection within the country, they want to do things differently and they couldn't really be bothered by rebuilding the country, rebuilding the cities. They wanted things to operate and get the oil out.

So there's different reasons for that, and I think you know sometimes you go to greenfield development and sometimes you've got a brownfield developments and sometimes you get a big development. I think with those things you've got to try and understand exactly where what fits in, and there's got to be space for all of them. Like what happened with Newtown (in Johannesburg). Sometimes that entity or form gets to a certain size and you cannot just keep on building it up and building it up, so sometimes it just sort of jump to somewhere else – and start anew. There's pros and cons to all of the above.

Geci: Amira, your thoughts on new cities - is this the future, part of everything we have to accept?

Amira: I think it's very tricky and a scary future in a way because it is a huge risk. It's incredibly difficult when there's nothing there to kind of latch on to. It's a very big risk in terms of: will it be taken up in the way that people envisioned?

There are many examples across the world of developments where huge investments were made into new cities and people elected not to live there. So you know there are risks like that, but some have argued that new cities can be used to achieve reconciliation in contexts where there’s massive disputes and it necessitates creating a new city away from the charged histories of existing cities and sites. I'm curious, Gary - is there an element of that in this new city, or is it just about the vision of an oil company? Was there a political reason to put [Cabinda] away from the history of the existing city?

Gary: Rightly said, I think you must consider what it takes to be successful. A lot of the new towns and cities built especially after the Second World War weren't very successful, and were actually terrible places to stay, even in the UK. South Africa maybe was a little bit better, but that was sort of driven by the mines. The thing that lacks in most of them is a sense of place. So it becomes a planning exercise – the most economical way of getting a lot of people to stay together, and trying to make everybody economically active, and sort out the social stuff as we go along. And that's always going to be lacking because you will lack that sense of place. People don't go to visit those places; nobody goes there. So you’ve got to try and understand: what's is it about the places that people go and visit? What's in New York City? Why do we always go back to Rome, and Paris, and these sort of places? What's there? And it's that sense of place. There is something else there.

There is another layer in there which is difficult to design. Because you can’t do it as a single entity. There are thousands of small, special places that were designed by thousands of people over a long period of time. And that's what made it so special. It's not something that was built and all of a sudden now it is special and I think, as I’d said, we were quite impatient. It's going to take a long time.

f the structure of it is correct, and if the bones are correct, then it will develop over time. But if it's done incorrectly from the get-go, you'll never discover those. And if you don’t allow people that incrementalism or participation that Amira referred to – if you don’t allow that, then people won't make it their own and it will then just belong to the municipality and not to us.

Amira: I'm curious Gary – other than the roads, what constitutes “the bones” of this new city?

Gary: I think anything that’s spatial structure. When you’ve got your moving systems in the way that you that you think about them, and they go with the streets and not just with movement channels, and then all your interaction with the green spaces – you know, if you've got nice beautiful say ridges or watercourses, and places like that... Just things that are naturally beautiful. You just look after them and bring them into the structure.

I think there are quite a few things that you can do. But if you think, for example, this is a site for a beautiful square, but you haven’t got the height – the buildings that are going to be three stories high. So now people typically decide that they're not going to do the square. But those buildings can be just one storey can for the first 50 years. If it's the right place, at the right junctions – then people will start using this space, and they'll use it as a market or use it for different things. And then it will become a desirable place and they will build up from one storey to three or four or five stories. And then all of a sudden your square is there! But now people don’t design that square, and they don’t leave that space there because nobody is going to look after it, nobody can take responsibility for it, nobody is going to make it their own. They rather leave it there and it can be empty or whatever for 50 years. That's the wrong attitude. You've got to design carefully and look forward. You know, David Crane referred to the “capital web.” Seeing where that web sits, and what the capital points are that you bring into it. That's all you can really pay attention to, then you’ve got to leave it to the other thousand designers and let them get on along with the people that stay there.

Geci: I think Amira’s question was also referring specifically to the case of Cabinda. So what constituted “the bones” there?

Gary: I think where we had to separate or look at different housing typologies and income levels and whatever typologies that are produced. We didn't do the same for public open spaces. The roads that we used within the well-off areas and the roads we used in the less well-off areas are exactly the same. The parks are the same. The whole spatial framework is the same.

It is a spatial framework which allows for anybody to participate in it. So there's no distinction when it comes to spatial framework. And I think that's the thing that we referred to earlier on as well – when we have to design within Africa and there is the need for frugal innovation. That frugal innovation is actually just how you afford good designs. Just to do those things properly and maintain them properly, and the rest of the stuff we can't really influence too much. But if we get [the framework] correct, then the rest of the stuff will happen over time.

Amira: Gary, you are referring to the well-off areas and the less well-off areas. Is there any way that your clients would be open to you presenting a different model where those distinctions are not made spatially?

Gary: I think that is the only example that we've done to date that was so specific about it. From an economic point of view, the stuff we've been involved in in South Africa unfortunately tends to end up in a similar way, but that's because of other reasons. If you want to change this in South Africa, there are a few things you've got to look at.

