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Sue Parnell: designing cities
08 March 2016 | Story Natalie Simon. Photo Michael Hammond.
According to Professor Sue Parnell, Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences and Executive Committee member of the African Centre for Cities, a city can be governed to promote inclusion and provide for the urban poor, but this requires careful planning and understanding of how resources are managed and used.
Urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa is occurring at almost double the world average, according to the United Nations Population Division. At present around 40% of Africa’s population live in cities and towns: of those, about 200 million people live in slums. According to Professor Susan Parnell of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences and Executive Committee member of the African Centre for Cities, a city can be governed to promote inclusion and provide for the urban poor, but this requires careful planning and understanding of how resources are managed and used.
Cities are major consumers of resources such as water, energy and land, says Parnell. While the poor typically use a disproportionately small percentage of those resources, the way a city is managed makes a fundamental difference to the quality of life of those marginalised groups living within a city. Cities can be planned in a way that either maximises access to resources by the poor or denies them access. This includes not only well-recognised resources such as housing, water, electricity and sanitation, but also decent air quality, open space and biodiversity.
Questions such as how much and who we charge for water, whether the billing systems are streamlined and the address database updated may not sound like part of a pro-poor strategy, says Parnell. But if you do not have these administrative basics in place, you cannot adequately plan resource allocation to include all the residents of a city. “A well-run city does not ensure a just and fair city,” she says, “but a just and fair city is impossible to achieve without a well run city.”
Parnell became involved in city management in the period immediately after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. She worked closely with government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to identify which elements of South African city governance should be changed to ensure inclusion, and which needed to stay in place. In addition to her work with government, she was also very active in two NGOs tasked with holding government to account: the Isandla Institute and Sustainable Energy Africa.
For Parnell, winning the Alan Pifer Award was of special significance because it meant recognition of the importance of systems to combat poverty, rather than the more traditional face-to-face community work. “At the city scale,” she says, “you go beyond helping the individual. You are trying to design systems that improve the quality of life for tens thousands of people, not just for one generation but for subsequent generations too.”
Since winning the award, much of the work that was previously carried out outside of the university has now been embraced by it, largely through the African Centre for Cities (ACC) launched by Parnell and two colleagues in 2007. Since its launch the ACC has grown to over 30 staff members. The mandate of the ACC has also expanded considerably to include the global south in general, and African cities in particular, and has become a powerful voice in the global debate around cities that was previously missing.