Monday, 09 February 2015 07:48

Going local – A new era for planning in Botswana

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Mining and tourism

In comparison with much of Africa, Botswana is quite urbanised, affluent and stable. In 2010, Botswana’s GDP per capita stood at US$7,824 and the growth rate was 7.2 per cent. Around 62% of the population already live in urban areas – a similar proportion to that in neighbouring South Africa. Much of Botswana’s wealth comes from diamond mining, along with tourism. The total population is a little over 2 million but the country is larger in areas than the British Isles. Much of it is empty; the Kalahari Desert covers much of the country.


Botswana was home to the Tswana people then colonised in the late 19th century to become the British Protectorate called Bechuanaland. It had a population at the time of less than 150,000. There were no urban centres of any size so it was administered from Mafeking (now Mafikeng, South Africa), which lay outside its borders. It achieved in dependence in 1966 and set up Gaborone as its capital city.

Gaborone – A planned capital city

Gaborone is sited in the south-east of the country, less than 10 miles from the South African border. It was selected because it had fresh water supplies, was on the railway line to Pretoria, and was not associated with any one tribal group. A classic garden city plan was produced, with ample open space and low density housing areas distinguished by density and cost (high cost, 2-4 houses per hectare to the north; medium cost 5-12 per hectare in the middle and low cost to the south). There was an area for government offices adjacent to a commercial “mall” area. The planned city was quickly developed, with a population of around 20,000.

One remarkable lacuna suffered by those who design new towns is the sheer number of jobs in construction that will be generated in building the town. Gaborone was no exception. Those building the town needed somewhere to live. The result was informal housing development. In turn the concentration of construction workers drew informal traders. However, more recently there has been action against informal residential development.

Rapid suburbanisation

A related weakness of many new town plans is a failure to adequately anticipate growth and the attraction of its jobs to migrants. Gaborone went from 18 799 in 1971, to 59 657 in 1981, 133 468 in 1991 and 186 007 in 2001. Inevitably this meant that the urban areas extended into farms and surrounding (ethnic) villages.

We were told that Swedish consultants were instrumental in shifting housing towards mixed income areas and house types as the city developed. What is very notable is the rapid suburban spread of the city over the past decade, with the population now over 200,000. Retailing is also decentralising and traffic problems are intensifying. Growth has put pressure not only on the urban fringe and nearby villages but on open space within the city itself.

Planning Practice

The Department of Town and Regional Planning within the Land Affairs Ministry has played the leading role in planning in Botswana. Planning legislation was based on the British 1947 system. The local governments have some planning powers, primarily those of enforcement and building control. The development plan-making has been undertaken by central government through the Department. If you designed a system so that there would be little local commitment to the implementation of plans it would look much like this one.

The decentralisation that the new legislation is creating will mean that the local government level will have to create its own plans and take a fuller role in deciding applications. A smooth transition to the new system will require training and support. For example, regional climate change modelling suggests that this arid region is likely to become more arid. How will the planners respond to this challenge? Mining poses obvious issues; the growing tourism sector needs to develop in ways that sustain, not undermine the quality of the environments that visitors come to experience. Peri-urban agriculture and food security also need to be addressed. Last but not least, there remains the need to contain the widening urban-rural gap in living standards and employment opportunities.

The new system will also change the role of the Department. It will need to develop a stronger policy focus, become engaged in developing a performance management system, and commission research if it is to deliver. There is a vision to move towards a Ministry for Sustainable Settlements.

There are maybe a couple of hundred people working in planning in Botswana. Nobody knows the exact figure. Planning has not been a registered profession, so there has been no count. However, the new legislation changes this too. Planning has been largely a public sector profession: that is likely to change now.

International accreditation

Botswana’s economy, like others in the region, is becoming more open. This is a factor in the desire of the University of Botswana to get international accreditation for its degree programmes. The planners are the first to get there, with the “4+1” BA/MA in Urban and Regional Planning gaining full RTPI accreditation (subject to satisfying a couple of conditions that we imposed).

The aspiration is to use RTPI accreditation to attract students from nearby countries – Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – so as to lead qualitative change in the education of planners. There could even be graduates from 3 year English undergraduate courses who might be attracted by the low fee option of completing their education there, and so meeting RTPI educational requirements. Just be warned, this really is a full-time course, in practice not just in name. Students are expected to work a full week in the studios; nobody is doing part-time bar work or waitressing

This is the second RTPI accredited programme in Africa – the other is a 2 year full-time Masters at University of Cape Town. Both are distinctively African, as they need to be. Both have a strong technical component, but also force students to address the challenges of informal development and the colonial legacy. They are contributing to a belated internationalisation in the outlook of the RTPI, and a glocalising of planning education that is leaving some UK planning schools looking somewhat parochial.

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