Informal Planning in Malawi

by James Tayler

Blantyre Studio-Presentation to Community

By Baraka Mwau and Noah Schermbrucker, SDI secretariat

Blantyre is the second largest city, after Lilongwe in Malawi, with a population of about 700, 000 people. This city is the commercial and industrial hub of Malawi and hence it has a relatively better off infrastructure system compared to the other urban centers in Malawi. However, this infrastructure is highly deficient compared to the needs of the city, especially in regards to water, sanitation and transport. Just like any other City in the global south, the challenge of urban informality has not spared Malawian urban centers. One striking feature of Blantyre is that the city zoning regulations have guided a low-density urbanization with the formal planned areas having relatively large plot sizes and very few high-rise buildings. The informal settlements portray a similar trend where densities are low and most households have access to adequate spaces for both housing and open spaces (often used for urban agriculture). The Informal settlements harbor the vast majority of the low-income groups in Blantyre. Therefore, unlike the common trend of shack housing; Malawi’s informal settlements housing is primarily characterized by brick walls, cemented floors, galvanized iron roofing and other permanent materials.

While the poorest of the poor rent less permanent structures dotted amidst settlements the feeling is certainly one of peri-urban informality, especially in comparison to the extremely crowded slums of South Africa, Kenya and India. In such high densities land and housing are politically charged challenges whereas in Malawi evictions are uncommon, land is plentiful and people have invested in permanent structures. The main challenge is the provision of services such as water and sanitation. In Malawian urban areas, portable water is scarce and according to a number of sources only 60% of Blantyre’s urban dwellers have access to improved water and sanitation while only 2% of Malawians have access to water piped inside their homes. However according to the Blantyre Water Boards  (BWB’s) official website:

It provides water to about 85% of Blantyre City’s population of 1.4 million for domestic, institutional, commercial and industrial purposes from a daily production of 78,000,000 litres”

 The BWB like many utilities is more than likely referring to the formal part of the city. That is the part of the city that has been planned for, serviced with official connections, pays rates, mapped and understood to be legitimate. According to UN Habitat approximately 65% of people live in Blantyre’s informal settlements and access water through vendors and limited connections.

Residents in the informal settlements of Malawi describe the lack of access to adequate water and sanitation as a vital priority. “Most informal settlements are not connected or even close to the trunk water and sewer pipelines so it is difficult for residents to gain access. People have to travel to get water and once pit latrines are full it is difficult and expensive to deal with the sludge. Services do not extend to unplanned parts of Blantyre and communities have to find localized solutions that are expensive and not always sustainable.” (In addition Blantyre lacks a City Development Strategy or recent urban master plan and cohesive policies to deal with unplanned informal growth)


Mzuzu Studio-Salisbury Lines-Latrine

Existing Latrines in Salisbury Lines, Mzuzu

Urban planners working for the state, engineering consultancies and other organizations have a real impact on the urban form of cities like Blantyre, designing current and future systems to deliver water and sanitation as well as other key infrastructure. However, planning knowledge and practice in Blantyre, like many African cities, is often out of context and ill equipped to deal with conditions of informality. Ideas and strategies describe colonial conditions that no longer exist, classical standards that make little sense, regulations that omit large parts of the population and solutions more suited to the global North settled suburban urbanism than Africa and Asia’s growing urban informality. This is summed up by the African Association of Planning S chools (AAPS) who note:

The history of planning education in African is firmly ensconced in the traditions and models of Europe (especially Britain) and the United States. Most planning curricula were originally formulated during the colonial era, or were devised post-independence to mirror colonial-type master planning systems.

