Visioning African Metropolis

The blue-sky, the spaced-out, and the grounded

Editor’s Note: This article is a snippet of a study conducted by the African Urban Institute on Strategic Planning of African cities.

The 21st century has been a period of globalisation where information and technology facilitate the proliferation of the global village. Regions, countries, and cities are learning from each other, indicating an age of heightened policy transfer. African cities in the same period, have been visionary and optimistic towards improvement of their urban settlements. This has increased ever since the regard of Africa as the ‘last development frontier’ leading to influx of investors into the region. In these visions, African cities have been different in their ambitions, their strategies and their realities. We explore the variations that exists among the visions and missions of fifteen cities in the region in efforts to identify their visioning process, their aspirations and their capabilities.

Visioning process of African cities

The visions of African metropolis have been categorised into three of the visioning pyramid. The grounded visions which are obvious and too realistic in their ambitions; predictable and plain in their goals; executed by safe and incremental ideas. Second category up the pyramid are blue sky visions. The blue-sky visions are the most ideal category for they are forward-looking and novel in the ambitions. While they are risky in execution, they produce progressive results that are unique and exciting. The third category on the top of the pyramid are the spaced-out visions. These are the unrealistic visions that have crazy, laughable ambitions which can be nonsensical and absurd with whacky strategies. The visioning process in African cities have led to a vision that fall in one of the three categories. The category the vision falls also entails the intensity that the cities carried out the visioning process and its priorities in urban development.

Figure 1: Types of visions and cities’ classifications

The spaced-out visions

Two of the fifteen cities have spaced-out visions in their strategic planning, these spaced-out visions are worrisome for they are mostly strategic visions rather than static visions. Of particular attention are the visions of cities that aspire to be “world-class cities”. While it was not clear how these cities came to such visions given that a world-class city is an attribute that has not yet been ascertained, we realised that this might have been cross-sector derived and self-defined. Other sectors such as Justice, Transport Industry, Hospitality industry aspire to provide world-class services in their sector. Nevertheless, attributing to cities, such visions will be problematic for there are no specific set indicators to determine what constitute a world-class city and what are the benchmarks of those indicators. While urban development follows scientific principles less influenced by context, if such attributes of world-class cities existed, they will be problematic to sustainability of cities for they bring linearity in urban development and placemaking.

One example of a spaced-out vision is that of City of Harare which is ‘To achieve a world-class city status by 2025’. This is also a typical of a vision derived from outside by the organisation outward-looking. However, the spaced-out vision had no adequate supportive strategic actions to fulfill it. Port Louis, in Mauritius also shared the same vision spaced-out in aspiration as to achieve a world class standard in various facets of the city. However, for Port Louis the space-out vision was supported by so grounded strategic thrusts demonstrating a gap that subsists between the aspiration and way to achieve it.

The Blue-sky visions

The blue-sky visions have been the most ideal types of visions given their characteristics alluded earlier. A number of cities, six of the fifteen cities were categorised as having blue-sky vision. These have been the cities that have been leading in urban development in Africa. Johannesburg for example has a vision which is spaced-out from onset as it seeks to be a world class African city of the future going back to the definitional questions about a world class city. However, the extensions of the visions pinpoints on the blue-sky specifics that the city seeks to achieve. Among the blue-sky vision for cities such as Johannesburg, Kigali, Mbabane, Tunis and Nairobi, they aspire to be leading in the region, promoting regional competitiveness. These cities in one way or another have been regional hubs be it financial, trade, or administrative.

The grounded visions

The visions of African cities also included grounded visions, as earlier described. Of the fifteen surveyed cities, seven of the cities have grounded visions. These were focusing on providing basic services reliably to the urban residents, eradication of poverty, creating livable cities, sustainable cities and general enhancement of quality of life.

There is no clear-cut categorisation of the visions into three. Some of the visions while they may fall under one category, their strategic plans fall under another entailing a stretch of strategic planning across the three broad categories. One of the highlight from the visions has been the emphasis on inclusiveness in service delivery and quality of life

Cities in the regions that are most affected by climate change, that are Tunis and Khartoum highlight environmental sustainability and a top priority in their visions. We also find that there are variations in the preciseness and boldness of the visions across the cities. This is partly attributed to the visioning process itself whether it is the cities authorities determining the visions for the entire city, projecting the organisational values to the future of the city or the authorities set shared visions by residents that the organisation (as city councils) tailor itself into. The visions have also highlighted variations in the aspiration. While some cities are outward looking to attract investment, and seeking regional dominance these have been setting spaced-out and blue-sky visions. On the contrary most cities that have set grounded visions have been focusing on serving their local population sticking to the mandate and follow predictability pathways in strategies.

Reflecting on the overall visioning process, there is critical need for cities with spaced-out visions and those with grounded visions to revise their visions to become blue-sky visions. Transforming the spaced-out visions into blue-sky visions, cities need to reflect local realities in the visions and identify model city they seek to emulate. Thus, learning from the evolution of the model city into its strategic thrusts.  Grounded visions also need enhancement of aspirations to become forward-looking and unique beyond provision of services to the residents. The realisation of blue-sky visions in African cities enables regional focus in cities’ aspirations which facilitate regional competitiveness, policy transfer within the region thereby enhance regional connectivity of cities.

Published in collaboration with Kumbirayi Mhaka and Archimedes Muzenda

Isaac Muchineripi
Isaac Muchineripi
Isaac Muchineripi is an Urban Economist and Planner whose research focus include urban housing, urban informal economy, Urban Land Economics and Municipal Financing. Isaac is the Deputy Director of the African Urban Institute. He holds a PhD in Urban Planning and Development from University of Southern California.