The Beginnings of Enlightened Planning?

Focus group discussion in Arua

By Skye Dobson, SDI Secretariat

In a previous piece on the Makerere/SDI partnership in Uganda, Noah Schermbrucker, questioned the sources of knowledge that guide urban planning. In this second installment I would like to continue that discussion. When considering the planning profession I am often reminded of Michel Foucault’s account of the clinician and the evolution of scientific empiricism in The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963).

The “gaze” of the planner these days is often perceived to possess the same objective and rational wisdom as that of Foucault’s clinician. In urban development circles urban planners are believed capable of revealing the city’s hidden truths and taming urban unruliness through a classificatory kind of wisdom, which enables them to identify nodes of dysfunction with supposedly enlightened and absolute objectivity. The planner, like the medical clinician, is believed to possess no agenda and seek solely to maximize efficiency.

Such scientific empiricism, Foucault explains, abstracts knowledge from the subject. This, I believe, is the danger of modern urban planning and the reason SDI, with support from AAPS, is eager to ensure the planning profession reconnect with the subject of analysis.

In this, the second phase of the partnership, Uganda’s future planners ventured into the field with their community professors – placing the “knowers” firmly in the realm of the “known” – to use Foucault’s terminology. Groups of approximately 10 students boarded buses on the 5th and 6th of  March bound for the 5 secondary cities in which NSDFU works. From Arua in the country’s north-west, to Mbarara and Kabale in the south, and Jinja and Mbale in the east, the students secured a rich exposure to the urban challenges facing Uganda.

These 5 cities, part of the Cities Alliance-funded Land Services and Citizenship (LSC) program (called TSUPU in Uganda), have a strong federation presence that is driving community collected information gathering, forging deep and productive partnerships with municipal government, and launching community managed development projects in slums. This new partnership will certainly contribute toward strengthening and deepening this ongoing initiative.

When the students arrived in each of their respective cities they first met with federation leaders who debriefed them on the urban reality in their municipality, the work of the federation, and the enumeration process. The students asked these members many questions and engaged them in rich discussions on issues of land tenure, services, and housing.

The groups then paid a visit to the Municipal Council to meet with various political and technical municipal officials. The federation introduced the students and partnership to the municipal officials and its links to the LSC/TSUPU program. In each city the officials, most of whom had been part of the enumeration effort, praised the new partnership and expressed commitment to supporting the initiative as well as incorporating federation enumeration data into the municipal planning process.

Following the visit to the municipality, students ventured into the settlements in which the federation members live. Armed with the enumeration data the students were able to interrogate the data and enrich their understanding of its meaning. In focus group meetings and one-on-one interviews life was breathed into the data. The stories of members about eviction, lack of services, and housing conditions ensured the students would see the data for what it is: an account of life in slums and an essential ingredient for effective urban planning. They also came to see the local community for what it is: the best resource for local knowledge and the most invested in the urban development agenda.

For most of the Makerere students it was their first time to visit these cities and as the country’s future urban planners they expressed gratitude for the opportunity to see that Kampala’s urban planning needs are not the same as those of secondary cities.

In Kampala, each of the capital’s 5 municipalities (formerly divisions under Kampala City Council, these are now municipalities under the newly formed Kampala Capital City Authority) played host to a group of about 10 students as well. The federation first took the students to the Municipal Offices in Nakawa, Makindye, Rubaga, Kawempe, and Kampala Central. Like they did in the secondary cities, the Kampala students were able to meet officials from the Division and introduce the program as well as ask questions.

The students then split into smaller groups in an effort to verify federation profiling data on each of the parishes within the 5 municipalities/divisions. This was a massive undertaking and one that involved the students covering great distances each day. Though they live and study in Kampala, many of these students had not ventured so deeply into the city’s slums nor examined so closely the socio-economic realities therein.

With their community professors leading the way and the blessing of municpal officers, the students were able to move freely in the slums, ask questions, make notes, and take photographs to enrich the profiling data collected by the community. These observations were critical for the students as it enabled them to problematize the certainties of planning they have learned in the academic world.

The students will now take the data – hopefully no longer abstracted from the subject – and analyze it further in order to compile reports that will be returned to the federation for verification in the next phase of the partnership. After verification, the students will finalize the reports in a uniform format that will be published. In the final stage of the program students will return to the municipalities in which they worked and assist the federation to present the information to local authorities and discuss the critical contribution such information should play in the planning process. They will also share lessons on the way their conceptualization of what it takes to be an effective planner has changed during the program.

In Noah’s blog post he correctly pointed out the power that comes with knowledge. Foucault argues the reason the myth of the clinician’ s objectivity survived for so long is because, “the gaze that sees is a gaze that dominates.” In this first field visit as part of the urban studio, the gaze of the planner was brought closer to that of the subject, which we think is a positive step toward making the planning profession more responsive and more capable of executing its duties.

SDI will keep you posted as the workshop in Uganda unfolds. 

