Cities are highly complex places, growing over time as a result of forces ranging from topography and the location of natural resources to economic activity both formal and informal. Nowhere does the challenge of understanding and coordinating these forces–and addressing their consequences–become more apparent than in city planning.
As we met with the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) Department of Physical Planning, the staff, under Director Kanuniira, described the major issues facing the city and the plans intended to address them. Not surprisingly, Kampala faces the same challenges as any major metropolitan area does. Just as in Chicago, for example, there is poverty and there is affluence. There is increasingly a mismatch between where people–especially the poor–live and where they work. There is an uneven distribution of resources, both economic and social. In Kampala, the infrastructure struggles to incorporate the inflow of migrants from across Uganda–from the north in the seventies and eighties and from the southwest in recent decades. Increased construction creates impermeable surface areas, forcing rain into an overtaxed runoff system, not only flooding valley areas, but also hindering the ability of the local wetlands to absorb and filter the water before discharging it into Murchison Bay. Kampala’s city planners have developed responses to these and myriad other issues, and now look for ways to implement them in a context of local and national politics as well as regional concerns.
We were told by the KCCA of the first structural plan in 1994, which developed responses to many of these issues, but only for the city proper. For a variety of reasons, it was never truly acted upon. This required another plan, this time regional, comprehensive, and with the backing of national authorities. Completed in 2013, this new plan is on the cusp of being implemented. Some of the issues addressed in this newest plan include a widening of roads, a true public transportation system–including Bus Rapid Transit, and efforts to restore wetlands and improve water quality in the bay. But for all the theory and discussion, nothing gives one a better sense of the nature of an urban area and its issues than seeing for oneself.
So following our meeting, we returned to our vehicles and went out from the government offices on Nakasero Hill in the central business district into the city. Our journey took us along the Jinja Road as it travels east through Kampala. The heavy late-morning rain drove much of the roadside commerce under eaves and overhangs. But the relative absence of people allowed us to see the way in which the businesses encroached into the right-of-way, impacting the ability of the city to widen and improve roadways. We turned southeast onto Port Bell Road, contending with trucks loaded with shipping containers from the port. A substantial portion of the goods sold in the city are imported, impacting the ability of entrepreneurs in the informal economy to grow their businesses. Doubling back, we found our way through the city’s major industrial area onto Namuwongo Road, paralleling the Nakivubo Channel, a wetlands intended to absorb the flow of storm water out of the city.
Adjacent to this wetlands is the Kisanvu slum. Bouncing and lurching down the uneven, unpaved street, we found a very different Kampala than on the hilltops of the central city. Here, people used repurposed cooking oil jugs to collect rainwater as it ran off the roofs of their shanties. At the bottom of a side road, we found the Channel and watched as storm water runoff pooled up behind a dam of refuse and debris that choked the waterway.
Moving out of the valley, up Muyenga Hill (also known as Tank Hill after the water tanks situated there) the rain finally tapered off. As we climbed, we encountered a feature of Kampala shared with many cites around the world; As the elevation increased, so did the size, quality, and beauty of the houses. We ascended through increasingly middle-class areas to reach the more affluent homes situated atop the hill. Descending on the other side, we passed through a district known as Kabalagala, a popular entertainment district that hums twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Finally, as we reached the end of our morning, we entered the relative tranquility of a resort at Ggaba Beach. Outside the gate, a vibrant street full of merchants and performers generated a wide variety of sounds, tastes, and smells, while just inside, people wandered around the open green space, gazing out over Murchison Bay and watched the fishing boats move toward and away from the pier.
As we observed the wide spectacle of urban life in Kampala that morning–and later that afternoon as we visited Namirembe Hill, the Kasubi Tombs, and Namugongo, site of the martyrdom of Christian converts in 1886–we came away with a recognition of the contrasts found across Kampala. We also developed a deep appreciation for the obstacles and opportunities facing the KCCA. Many of us were also excited at the possibility for collaboration, communication, and exchange as they work to shape their city.