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water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Urban Africa and Asia Need (Good) Sprawl?

I recently read an article in the Economist that made the argument that, given high rates of current and future urbanization throughout Asia and Africa, what is needed is good and orderly sprawl, in which rights of way are planned out and property rights are upheld and landowners are compensated for development of public ways.

I found this article to be quite simplistic and, to some extent, misleading.  Furthermore, it seems to ignore realities of infrastructure and the populations served by it.

“Sprawl” and any sense of order (“It would be vastly cheaper and better to do sprawl properly from the start.“) are antithetical, since sprawl is seen as unplanned and growth and order is order.  Since comprehensive planning takes too long, the article asserts, the main roads and parks, at minimum, have to be planned.  If the roads are being planned, is the resulting development even considered “sprawl”?

What’s most striking in this article, however, is the implicit focus on the likely (very) small percentage of the new urbanites who would be served by planned communities and the dismissive tone towards doing anything within the existing unplanned areas:

In some unplanned African suburbs as little as 5% of the land is road. Even middle-class districts often lack sewers and mains water. As for amenities like public parks, forget it.”

What I am confused by is the complete giving up on existing unplanned settlements inside or outside the city center. Is it good policy to just ignore both the poor unplanned and the middle-class unplanned districts simply because these areas have poor roads and do not have sewer or water?  I find this to be completely wrongheaded, when regularization of tenure, upgrading or roads, extension of the water utility through relatively low-cost kiosks, and improvement of sanitation options in existing dense areas make a lot more sense than focusing just on new suburban developments for a small fraction of the anticipated urban population.