Learning from Community Professors in Uganda

Housing Mock Up

By Noah Schermbrucker, SDI Secretariat

“In communities we know the number of settlements, services and origins of the people. We know how they spend their money and how they would like to develop their areas. You cannot plan from the office but if you go to the ground and speak to people and learn from them it can help you plan better”-Katana Goretti (Treasurer of Ugandan Federation)

The old adage that “knowledge is power” is particularly pertinent when it comes to traditional modes of development thought and planning. Who is afforded the right to speak? To what purpose do they speak and in whose interests? Who is included and, far more importantly, who is excluded? Far from being benign such narratives inform practices, models and interventions. They become a version of the truth ratified by officials, academic texts and practitioners. In this case the truth is not absolute it is socially produced within a very specific set of paradigms and engagements which all too often exclude the diversity, flexibility and value of community based knowledge. Surely those living in areas earmarked for development know their own needs best?

If we are to challenge current models of development to be inclusive of communities we have to confront the knowledge regimes that perpetuate them. These are housed within various spheres of society including the state, large development agencies and academic institutions. Through partnerships, negotiations and the setting of infrastructure precedents federations across the SDI networks attempt to create new spaces in which community knowledge comes to influence and inform development decisions. One such example is currently underway in Uganda where future city planners and geographers are being exposed to the knowledge and experience of federation members.

SDI has entered into a collaborative field project with third year planning students at Makerere University. Community members will accompany students in Kampala as well as 5 secondary Ugandan cities (Mbarara & Kabala, Mbale, Jinja and Arua) where students will conduct enumerations, transect walks, mapping exercises and other important community centered rituals. The students will be broken into groups with a specific focus for each member (e.g. housing, sanitation, education). In this manner students will have an in depth engagement around a core issue. Throughout the fieldwork process community members will assist, guide and teach the students about their communities and the obstacles that they face. Not only will future planners, geographers and architects be exposed to conditions of informality but also just as significantly they will come to see the intrinsic value of incorporating informal knowledge and practices in the planning processes.

Students at Makerere University learn from Slum Dwellers

Community professor Zam explains savings schemes to the Makerere students

The outputs of the project will be detailed reports reflecting community challenges that will be submitted to local authorities that will also be drawn in throughout the process. Reports will validate enumeration data around key issues decided upon by community members at a meeting on the 5th of March. These issues include; water, toilets, roads, health centres, ownership of land and housing typologies. The verification of data arose out of community needs to present concise reports to authorities about their areas in order to create awareness and leverage resources. Importantly this is a demand driven process and not one determined by a top down intervention.

On Wednesday the 29th   February federation members visited the Makerere campus for the launch of the collaborative studio project. Katana Gorreti Bwakika Zam and Kasalu Ronald from the Ugandan Slum Dwellers Federation spoke to the students about savings, enumerations, mapping and how these processes had created social and political capital as well as solidarity within slum communities. The importance of knowing ones own community and the collection of information was also stressed. The students received the presentations enthusiastically and by the end of the meeting community members had taught the students the “Umeme” gesture popular amongst the East African federations (waving of the hands instead of clapping, a movement which does not exclude those who cannot clap).   

Students at Makerere University learn from Slum Dwellers


Reflecting on the session over a cool drink in the University cafeteria federation members joked about becoming community professors and teaching students, a position that they never imagined themselves in. As the project progresses this is exactly the role that members of the Ugandan federation will fulfill. As students visit their settlements and become engrossed in the processes that they employ they will be the community professors whose experience, perseverance and knowledge begins to inform practice.  Katana tells me “ What I would like to see is the community, students and the government working together…as someone within the community we know best where to put the roads, drainage and garbage.”

Students at Makerere University learn from Slum Dwellers

Community Professor Katana explaining the SDI rituals

Peter Kassaija, the enthusiastic teacher spearheading the partnership at Makerere stated “ We want students to go beyond sitting in the office and into the field in order to get to know the communities which they plan for. For the federation members the lines of communication are now open and they [the students] will learn as much from you as you will from them.” This is a welcome attitude and one from which many academic institutions can learn. Practical field experience of informal settlements not only debunks myths but exposes students to conditions and people who are normally excluded or given mere “lip service” in planning decisions about their own areas. During this process students will be forced to engage beyond the confines of the classroom with forms of knowledge that are not included in their curriculums but which are absolutely vital to the future equitable development of cities.

It is these types of partnerships that have the potential to not only create new spaces for learning but also enable informal community knowledge to become part of citywide slum upgrading processes. Across the SDI network tireless federation members are working to ensure that the knowledge of community professors is taken seriously and incorporated in developmental frameworks. If we are truly to change the segregated spatial form and exclusionary policies of future cities it is time that we all sat up and took very seriously the lessons which community professors can teach us. As Katana aptly sums up, “ An old broom sweeps better than a new broom. That is community members they have experience of all the corners and the problems in their communities.”

SDI will keep you posted as the workshop in Uganda unfolds. 

For more photos from Noah’s trip to Kampala, visit our Facebook page. 

Click here for more information about the Uganda Slum Dwellers Federation.