The scale of the challenges in rapidly urbanising African cities is familiar. What is less common is the direct engagement of planning students with the day to day realities of life in burgeoning informal settlements. However, a post-graduate planning programme at the University of Zambia is directly engaging with crucial issues such as access to land for all, and the needs of those in informal housing and the informal economy.
The development of the programme was supported by the Association of African Planning Schools. An important feature is that there is a five year agreement with Slum/Shack Dwellers International through its local affiliate, the People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia. Under this, student projects engae with the informal settlements of Lusaka, the Zambian capital, and the local SDI organisation helps in the teaching. with many of the students already having experience in planning practice, this creates a rich learning environment. A report notes that "participants said the studios fast-tracked the “unlearning” of certain entrenched traditions in planning — for instance, the colonial-era disregard of the informal sector." However, not all the students were convinced: "even many of the planners that went through the AAPS studios expressed the belief that informality is not part of a planners’ work in Zambia. Indeed, some went far as to say that efforts must be made to erase informality from urban areas altogether."
At first, a majority of the students were unhappy about working in the informal settlement of Kalikiliki, and wanted the studio project shifted to a greenfield site. However, they came to see the benefits, and in particular learned communication skills, and how to build consensus in a community with conflicting interests. "Above all, they strengthened their ability to listen and mediate, to facilitate discussion to engender community development. Further, the local authority, the Lusaka City Council, worked with the project and used the reports produced."
Informal development will be a key aspect of urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa for a long time yet. Finding a way to work with it remains a major challenge for planners.