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‘Angola’s housing estates show a distinct lack of thought for cultural interaction’

Angola

The way in which such projects are procured, designed and delivered has to be reviewed and refined

Driven by populist political expediency, the rash of housing built by Chinese contractors over the past few years may have delivered thousands of units in Angola, but has done so with little regard for living conditions, social cohesion or the lifetime viability of what has been built.

Prior to his party’s landslide victory in a legislative election in 2008, President José Eduardo dos Santos pledged to build one million homes. The legacy of the 27-year Angolan civil war, which ended in 2002, had left dramatic housing shortages as most of the country’s infrastructure had been destroyed. A total of 100,000 hectares of land around Luanda, Benguela, Namibe, Lubango and Malange was earmarked for the housing programme with the majority to be designed and constructed by Chinese state-owned companies and their subcontractors. 

P1240266 (2)

P1240266 (2)

Source: Cezary M Bednarski

Kilamba New City and the new town of Dundo are components of that presidential promise. Kilamba is a $3.5 billion mega-satellite town 30km from Luanda’s centre – where 710 buildings and 20,000 apartments were completed by September 2012. The 3,3000,000m2 built in the first phase is spread over 5km2, divided into 28 urban blocks. Dundo Social Housing Project, located in the north-east province of Luanda Norte, near the Angolan border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, is built on 117 hectares of land, providing accommodation for some 30,000 residents. Construction began in 2008 by the Pan-China Construction Group for Sonangol Imobiliária e Propriedades Lda (Sonip). 

News of poor design, low construction standards, their early status as ‘ghost towns’ and the disproportionate cost of flats at both developments hit the media and attracted significant public interest. Alarmed by structural issues emerging during construction, Sonip engaged UK engineers to investigate – they found buildings had been ‘extruded’ on site to create higher structures. (At Kilamba, water pressure is often so low it cannot reach the upper levels, so residents have to lug bowls of water from street hydrants to their residences.)

‘Angola’s population density is among the lowest in the world – yet the housing blocks at Kilamba and Dundo range from five to 18 storeys high’

But there are deeper, more complex problems with these developments that lie outside of the decision-making politicians’ field of vision. Both masterplans fail on all counts as sustainable urban design and are likely to lead to long-term socio-economic problems.

Spanning twice the area of France, with some 24 million inhabitants, Angola’s population density is among the lowest in the world – so low that every Angolan could have a house and generous garden. Yet the housing blocks at Kilamba and Dundo range from five to 18 storeys high. There is no rational reason for stacking people up in towers. 

Kilamba

Kilamba

Source: Ricardo Correia

Set on large-scale urban blocks, much bigger than European or African urban grids, the buildings of Kilamba and Dundo appear to be placed at random, giving the impression of being thrown like dice onto square patches, with no attempt at creating an urban environment, no active frontages along streets to create street life. According to available reports Angolan planners faced difficulties convincing the designers to work in harmony with the local context and traditions. In addition, the planners use outdated social-realist concepts such as zoning, rather than mixing uses, resulting in a lack of intertwined living, working, educational and cultural uses. Essentially these are bedroom estates. 

It is a six-hour round-trip to get to work in Luanda from Kilamba, and driving is the only viable option. This not only creates high levels of transport-generated pollution, but is detrimental to social cohesion and the physical and mental health of residents. How are parents to interact with children and spouses when they leave at five in the morning and come back after nine at night? 

‘The way in which such projects are procured, designed and delivered has to be reviewed and refined’

Urban development patterns are also a primary factor in setting out sustainable energy policies. But these housing schemes perpetrate energy poverty: there is no attempt through the orientation of the building to reduce solar gain or encourage ventilation. In a country where power outages are the norm, and are likely to remain so, attention should have been paid to the fact that high-rises rely on lifts and air conditioning to function. And individual residents cannot deploy energy-generating devices at their own cost and for their own use, such as solar water heaters or photovoltaic panels. 

In cities, crime control is partially enacted by overlooking streets. When residents are out at work, people working in the area provide visual supervision. But in monocultural environments such as Kilamba and Dundo, such natural, cost-free and organic crime prevention is not possible.

As for maintenance, if the accommodation were in private homes, residents could take care of their buildings themselves. But how do you repair a leaking window or a facade defect on the tenth floor? Nobody will ever erect scaffolding to this height and deterioration will continue. 

Large urban projects on the scale of Kilamba and Dundo could represent a component of a broader multi-faceted strategy that is aimed at providing much-needed housing for the emerging middle class in fast-developing African countries. However, the way in which such projects are procured, designed and delivered has to be reviewed and refined. 

These two projects could be treated as a valuable learning opportunity not only for African urbanisation strategies but also for Chinese projects overseas. They could be used also as pointers for international aid providers involved in upgrading unplanned urban areas. Many useful synergies could be derived from studying these projects to the benefit of African urbanisation needs.

Empowering local residents should be at the heart of a better approach. Quality urban design, architecture and functional internal layouts should be informed by, and suited to, how residents actually live. These and future residents must be given the opportunity to input into projects (both Kilamba and Dundo were ‘top-down’ projects imposed on end users). And the cultural psychology of ‘ownership’ cannot be ignored. How this impacts on the treatment and care of common areas in high-rise blocks must be considered at design stage. If residential projects can be seen as an opportunity to offer training in advanced skills for local people, the whole economy  – not just remote entities – can benefit. Whether it’s a house or a flat in a high-rise, whether it’s about new skills learnt or improved community engagement, a sense of ownership can make everyone feel they belong.