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How prepared is Uganda to house its future urban populace?

Uganda is blessed with high fertility rates of 4.78 births per woman. The projections made by Uganda’s National Physical Development Plan (NPDP), place Uganda’s population at about 100 million people by 2060 – basically, we should see our population become more than double within the next 35 years. Can we visualize the scenario these statistics paint our future to be? For starters, we are currently in the “low income” bracket with a GDP per capita of 883.9$. To raise our GDP per capita to reach and sustain middle income levels, we would need to raise the country’s Gross Domestic Product at an accelerated pace in order to outpace the rapid population growth. If not, we will remain a “poor” nation. Given that we are starting from a point of weakness – at a point of low/ nonexistent physical and social infrastructure – there is a herculean task ahead of us. To make matters even more interesting, Uganda is urbanizing even faster than its population is growing. According to the NPDP, Uganda shall be about 50% urbanized by 2060, up from about 18% in 2017. If we think our urban centers are crowded today, it is only going to get more crowded. Yet urban centers are the catalyst of growth we need. Simply put, we should prioritize and build urban settlements as engines of economic growth. This is necessary for the future urbanites and should be emphasized in the next 35 years.

Currently, urbanization is not well guided by government. People have taken matters into their own hands and created trading centers along roads, cross roads and highways – as and when they please – with hardly any planning nor infrastructure to support these mushrooming settlements. The predominant activity is trade… mostly of imported goods. Should this trend continue, Uganda will end up as one big slum, with good arable land lost forever. Urban planning is needed now, more than ever. It supports economic planning ensuring less waste of the already scarce resources. Note that urban planning is key in social engineering because with the shift from rural to urban living, there is need to consciously influence particular attitudes and social behavior on a large scale. Urban development needs to take a different trajectory. Urban growth should be driven by industry – either innovation, production, extraction and manufacturing rather than purely trade as is currently the case. Industrial and manufacturing zones, urban agricultural belts and service hubs should form the business heart of the cities. Well defined civic centers should form the heart of each urban area. The city administration should be prominent and a “go-to” area for all-seeing information about the new city. The town hall and town square, community center, outdoor markets, parks, walkways and recreation zones should give these cities an identity and coherent form.

Limits should be set for urban growth to prevent the unplanned sprawl we see prevalent today. For example, NPDP proposes 5 new cities of Katakwi, Katonga, Kiruhura, Naksongola and Patongo housing a combined 1.25 million urbanites in a combined area of 951km2. This needs to be translated into spatial plans that actually limit the city boundaries and plans for the residents to be located therein – in well-planned and serviced neighborhoods. Adequate housing and social services would be provided to enrich the quality of life of the urbanites. Adequate physical infrastructure – that is; roads, railway lines, portable water, electricity, ICT and gas pipes would be laid out in the most economical way before settlement occurs – obstructing clear paths and compelling government to compensate any owners.

Government needs to be intentional about creating these towns by prioritizing urbanization and allocating substantial funds to planning and developing them. The core projects under the Program “Sustainable Urbanization and Housing” enshrined in the National Development Plan 2020/21 – 2024/25 (NDP III) are inadequate to meet the needs of our urban future. The projects consider affordable housing and slum upgrading and do not directly address the issue of urbanization in a holistic manner. More discussions and advocacy is needed to raise urbanization to a critical government concern. This will form the gist of this series of articles.

By Arch. Verna Mbabazi (B.Arch (MAK), M.Arch (KUL), MBA (HWU), M.U.S.A)

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