Vanessa Watson wants to save developing cities from rapacious developers and deluded city leaders who care more for an illusory ideal of world status for 'their' cities than they do for their own citizens.

Cities in the developing world are growing – and changing – rapidly. While most people live in shantytowns, their status is not officially recognised. People living in them can be evicted without notice. Some city leaders are mesmerised by the idea of making their cities iconic, like Shanghai or Dubai - an entirely inappropriate dream.

Without appropriate planning, these cities will become increasingly chaotic, inefficient and unsustainable. There is a shortage of trained urban planning and management professionals.

Somebody who has made a special study of this is Vanessa Watson, professor of city planning in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at Cape Town University. She is interested in the effects of inappropriate planning practices and theories especially in Africa. Besides writing fifty journal articles, her book: Change and Continuity in Spatial Planning: metropolitan planning in Cape Town under political transition has won many plaudits. She was also the lead consultant for UN Habitat’s 2009 Global Report on Planning Sustainable Cities.

Vanessa, in this interview with David Thorpe, answers the following questions:

  • Let's first look at the problem. Can you give us some examples of bad practice in city planning in the south that you have recently come across?
  • Can you demonstrate the scale of the problem? How many cities in Africa and how many inhabitants would you say are affected?
  • If, as you say, planning is the single most important tool that governments have for managing rapid urban population growth and expansion, how can we ensure that planners have the correct skills?
  • Do you think that theories about planning generated in the developed world can be legitimately applied in cities in the developing world, or should they have their own discipline? If so, where can it be learned?
  • Do you think that the big problem is that municipal authorities in most cities in the developing world are engaged in crisis management and are looking for quick fixes? They can't even collect their local taxes efficiently.
  • What do you think should be considered the true attitude planners and city managers should take towards shantytowns or informal settlements?
  • To what extent is land tenure and land ownership and its changing value a consideration as cities expand as developers want to make a quick buck?
  • What can those with more experience in cities in the developed world, such as C40 Mayors Group and UN Habitat do to help create strong leadership?