One is the way that the banks give credit; that's very important. And that's also about the way that the banks work with the developers. They are single-minded, so a bank will give credit for residential from a particular department, and if you then want to do a mixed use building, you've got to now speak to somebody who does the commercial stuff, and that's sitting in another building – and they do no talk to each other. So now you’re going to go with this building and you’ve got to go sell this idea, first with the housing people then with the commercial people, and then with the help of the residential people and then with the industrial people… with all the different units which are totally separate. That's why you get shopping centres to look the way they look! You end up with a single entity – housing. A single entity where nothing is really mixed. On a horizontal way we can get the uses next to each other, but not a vertical way which is where we actually want to be.

So then you get the chicken vs egg situation. You get developers who are also single-use developers. Now you get a housing developer, a shopping centre developer, you get a commercial or office developer… and there is a reason for it: it is the result of where the money comes from.

And that is why there are no opportunities coming up. Where you can do three or four stories of mixed use and the way to fund that is actually through the social housing on top. So that will start changing it now. We will get that sort of mixed use buildings where you get the building which I refer to as a smart building that will have three or four uses in it.

Looking back at the Cabinda case, that's exactly where I would hope that, by the time oil finishes up there, that there will be the economic and political drive for a fully sustainable city which will allow for all of the integration to happen.

Geci: I love the point you're making about the integration Gary – that how we finance the city also affects its form. That it's not just design; there are other factors and agendas that themselves are not integrated, and perhaps result in some of the fragmentation that we see.

Colleagues, it feels very suboptimal to cut us off now when there is so much more to discuss, but I'd like to respect your time. And hopefully this will not be the end of the dialogue. May I invite each of you to give some closing words for this part of the conversation on the future of African cities?

Gary: You touched on something that I want to pick up on, which is the agendas. I've just mentioned now what the financial institutions agendas are. What the developers’ agendas are. But then there is also a whole other level of agendas here. For instance, there is the New Urban Agenda, and there are quite a few of those [agreements] which we as a country are signed into. Are they realistic? I think we have to make them realistic, and we have to look at these from an environmental point of view, from an economic point of view, from a social responsibility point of view. We've got to try and balance these, and if we balance them through our designs and through how we build our cities, then we end up with a win-win situation because then you know that if you can provide for the people and you can provide for the environment, then you are also seen to be responsible. And being responsible within the international agendas is, I think, important. We cannot ignore this. We cannot say we are an island we’ve got other problems, so we need to deal with them differently. I think those things are critical, we need to deal with it differently and responsible.

Amira: The funding issue has come up again and again – how we fund. How we manage, and the methods of delivering the built environment, are incredibly important for us to achieve any change or innovations. Some of that funding needs to support innovation and experimentation because the only way that we can really figure this out is by implementing and building; through experimental projects. And in addition to that, we need innovative clients as well. So for us to be able to design differently and implement things differently, we need clients – whether those clients are private sector or government – who are enlightened clients in order for us to really make any progress. Otherwise we're trapped in the same way of doing things, which would be a pity.

Geci: Thank you both of you I mean I think we've got some really important ideas that we've surfaced here and it calls for a longer conversation. You mostly seem to agree on many issues, but there are a few tough questions about the future of our cities. Gary you talk about the balancing. I think what we're seeing is it's quite tough to balance some of the ideas against other realities, and we have to consider how the space gets created for trying to drive more progressive practices. We must continue thrashing through those issues. Thank you for taking the time to converse.


Gary White acts as Urban Design/Strategic Development consultant for Calgro M3 to promote strategies for sustainable urban environments in Southern Africa. The firm boasts offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria also has active partners in Lagos Nigeria and Stuttgart, Germany. He is a seasoned sustainable development specialist, the director of NEW URBAN, a multidisciplinary architectural firm with a special edit towards environmental responsiveness. Gary applies the principles of New Urbanism in all the Urban Design initiatives he drives. He was awarded for excellent work by the Charter of New Urbanism, USA in 2006 for the design of the new urban community, Cabinda, in Angola, and in 2012 for the design of the new urban community, Verkykerskop, in South Africa. Gary White has completed various projects in the housing sector, and has had projects ranging from policy establishment, best practice research, and design and monitoring on implementations. White is a UCT alum, and co-author of the book “Africa Drawn: One Hundred Cities”, which focuses on researching, visualising and curating cities in Africa, which was internationally acclaimed by receiving a third CNU Award in 2018. Website

Prof Amira Osman is a Sudanese/South African architect/lecturer/researcher. She is a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). Amira runs the professional master’s programme at the TUT Architecture Department. She is also working on a research project titled “Harnessing innovation in the service of sustainable human settlements: continued explorations into the 4th dimension in design and technical decision-making in the South African residential sector.” Amira believes that the architectural profession has a critical role to play in the achievement of human settlements that are more equitable, more beautiful and more functional – human settlements that increase opportunities, offering people a better chance at improving their lives and livelihoods. The belief that the profession has the potential to offer both technical and social expertise towards these aims is the driving force behind Amira’s research projects and in her professional roles. Website

Dr Geci Karuri-Sebina is an Associate with South African Cities Network, a peer-based network of SA’s largest cities, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. Geci has two decades’ experience and interests spanning a range of planning, innovation and foresight topics at the intersection between technology, city systems and society. She started off in tech, veered into architecture, merged into planning, and landed into the complex enquiry that is the governance futures of neighbourhoods and cities (mainly in the south). Geci @LinkedIn


Share content with FFD


Features Archive


new-sampnode-logo rockefeller-logo-footer-new

Foresight For Development - Funding for this uniquely African foresight site was generously provided by Rockefeller Foundation. Email Us | Creative Commons Deed | Terms of Conditions