Health crises are not new in Africa. The continent has grappled with infectious diseases on all levels, from local (such as malaria) to regional (Ebola) to global (Covid-19).
The region has often carried a disproportionately high burden of global infectious outbreaks.
How cities are planned is critical for managing infectious diseases. Historically, many urban planning innovations emerged in response to health crises.
The global cholera epidemic in the 1800s led to improved urban sanitation systems. Respiratory infections in overcrowded slums in Europe inspired modern housing regulations during the industrial era.
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Unfortunately, regional experiences with cholera, malaria and even Ebola in African cities provide little evidence that they have triggered a new urban planning ethic that prioritises infectious outbreaks.
With the widespread nature of Covid-19, is it reasonable to argue that it could possibly be the pandemic that inspires a new way of “doing” urban planning in Africa.
Our recent research paper discusses three areas that can transform urban planning in the continent to prepare for future infectious outbreaks, using lessons from Covid-19.
Integrating the informal
The first relates to the integration of the city’s informal sector into the formal planning process.
This is reflected in two ways: non-inclusion of informal settlements (mostly slums) in urban planning practice and lack of planning focus on the informal economy that results in exclusion.
Yet this is a sector that constitutes more than 80 per cent of Africa’s urban economy.
In a time of Covid-19, slums and informality are critical due to the sector’s vulnerability to transmission.
It is challenging to deploy testing and contact tracing, as well as adhering to social distancing rules.
Given that the informal sector is characterised by unregulated economic activities including uncontrolled hawking and unplanned open markets, overcrowding is impeding social and physical distancing rules in African cities.
Change is needed. Perhaps Covid-19 will be the wake-up call to spur the consolidation of existing and formal structures to become more responsive to managing health crises in slums and the informal sector.
Geographic and economic imbalances
Second, there are geographical and economic imbalances in urban planning in Africa. Investment patterns and development mostly focus on the major cities with limited focus on its adjoining districts and regions.
Yet what happens in cities does not stay in cities.
Infectious diseases often have cascading effects on adjoining districts and regions with functional relationships to major cities. Covid-19 has affected both cities and their adjoining regions.
However, adjoining districts continue to receive limited investment in critical infrastructures such as health, housing and other essential social services.
Given the disruptions to the supply chain between major cities and the adjoining districts due to the pandemic, it is about time that planning practitioners and educators learn to prioritise urban planning to reflect these imbalances.
Third, public health matters should be considered in urban planning. Health outcomes traditionally do not drive urban planning practice in Africa.
In our study, urban green spaces are used as an example because the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted their importance in managing emergencies.
Literature evidence suggests that African cities are rapidly losing their green spaces. This is due to, among other things, poor urban planning.
A new approach should bring open spaces into the heart of how African cities are planned, and management systems for local green space must improve. Integrating larger open spaces within the urban fabric allows cities to implement emergency services and evacuation protocols during health crises.