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Rural lessons for the city of the future an architect’s perspective

Jurriaan van Stigt and Tea Kufrin

The UN estimates that the urban population of sub-Saharan Africa will rise from 40% to 60% by 2050, posing challenges to urban quality of life. However, these analyses often overlook the rural context, underestimating opportunities for the remaining 40% of the population and disregarding the characteristics of rural communities in planning and designing urban expansion. Combining the rural and urban can create more liveable modern cities and attractive rural communities for future generations. In Mali, a school building called the Practical Training College for technicians and engineers was designed in Sangha, Mali, to create a lively living center for regional economic activities and a dynamic hub for youth. The design involved local stakeholders and incorporated themes such as desert ecology, nutrition, water use, irrigation, farming innovation, beekeeping, and solar energy. In Mauritius, LEVS proposed an urban plan and architectural design for the first 250 houses to be realized as part of the 'New Sélibaby'.

The UN estimates that the urban population of sub-Saharan Africa will rise from the current 40% to 60% of its total population by 2050. Accordingly, there is considerable attention for the challenges this poses to urban quality of life, especially in West Africa, where the fastest growth is expected. Yet, these analyses often overlook the rural context in two important ways. 

Firstly, by underestimating the opportunities for the remaining 40% of the population that is expected to stay there. Secondly, by disregarding the characteristics of rural communities, their organization, and architecture, in planning and designing urban expansion. It is a missed opportunity: combining the rural and the urban can bring out the best of both worlds and create not only more liveable modern cities but also rural communities that are attractive for future generations.

“Losses on both sides…” 

The intensity of urbanization in many West-African cities and the emptying out of rural communities has losses on both sides. On the one hand, there is the fast-paced overgrowth of anonymous residential areas on the outskirts of large cities, like Bamako, which results in underdeveloped informal settlements, lacking infrastructure, public services, and jobs. 

On the other hand, there are the rural towns and villages that see an entire generation leave, family-ties break and regional economic decline accelerates. The potential benefits of city life and the opportunities of rural life disappear. This requires investments in infrastructure and education in both cities and rural areas. From the perspective of an architecture office that has worked in Mali and its neighboring countries for over 25 years, we have drawn several lessons on how to make these investments fruitful.

Practical Training College Sangha, construction of the second cluster, 2018, Photo by LEVS architecten

“The 40%: Sangha, Mali…” 

In 2013, the Malian NGO Association Dogon Initiatives (ADI) and its Dutch counterpart Partners Pays-Dogon (PPD) commissioned LEVS for a school building in the small town of Sangha, in central Mali: a Practical Training College for technicians and engineers. Rather than a stand-alone building, the goal was to create a lively living center for the transformation of regional economic activities and a dynamic hub for youth. The college will facilitate the training of up to 900 students. 

A key element of the plan was the involvement of local stakeholders. They pointed out that themes such as desert ecology, nutrition, the use of water, irrigation, farming innovation, beekeeping, and solar energy all are at the forefront of many of the challenges faced by residents of Sangha and beyond. And by creating concrete opportunities for students in the region, they will not immediately head off for the capital, Bamako. The layout of Sangha follows natural elements in the landscape: houses are built on top of the rocky hills that come together like interlocking fingertips. 

The land in between is freed for agriculture. Our design for the practical college combines the fingertip-layout of the wider Sangha area with the benefits of fertile soils that are needed for various educational programs. By creating several small clusters of buildings within a walled plot of six hectares, the college terrain effectively becomes a new neighborhood at the edge of town. 

Sélibaby social housing, community involvement in construction, 2019, Photo by LEVS architecten

The small clusters contain fifteen classrooms, four hangar-workshops, ten teacher-residences, and technical service buildings. Each cluster takes its inspiration from the traditional organisation of the Dogon family house. The house of the main family, those of the extended family, and the family granaries surround a central court and are connected by stone walls. 

In our design, these clusters in turn are surrounded by gardens with Moringa trees and green plateaus that level-out height differences in the terrain. Paths lead along the buildings, past the gardens and the water wells that are located on the periphery of the plot. By considering the conditions of the local build environment in this way, the design manages to innovate within the bounds of a UNESCO world heritage site. Currently, even the construction of several of the school buildings itself was executed by a first cohort of graduating students. All to secure regional attention for studying and working in Sangha.

Strategy for a new model city, 2020, Illustration by LEVS architecten

“The 60%: Sélibaby, Mauritania…” 

One of the main problems with urban expansion is that developers are often solely focussed on building houses, and nothing but houses. What can they learn from rural communities? Some years ago, LEVS was commissioned by the Mauritanian Ministry of Habitat to propose an urban plan and architectural design for the first 250 houses to be realized as part of the ‘New Sélibaby’. Based on our experience in rural Mali, we wondered: how can we integrate local traditions in a contemporary design instead of following only the standard technocratic design requirements? 

To that end, we tried to shift the attention from the often-imposed grid system. By inserting public and semi public spaces of different sizes and privacy levels, we aim to inspire people to form a livable community. This is achieved primarily through planning of public functions such as squares, parks, markets, mosques or schools.

The typical wide and space-consuming streets are replaced by more traditional and shaded narrow streets and collective green gardens. Broken viewpoints create a sense of human scale, inviting the inhabitants to activate the public spaces. The plots are grouped into housing blocks, each of which will have a shared vegetable garden. 

The standalone kitchens alongside the street and low property walls invite social interaction. Grey water purification systems from bathrooms will provide enough water for the gardens at no extra cost. Ecological toilets are built and the next step is to introduce a completely off-grid system with solar panels and an independent water source. 

The sustainable houses are made of hydraulically compressed earth blocks which are produced on site of locally sourced clay. This natural material is suitable for making comfortable interiors in hot climates. The houses are built by local people, who have been trained beforehand. Students from the local technical school, women from the village, employers from a local contractor, soldiers from the government: together they work on the future of New Sélibaby. In a recent project proposal for social housing near Dakar, we took the ideas from Sélibaby a step further.

Here, different housing typologies for different users, each with an incremental approach, offer the opportunity for house extensions as families grow. It allows, for example, multi-storey housing blocks. Additionally, we minimized the sizes of plots, and compensated the apparent loss of square meters with shared gardens and parking spaces.

“A symbiosis of cities, towns and villages…” 

What is lost in this process of rapid urbanization is a sense of local community and economy, in cities, towns and villages alike. As architects and planners we see opportunities in all these places to build environments that need not cost more, yet are productive of the kind of quality of life that people seek. In the city, this means creating an urban fabric that takes its organizational principles from local culture and respects living traditions as well as climate challenges: go beyond the rational plot, create shared public spaces and introduce off-grid energy systems and sites of food production so that a neighbourhood can become a self sustaining living environment, not just an externalized temporary residence. 

At the same time, one should give rural areas the credit they deserve as main sources of food security and as spaces that diminish the pressure on the ecosystem often created by urban expansion and lifestyle. Helping villages to thrive by creating more opportunities for their inhabitants will unburden urban migration. This process is most successful when developed and designed hand-in-hand with the end users, who understand what needs a specific region has, ensuring the viability of the built environment. 

One final important development not otherwise discussed here, is the availability of internet and digital communication in rural areas. The corona pandemic taught us that even though travel was restricted, we were able to continue most of our work. This means that in the near future, younger generations seeking new economic opportunities, need not necessarily leave for the city, when communication is online. In a healthy symbiosis, urbanization should benefit the rural population, as much as rural development should support the functioning of cities. We believe it is possible.

Housing in Dakar, axonometric view of a neighbourhood segment, 2020, Photo by LEVS architecten

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