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Sunday, June 8, 2008

I: Design of a Good City - Introduction

As we discuss the issues of Architecture and Urbanism in African cities, we must begin to talk about how to make things better. Most African cities are already set up to become self-sustaining places, and the missing pieces are good planning, a sound infrastructure, and designing permanent structures.

The basic problem which exists in a majority of African cities is the feeling of overcrowded chaos which can be attributed to two issues; (1) a lack of multiple centers and (2) a lack of proper planning. Typical images of African cities show crowded open markets, gridlocked streets where people on foot move faster than cars, temporary structures for commerce (and sometimes as a residence), and a basic lack of order to the urban landscape.

In large part, there are no established mixed-use building types in these cities which leads to a separation of uses and creates different areas of commerce, residential, entertainment, etc. The result is a dependency on the automobile when there aren’t enough roads to sustain the growing development, and the existing roads are in poor conditions. As conditions worsen, certain enlightened entrepreneurs have been able to grasp the notion of starting businesses away from the designated commercial areas by putting up temporary sheds along highways to sell their produce. Some even use parts of their homes as stores. So we begin to see that the natural instinct of living in a self-sustaining community can still rise amidst all the chaos. All that is needed to enhance the infrastructure is a sound masterplan and a development of new building types to sustain the quality of life that the citizens of the cities are seeking.

So what constitutes the design of a good city? After years of studying existing traditional cities, the common thread appears to be the ability for a person to live a self-sustaining life within a 15 minute (or ½ mile) walking radius. Giving thought to all the different activities the typical person experiences on any given day, creating categories for these activities and designing them into the fabric of the neighborhood, grouping these neighborhoods together to form a good town, and all these self-sustaining towns together create a good city.

Prof. Westfall at the University of Notre Dame has defined six (6) basic architectural typologies which I believe to be the building blocks for designing a good city. 1. Tholos – for venerating 2. Temple – for celebrating 3. Dwelling 4. Regia – for governing 5. Theater – for imagining 6. Taberna – for mercantile activities.

Within these “Westfallian” typologies, one can pray, eat, study, shop, work, play, and sleep, essential components experienced on a daily basis by almost everyone. Neighborhoods designed in this fashion can make citizens less dependable on the automobile. This does not however make automobiles obsolete. There will always be something needed which can not be found in one’s neighborhood and require a drive, and there’s always the need to drive to amenities which can not be designed into every town, such as a golf course or beach.

The thoughtful arranging of these building typologies into a system of streets and blocks form a well designed neighborhood. A group of well designed neighborhoods form a town. A group of well designed towns form a city. A simple ideal, and easily achieved if there is a plan to follow. In my humble opinion, the infrastructure already exists to make neighborhoods such as I have described a reality in most African cities. The question is, are we willing to take on the responsibility of re-defining the way we live.