Malawi cities are suffering from a disease. It has no official name, but we will call it ‘predatory planning disease (PPD)’. What is it?
It makes people look at any vacant or open land and ask: “What can I develop here?”
Then, they proceed to develop what they want regardless of what that land is zoned for.
The signs and symptoms of this disease include the disappearance under concrete of public parks, river banks, flood plains, wetlands, forested hill slopes and even land earmarked for public infrastructure and services.
If left unchecked and untreated, this ‘grabiosis’ reduces the livability, resilience, sustainability and economic efficiency of cities. In its extreme form, the disease can rip out the soul of a city.
Each city worth the name has a soul. You cannot point at it, but you feel it when you are in any city.
PPD slowly, but surely rips out the soul of the city.
Until the 1990s, Blantyre City had five public parks, but three have disappeared under concrete, one is in disrepair and disuse leaving only the neglected Njamba Park where government wants to construct a stadium.
If this happens, Blantyre will have no public park to speak of.
Tell me any place in the world that calls itself a city and has no public park.
To bury Njamba Park under concrete would amount to desecration. This park is the platform that embodies the aspirations of Malawians for freedom and it is not by mistake that it is called Njamba Freedom Park.
This park is also the spot where the only saint to have set foot in Malawi – Pope John Paul II – said his Mass in 1989.
How is the predatory planning syndrome spread?
It is spread by the creation of artificial land shortages in cities. While there is suitable land in and around cities that could be developed, it is not made available for development. This forces some people to catch the disease.
No amount of house demolitions will be effective if people cannot obtain a plot from the official land administration system.
It is also spread by corruption, cronyism and patronage in the planning and land administration system. It is tolerated by a disengaged citizenry who live in the city as if they are in transit and show no concern to question and challenge the mess happening in their city.
This is why numerous filling stations are constructed one after another on a 150m stretch!
This is why we see substandard buildings constructed on prime sites in our cities.
This is why some drain important wetlands that act as shock absorbers for floods in cities. The list goes on.
How to stop the disease?
We need to plan for and create plots at scale to meet the demand for housing and other developments.
Removing artificial land shortages will also deal a blow to corruption. Town planning in cities has been reduced to mundane tasks of development control—approving building plans.
Planning must address the key strategic questions, like: How the city will accommodate the doubling of its population in the next decade in terms of supply of land/housing, social services, employment, connectivity and security?
Many service delivery sectors in Malawi are in firefighting mode because we have busied ourselves with everyday operational and maintenance activities at the expense of planning (and implementing!) for the short, medium and long term.
We need a civically engaged citizenry that will make city fathers make decisions that are for the common good and not for parochial, short term political expediency. Only then will we be able to defeat the predatory planning disease and save our cities. n