Written by Ryan Whitney
Ryan Whitney is a Project Officer for the Sustainable Cities: PLUS Network Africa Program. The program is funded through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and aims to support urban sustainability issues in Dar es Salaam and create learning networks between cities.
Walking in Dar es Salaam
Walking in Dar es Salaam elevates our senses; it’s a mixture of unplanned settlements, vibrant dirt roads, and paved highways. In these spaces, you find a hodgepodge of humanity: Laughing children, lost chickens, and decades-old buses imported from Japan.
Somehow, the disjointed development patters all fit together, shaken-up in an urban mixing bowl, and displaced before us: A newly planned highway bi-sects an unplanned settlement; a mercades-benz rubs shoulders with a rusted bicycle; a bajaji honks as a ‘mama’ hops out of harms way.
Fascinatingly, in unplanned settlements, or those often viewed as ‘forgotten’ by modern planning principles, communities come to life. Neighbourhoods become a maze of dirt paths; defined, unassumingly, by one-story shacks of disjoined shapes and sizes.
Unplanned Settlements, Planned for People
From above, unplanned settlements resemble a broken-window, with shards of glass lying at awkward angles, the space between them forming paths. Once inside, however, we look through the glass from another perspective: The shards become housing units, the spaces between the glass become places where public life lives.
It is in these unplanned settlements that Dar es Salaam comes to life: People flood the streets to socialize, purchase vegetables, and play football. Motorized traffic remains rare, and, despite the lack of modern infrastructure, these settlements maintain strong social cohesion because they are designed for face-to-face interaction.
Unfortunately, planners often look at unplanned settlements as ‘mistakes.’ Without modern building ordinances, no drainage or sanitation infrastructure, and no zoning principles, it is obvious that these communities were built by the poor, and for the poor.
What we need to learn, however, is that despite the lack of formalized planning, these communities have been built around the social needs of people. This often forgotten concept of a ‘liveable city’ can teach us many lessons in urban planning.
Pedestrians and Liveability
What does ‘liveable’ mean and, more importantly, what does a ‘liveable city’ look like?
Liveability is a concept that refers to people’s ability to live in a place. In terms of a city, it encompasses factors that relate to the quality of life and the well being of residents. These factors include, but are not limited to, public transportation, access to education and health care, safety, political stability, environmental protection, and urban green space.
Depending on your global location, highly publicized, liveable cities, such as Vancouver, Melbourne, and Copenhagen, often come to mind based on their progressive policies towards urban sustainability, including public transportation and green design.
For others, the concept of urban liveability is rooted locally and very context-dependent: The local sourcing of food from small-scale urban gardens, or, as in Dar es Salaam, the strong social networks formed between residents of unplanned settlements.
Regardless of location, the most liveable cities in the world all have one element in common: They prioritize people, and recognize the importance that residents play in creating a great city. In short, liveable cities are built around people and, by definition, designing environments that cater pedestrians is indispensible in creating a liveable city.
Unfortunately, western planning principles, now adopted in cities around the world, have often ‘planned’ people out of our cities, by disregarding the needs of pedestrians. Only in the most progressive cities, are these issues regaining relevance.
What Can Unplanned Settlements Teach Us?
What do urban environments that cater to people look like? While there is no perfect formula, they are often dense and provide a street layout favourable to interaction: Integrated retail and residential buildings, small blocks, paths dedicated to pedestrians, and public spaces.
We can learn from unplanned settlements because, at their root, they are spaces designed for people, by people. While there is much to improve in terms of sanitation and infrastructure, they can be considered a model in terms of community cohesion.
Government officials need to learn, as well as fix. They need to understand the importance that urban planning and design plays in fostering healthy communities that prioritize people, not only money and automobiles.
We only need to look to the difference between ‘planned’ and ‘unplanned’ settlements in Dar es Salaam to see how the latter prioritizes people and public life.
In the unplanned settlement of Mikocheni A, for example, people fill the streets, housing remains dense, and the community constantly gathers in the various small-scale public spaces.
In adjacent Mikocheni B, the situation is very different: Fences surround individual homes, vibrant public spaces are non-existent, and the motorized vehicle is given more priority. Life here becomes privatized and focuses on the individual, as opposed to the community.
What type of community do we want to live in?
The Value of Learning
On the surface, Dar es Salaam appears to be an unliveable city that is uninviting to pedestrians. The roads are congested, the streets are often unpaved, and very little pedestrian infrastructure separates people from motor vehicles.
Looking deeper, however, towards the unplanned settlements, the city contains a very strong pedestrian-based environment. It is here that the more subtle elements of a liveable city, including a strong sense of community and a pedestrian-based environment, are most visible.
When looking at the many problems that unplanned settlements face, government officials should also look at the way that people have been planned into the development. People based design should, therefore, become a priority along with improving infrastructure.
For now, however, the pedestrian lives on in Dar es Salaam, flourishing in the areas forgotten by planning. Follow them and you’ll find what this city is really about: Community, friendship, and the formation of bonds to get through the hardships of day-to-day life.