With the scale and speed of development in Africa at an unprecedented high, architects are being challenged to come up with solutions that work around slow bureaucratic processes, while factoring in resource scarcity and the needs of local communities.
Working proactively in this space is Ivorian architect Issa Diabaté, Managing Director of Koffi & Diabaté Architectes and co-founder of the Koffi & Diabaté Group. Responding to the emerging needs of a younger generation in urban Africa, Diabaté’s work focuses on innovative processes that take into account long term social, economic and environmental sustainability.
He says, “Coming out of the political crisis in the Côte d’Ivoire in 2011, we were optimistic that the new wind would create meaningful progress in terms of housing and public infrastructure development. However, the public focus has been on urban planning; while, in the private sector, we have been more concerned with the urgent need for neighbourhood creation and the delivery of housing in a way that somehow works towards a cohesive vision of the city.”
Seeing an opportunity to put their expertise to good use, the practice took a strategic decision to move into property development through private initiatives that would afford them control of every step in the process.
“Every step of this undertaking has been a design process – from designing the legal framework that would allow the projects to happen, to the financing and marketing of projects, to the way in which ‘house rules’ are implemented for occupants,” says Diabaté. “We have applied the same logic to designing an ecosystem for these projects as we would to designing a house.
“Acting like this has allowed us to respond to local needs, especially a younger vision where people have a different, evolving approach to housing. For example, they are less attached to ownership, and more interested in the environment and public open space. So this process has taught us that there are emerging needs in urban Africa to do with sustainability, social mix and density; and that there is an opportunity to leapfrog from the type of housing that is currently being built in the form of single dwellings on plots, to designing neighbourhoods and living environments.”
Following the delivery of the first of these projects (a 32-unit high income estate), Diabaté believes that this method of design-build development is scaleable. The practice has been approached by private land owners to partner on other developments, and is now working on a 180-unit middle income development that will, among other initiatives, incorporate principles around common green space as well as waste collection and management.
The ultimate intention is to learn from and master this process, and then roll out larger, lower income developments. Diabaté notes that the media response to date has been positive and that people have been very interested in the process itself. “We hope that what we are doing now will influence other architects – if there are more of us embracing this work method of designing living spaces rather than just designing objects, we could have a direct impact on the city. We also hope that, once we are able to demonstrate the successes of mixed income developments through private initiatives, the public sector might come on board.”
Commenting on the importance of developing a holistic vision for a city, he says that it is essential for authorities to understand the needs of the population. “We are finding that, where single dwelling units are provided, often people demolish these houses and erect small buildings with commercial space on the ground floor and residential above, an approach that integrates living and working. But these efforts are not coordinated, so there is no positive impact on the city.”
In considering these questions, accessibility and lifestyle are driving forces. The benefits of living close to schools and places of work are well known, and Diabaté believes that these solutions could be easily implemented in African cities where cars are costly to maintain and infrastructure is costly to build.
He also cites examples of socially inclusive developments built in Abidjan in the 1960s and 70s, where high-end luxury projects and multiple-storey housing units are located in close proximity to one another, with a focus on common identity through the size and interaction of public spaces. In this way, neighbourhoods are less segregated in terms of income, and more integrated in terms of lifestyle.
“It’s not enough to just provide infrastructure. You need to anticipate how cities function and then develop different nodes or centres that focus on relevant social amenities and commercial opportunities. You need to know the people, understand their habits and culture, and respond appropriately to the social, cultural and climatic environment. This requires a process of reflection that I don’t see happening. That’s why architects should take these issues in hand – because we do understand the urgency of rethinking things inclusively and holistically. There are important questions to be answered before clear solution can emerge.”
Another critical question is whether or not to accommodate entire populations in cities, and the knock-on effect of this in terms of sustainability, self-sustenance, and food production. These are crucial issues that need to be prioritised, yet the current, conservative focus is on the numbers of houses being provided.
“We hear everywhere that cities are the solutions of tomorrow. But many people want to leave cities because of noise, pollution and the pressures of everyday life. The necessity for green space with access to nature is not discussed enough – this crucial balance between what is built and what remains unbuilt. So I also think it should be possible for urban dwellers to connect somehow to nature – this will be a concern of tomorrow.”
Commenting on a recent article entitled ‘Two billion more people will live in cities by 2035. This could be good – or very bad’ by Pritzker Prize winner, Alejandro Aravena (The Guardian, 19 October 2016), he agrees that the scarcest resource in a city is not money, but coordination. “We conducted an experiment with architectural students about four years ago in an informal settlement in Abidjan, where we felt we could put our expertise to good use in a disenfranchised area of the city.
“We were told by the community, ‘We don’t need you to build for us; we need you to coordinate and be our voice to officials, to communicate our needs in respect of sewage, roads and infrastructure.’ That shifted our role to facilitators who can help to make people comfortable in cities.”
Diabaté’s practice has also worked in the village of Assinie-Mafia (population: 5,000), where small, informal actions have been undertaken such as creating sidewalks and making fences uniform. “We are trying to prove that, with human involvement in public spaces, we can achieve things without having to deal with lengthy approval processes. People need to understand that public space belongs to them; they should take pride and ownership in terms of maintaining these spaces.”
The long-terms vision is the creation of an eco-village where cars will be banned, and leisure activities, schools, and a university-level education facility will be introduced. The project started with the idea of being able to partner with people, outside of political governance. Local authorities are paired with local traditional authorities in an effort to make local land available for development. The intention is to encourage a mixed-income population and create opportunities for economic development that would encourage villagers to continue living on site.
In contexts where cities and their occupants would benefit greatly from the collaboration between the public and private sectors, opportunities exist for exploration and innovation in designing new processes that could significantly shape the cities of the future.