Rediscovering Neighbourhoods under COVID-19

Constant Cap argues for re-thinking urban planning to reinstall social justice within African cities.

Image: of Arnold Mugasha Urban Planning and Inequality in African cities, here in Kampala, Uganda.

Covid-19 exacerbates Africa’s urban inequality and injustice. In Nairobi, for example, slightly over 2.8 million people out of 4.5 million live in poorly serviced unplanned crowded neighbourhoods. These citizens are the most vulnerable during such a pandemic. Most either live off daily wages or run small-scale businesses. They have little or no access to clean running water or healthcare while their congested neighbourhoods make the possibility of physical distancing unrealistic. With the exemption of a few countries like Rwanda, sub-Saharan public healthcare systems have been run down and superseded by profit-driven private healthcare businesses.

Most cities on the African continent also lack citizen-centric public transport systems which makes journeys difficult and expensive. Most of the urban poor must walk long distances or use a poorly serviced paratransit systems to access work daily. In Nairobi, for example, paratransit investors recently increased fares after a government directive to reduce passenger numbers. In Kampala, Uganda, there was a total ban on public transport. These disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in society especially women and persons with disabilities.  The problem also complicates movement and efforts by citizens to comply with the ongoing lockdowns and curfews in different countries. Reduced demand for public transport has also led to job losses and reduced wages among drivers and conductors who have no real job security.

There have been some efforts to improve the conditions within informal settlements. These have been either through slum programmes or the legal establishment of ‘Special Planning Areas.’ The former, as witnessed in Nairobi’s Kibera slum and Lagos’ Badia East, have been far from successful because they followed a top-down approach with poor participation of citizens and little appreciation of the existing societal structure. The latter, which is under implementation in Mukuru, Nairobi, offers a shift to a model where communities and local governments can democratically develop a societal vision which they use to jointly design plans. Here effective service delivery, environmental sustainability, infrastructure and economic growth plans are put together and aligned with the  of equity, dignity, and human rights. The development and proper application of such plans make it possible to uplift the standards of living and enhance the active micro-economy in these areas.

Residents within the better served urban neighbourhoods on the continent endure parallel struggles. Most of them survive with inconsistent water supply, deteriorating air quality and lack of green space. The poor public transport systems have forced people in this cluster of society to invest in personal vehicles for daily travel. This increasing car-centric approach has had a negative impact on urban air quality. Recent studies reveal that air pollution has severely worsened the health impact of covid-19 in many places further adding to the need for this problem to be tackled.

These concerns provide us with an opportunity to re-think our urban structure and re-examine social justice within the urban sphere. Inclusivity and participation, for example, are core principles of good urban planning when urbanists stress the value of neighbourhood units which enable citizens to have easy access to essential services within walking or cycling range. The current experience with COVID-19 show the need to limit the need for long distance movement and locating schools, shops, parks, playgrounds, sports areas, fire-stations, and police stations within walking distances. Good local level public healthcare systems can contribute to enhanced neighbourhood level testing, local isolation as well as other preventative measures for all citizens. Well planned neighbourhoods also allow for the creation and development of public space as well as linkage to other parts of the city by efficient mass transport.

The virus has not spread as extensively on the continent as in other parts of the world. However, under current urban conditions, the threat of a potential spread of Covid-19 generates a lot of fear. There is a necessity for urgent response and long-term strategy. This requires the urgent and consistent provision of basic services like water and sanitation facilities as well as a reassessment of the public transport system. Public Transport first needs recognition as an essential service followed by structural implementation of standards that ensure social justice for all by meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. The pillars of Availability, Accessibility, Inclusivity, Equity and Sustainability provide a good starting framework for this.  Actions may include re-design of bus termini, route structuring to reach all citizens, improved non-motorized infrastructure and interventions that create an enabling environment for persons with disability.

The recent pattern of planning departments allowing urban development to be controlled by market forces other than through zoning ordinances or land use plans needs to be halted. This also calls for the transformation of existing neighbourhoods to functional units equipped with dignified housing and all essential services within accessible range. Reclaiming and restoring public spaces being grabbed by developers, re-investing in public health, transforming urban mobility and the role of participation in city development, are urgent and key measures that are required both to prevent the spread of Covid-19 as well as bringing long term change. Covid-19 provides us with an opportunity to transform our urban areas to more equitable cities which ensure that all citizens, including under serviced communities, have equitable access to public services.

Constant Cap is an urban planner and member of the Public Transport Working Group facilitated by FES Kenya. The Working Group brings together trade unions, experts on public transport, civil society representatives and urban planners to work towards socially just public transport in Kenya

Contact person

Africa Department

Head of Department

Henrik Maihack


Konstanze Lipfert

Hiroshimastraße 17
10785 Berlin

030-269 35-74 41

030-269 35-92 17


nach oben