Maputo is the capital of Mozambique and, together with neighbouring Matola, the city conurbation currently has some 2.5 million inhabitants and is projected to grow to more than four million by 2025. It is one of the 15 largest urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa and, like other cities in the region, it is expanding beyond its formal boundaries and likely has a substantially higher population than the official figures suggest. Much of this population lives in informal or unplanned settlements, located in areas prone to floods or erosion, along highways and railway lines or beside polluting industries. The health implications of these conditions are detrimental.
But unplanned urban sprawl was not always an issue in Mozambique. A programme from the 1980s, Strategic Action Planning’, used land redistribution to control housing demand, curb unplanned urban expansion and, in so doing, created desirable and equitable urban form. Thousands of plots were provided by the new local authority to citizens regardless of income. This reallocation of land for urban development had a substantial impact on metropolitan growth patterns and resulted in a far different experience than that of many other African cities that experienced unplanned, explosive urban growth. Assessing urban development and planning in Maputo over the past two decades leaves no doubt that the organised land division pioneered in the 1980s and the moderate densities which resulted have contributed to improved health in these areas. This suggests that physical planning can have an impact on health – if it is the right sort – and that it can be achieved with low budgets if accompanied by political will and strategic vision.
Why and how strategic action planning emerged in Maputo
In many African countries, colonial governments supplied plots for self-help housing. The Portuguese government, however, ignored this in Mozambique until the late 1960s, when the battle for independence heated up. With independence, accelerated in-migration to Maputo initially took place without any type of formal housing supply to meet increasing demand. People took advantage of the relaxed authority after years of government control, and unplanned and informal development began to mushroom, as it did in much of the ‘developing world’. Although post-independence Mozambique had hardly any qualified architects and planners and urban development was not a priority of the new government, nonetheless an urban development team was built up within the Greater Maputo city council from 1980.
As in other parts of Africa, these professionals subscribed to the dominant international strategies of the time like organised ‘self-help’ housing and ‘sites and services’ schemes. However, in Maputo severely constrained local budgets were compensated by nationalised land, and hence a strategic programme of land distribution was developed. The strategy was to get ahead of urbanisation by focusing on pro-active land control, thus permitting the consolidation of urban development to happen over time through actual demand. This approach resulted from a specific decision not to continue with the relatively costly urban upgrading pilot project, which the national government and the UN had implemented in the immediately preceding period (1977–9).
The Strategic Action Planning programme managed to provide approximately 12,000 plots, organised in neighbourhood clusters with land reserved for roads, schools, health posts and recreation, over a six-year period from 1981. At the time, approximately 300,000 inhabitants lived in unplanned settlements around the formal central urban core, while the new plots had a planned capacity of just 60,000 people. The layouts were simple, motivated by the need for fast demarcation and the limited technical capacity within the municipal authorities. A key accompanying element was land-use control and construction advice provided through an extension service of basically trained technicians, or ‘bare-foot planners’, as well as a subsidised basic sanitation programme aimed at improving health conditions, which eventually became a UN Habitat Best Practice.
Managing rapid urban expansion in Maputo today
Back in the twenty-first Century, rapid urban expansion continues, but this time outside of Maputo’s official boundaries. In recent years, international agencies, notably UN Habitat through its Cities without Slums initiative, have once again refocused their attentions on slum upgrading projects, rather than on curbing unplanned urban expansion. Rapid urban expansion continued through the 1990s up until the present day. Like so many other ‘developing countries’ with a limited urban budget the national and local governments find themselves in a state of never-ending upgrades, with little political will or funding to prevent sprawl in the first place. Recent pilot slum upgrading projects showed only marginal positive impacts given the momentum of urban expansion underway both through the densification of inner city areas and through the urbanisation of new land on the periphery.
In light of the limited administrative and financial capacity of Maputo’s city government to sub-divide plots formally, today plots are increasingly provided by small and medium informal suppliers, typically long-term residents claiming traditional land rights. These residents sub-divide plots in a similar way as was pioneered by the state in the 1980s. Maputo’s pioneering Strategic Action Planning approach now continues as a cultural model within society, with many poor and better-off residents seeing the original master plan, 30 years later, as an ideal urban form, but with one major difference. A shift from public to private providers of land distribution highlights an unwillingness to provide land for public open spaces or spaces for social amenities such as schools and health clinics. No private developer sees any interest in setting aside land that cannot be immediately capitalised.
In addition, it has become much easier for private interests to dominate the needs and rights of existing residents of informal settlements, especially in cases where settlements are located on prime land. On top of the direct and quite hazardous living conditions facing residents daily, the legal right to hold the land where they often have lived over generations may be under threat. As fewer and fewer sites become available for development in central locations of Maputo, the informal areas bordering the city have come now under pressure and developers are increasingly buying out local residents at prices way below the market value. This development is apparently being welcomed by the city authorities which, in one case, shelved a project developed by the Faculty of Architecture in Maputo based on participatory and inclusive approaches. An alternative plan engaging the private sector envisages demolishing all of the houses to give way for commercial development, condominiums and social housing. The private sector will buy out the informal settlers and over time fulfil the plan now in process of being approved. The residents will be pushed to the periphery or end up in other informal settlements under severely overcrowded conditions. However, local resistance is building up and eventually the implementation of the plan may run into difficulties.
Towards an urbanism from below
The experiences of Maputo show that it is time to reconsider the merits of planning approaches which actually work in producing the liveable and more healthy urban environments that residents aspire to, rather than attempt to realise the unachievable norms of what governments, private interests and global institutions think are appropriate. This is not based in a romantic attitude towards self-help and informal settlements as exotic urban environments, but rather a pragmatic recognition of a form of emergent endogenous urbanism. Such a form of urbanism suggests a different modernity. While Mozambican urban residents do aspire to some of the forms of modernity which are planned and designed by architects, their aspirations are embedded in context, unlike most of the formal plans and urban development projects proposed by professionals. In light of the continued relative weakness of the state and private sector in the face of rapid urbanisation and widespread low income levels, what is needed most now is a professional openness to alternative modernities and forms of urban development which are based on contextual demand.
The Maputo experience of people-oriented urban development from the 1980s still shows how a strategic, low-cost and hands-on approach to the reality of a rapidly expanding urban setting can produce significant results, particularly in relation to urban health. Rapid urban growth in African countries alongside high levels of poverty requires active planning with people and not planning for people. While the present context, and hence the means of operation, for this will be different from that of the 1980s, the goal still must be to move beyond limited pilot projects, typically funded by international agencies and implemented by non-governmental organisations, and instead engage with the ‘informal’ practices of urban land development and construction in informal settlements, while guiding such practices to ensure social and cultural aspirations are healthy, inclusive and self-managing. Arguably, the era of top-down planning is ending and here Africa can provide new models for people-based urban development.