Do we have urban planners? A twin response of like minds!

We read with a lot of interest Mr. Simon Kaheru’s piece, “Do we have urban planners” of Thursday, May 16, 2019 while traveling to western Uganda and debated in transit but with great shock. Whilst Mr. Kaheru attempts to highlight one of several challenges of urbanization – traffic jams – in Uganda, he also brings out an invisible anger that consumes a lot of people in our towns and cities everyday. But that is not the subject of this response. As an urban planner, I am constrained, although reluctantly, to shade some light on the role of urban planning and the urban planner in society. Related is a philosophical ardent advanced by my co-author who from wide travel also supports my thinking and adds that environment is the best teacher!

I preface this response with a well-known phenomenon of the relationship we have with our General Practitioners (GP) as patients. When you are unwell and consult your GP who provides advice and a prescription of medication, you often comply or do not. Most often in some parts of East Africa my colleague Dominic Byarugaba asserts that some cultures first consult their spirits before consulting GP! In the event that you do not comply with the GP’s advice, the consequences you suffer do not necessarily imply that there are no GPs, or even that the GP you consulted is incompetent. This all goes with whether you contend and adhere to take the medication as per the GP’s directive; but mostly few people follow the directives and they do rarely do they follow the right timing as we all know that time factor is not an issue in this part of the globe. Moreover, when the ailment recurs, even worsens, and on your way back to the GP a social commentator such as Mr. Kaheru meets you and wonders loudly, “Do we have doctors?” it does not mean we have incompetent doctors. This completely explains that it is never correct to judge the case of your daughter before her husband narrates his own side of the story. The example of how well we consider and comply with our GP’s advice captures the conundrum of traffic jams in Kampala that Mr. Kaheru seeks to unravel. Although a good attempt, he fails to capture or even mention the complexity and nuances in the relationships between urban planning, urban planners and traffic jams in Kampala. A quick question what was the population when most of the Kampala city roads were planned and how fast has fast trucking population increase and necessities related been unionized?

I am sure my colleagues at the Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA), the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) and other bodies, like the GP, provide the required professional advice, however, what happens to the advice remains out of their control. Just like the GP’s advice to the patient that does not comply and the subsequent recurrence or even aggravation of sickness, so it is with urban planning, urban planners, and the traffic jams in Kampala. The corollary being that with the current regime of professional advice, it is possible to minimize the traffic jams in Kampala. Sometimes this does not work, but not because there are no urban planners. Another comparison would be a good snap short on Mbarara Municipality where drivers at times park in the middle of the road and carry out meetings causing terrible traffic jam, is this also related to Mr. Kaheru’s assertion?

Mr. Kaheru must be applauded for his honesty regarding urban planning. As a profession, urban planners should not leave the public to the mercies of Google. Mr. Kaheru’s comment throws the gauntlet to the urban planners’ doorstep. We should rise to the occasion and educate the public on urban planning and role of urban planners in society. Comments such as provided by this newspaper column are one of many platforms for such endeavors. If well harnessed, the public will not only appreciate the value of urban planning, but will also actively participate in ensuring that they enjoy the fruits of urban planning. In principle there are many models of solving problems such as traffic jams, clogged and congested central business districts in towns and cities with high population like Indonesia, China, Nairobi, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Cape Town and Johannesburg to mention but a few and these scenarios should not stop planners from advancing case specific models that are interlinked with cultural norms, behavior, historical attributes and cosmopolitan composition so as to ably make an ever lasting solution to what has become a common scene globally. It is intrinsically appropriate that planners get the most peaceful place to able to plan for all forms of society understanding particularly in cities where rural urban migration has no restrictions to people and the mix up immediately distorts the planning and eventually planners and managers of the cities in question are either blamed, professionals are questioned and the rest of the service users are not either blamed or questions! Imagine the level of texting while driving and phone call answering while driving and the mess it causes in relation to concentration? Laws prescribed the rationale but over time there has been a degenerate and deliberate trend which all us must question by asking why?

Grace Nyonyintono Lubaale, PhD is a registered urban planner in private practice based in Nairobi. [email protected] and Dominic Byarugaba is an environment lover also based in Nairobi.

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