Open letter: our urban settlements and the way forward

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The current state of human settlements in Namibia is increasingly coming under the spotlight and deservedly so.
Unfortunately, these settlements reflect the indelible legacy of three historic ideologies: European colonialism from way back; international modernist settlement-making that emerged about 100 years ago in Europe and North America; and South African apartheid from the mid-1900’s.

The latter found in the other two ideologies precisely the spatial dicta it needed to entrench blunt separation between peoples of different race and class, and between the urban functions of live, work, play and move.
The operative result is settlements and cities characterised by separation, fragmentation, sprawl and inequitable access to the benefits of urbanity. This southern African legacy has been perpetuated in action, if not in name, in post-independence settlement growth in Namibia.

Indeed, because of significant waves of urbanisation in recent decades, urban growth is accelerating and continues to be propelled in terms of these dominant urban constructs that maintain and increase the historic fragmentation and separation of communities due to lateral suburban growth planned at low densities.

The inevitable dominant consequence is that a suburban, rather than an urban model of settlement-making, continues to be pursued and that such an outcome is socially unjust and environmentally and economically unsustainable.

The operative spatial fragmentation, separation of urban functions and general low-density of our settlements requires extensive road networks to service them. Long travel distances and low numbers of passengers per vehicle have led to inefficient and uneconomic public transport services.

In turn, this encourages the use and ownership of ever more private vehicles, leading to the need for more roads, with more money spent on travelling to and from work, with inevitable strains on already limited household incomes. The lack of integration at all levels takes its toll and is endemic.

A further characteristic of our settlements is reflected in the lack of quality public urban open space in which social interaction can occur for citizens, irrespective of race and class.

A lop-sided focus on seemingly overall financial prosperity has led to growing inequalities between rich and poor, has generated serious distortions in the form and operation of our towns and settlements, also causing serious damage to the environment. We need to act to encourage the development of settlements that foster economically, socially and environmentally responsible, coherent and prosperous urban futures.

To do so we need not only to reshape our approach to formal settlement-making, top-down, as an essential component of public service and of state governance. We need to make space for, include and integrate the informal bottom-up processes that are an inescapable part of the urban reality in Africa, South America and much of Asia.
We need a fresh approach for the development of our settlements: one that is holistic and integrated and which is essential for the promotion of the collective wellbeing and fulfillment for all.

We need transformative action in favour of people-centred, sustainable urban development that can be generative of livelihoods, helping to create a mixed use city at a human scale where diversity, connectivity, and physical integration are all interwoven, and prosperity is shared.

We need to move from a fragmented model of suburbia to an integrated urban model of settlement-making, spanning the formal and the informal. This approach must cut across social and spatial divisions and include all professional disciplines, civic organisations and businesses.

In facing these problems and desires we are not alone. There are valuable lessons to be learned from history, from studying and understanding existing functional and equitable settlements worldwide. With this understanding we can formulate strategies for growing equitable settlements suitable for our particular environmental, social and economic circumstances.

Urban Design Masterclass Attendees

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