Contesting urban planning norms implies a political re-imagination of how, and for whom, the city should work, and one more in line with the actual reality of how rapidly African urbanizing cities do work.  It calls for a re-casting of informality in all its multifarious densities not as blight on the cityscape, a symptom to be cured, but as entrenched and indicative of the way cities develop. Informality needs to be incorporated into overall strategies, ingenious methods developed to tackle the provision of in-situ upgrading and co-production of knowledge by communities and planners developed as the central treatise in driving the planning process. “ No upgrading for us, without us”

The continuum between planning knowledge and the urban form should not be mistaken as a smooth one. Clearly different types of knowledge fads come and go, gain political traction are taken up by policy, reflected imperfectly on the ground then discarded or perpetuated. Current hot topics include climate change and urban sustainability. Do not mistake this statement as an attack on the validity of either topic it is merely an observation as to their nature; although one would hazard to mention that agendas around climate friendly, sustainable and green future cities embodied by events such as the recent Rio +20 sustainability conference (the green agenda) and the upcoming World Urban forum have conveniently omitted serious discussions around systematic urban poverty (the brown agenda). It is clear that “ideas” and the bodies that disseminate them, given enough political purchase have a significant, but certainly not singular, affect on the evolving shape of cities.

Importantly this “flow” of knowledge also has a spatial component that, in large, mimics the contours of power from top to bottom. One cannot argue that physical urban trends do not express top-down power relations (the actual physical form of this depends on local city context). Ideas certainly swim against this stream, bubbling from the bottom up, but they have difficulty garnering political impetus (A caveat -these are not the only trends that define the shape of the city but they do have substantial impact).

Previous posts have shared the details of joint planning studios between slum dwellers and the African Association of Planning Schools (AAPS) in South Africa and Uganda. A further two studios are currently underway in Malawi, one in Blantyre (Nancholi Settlement) and the second in Mzuzu (Salisbury Lines). Together communities and students Profile informal settlements; land subdivision, infrastructure services, socio-economic issues and housing, which leads to joint development of upgrading plans. This process is led by slum dwellers whose knowledge of their own settlements is the basis for co-operative learning that can be complemented by technical planning and design skills.

Together the students and communities negotiate the details of plans to improve informal settlements and present these plans to the wider community and the city. In Nancholi, circulation and mobility, water and sanitation have emerged as key challenges since the areas is hilly without paved roads or foot paths and sanitation and refuse collection are practically non-existent in the slums with residents relying on shared pit latrines. Drainage is another related challenge and students have begun to map the key footpaths residents take to plan for the possibility of future upgrading. This is not just an academic exercise and the joint plans produced can be used to leverage resources from government through funds and projects such as the “Blantyre Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme”. In Uganda the studio has resulted in the federation delivering comprehensive reports to local municipalities that have created the political momentum to access funds such as TSUPU (Transforming Settlements of the Urban Poor in Uganda). 

Mzuzu Studio-Salisbury Lines-Sanitation

Poor drainage

The studios offer communities an opportunity to practically engage in the planning for the upgrading of their settlements. The intense and interactive studio work end up delivering practical skills to the future professionals and most importantly, to the community team which takes the work forward to upgrading projects. According to one of the community member taking part in the Nancholi studio, ‘‘this work has made us understand our settlement better, now we have maps and enumeration data which show how we live, where we have services, the challenges we face in getting services, proposals for improvement and now we are in a better position to educate other members of the community on the need to upgrade our settlement’’.  It is no doubt that the studios have enabled communities, learning institutions, NGOs and Cities to progress towards a common understanding of the complex intricacies in slum upgrading.

The studios are a “vehicle” for a political message that speaks to the structures that define cities and the knowledge regimes that prop these structures up. The learning, adaptability, strategic innovation and improvisation of the urban poor as expressed through their ideas, strategies and plans for their settlements is a political challenge to the ways in which cities are planned and developed. However merely opposing is a “blunt political sword” unless it presents a workable alternative. Grappling with this alternative way to understand and plan for informal cities is beginning to be expressed through the organised engagement of the urban poor.

Blantyre studio-Community and students work on proposals

Students and Community map Nancholi Settlement, Blantyre