The burden of being planned. How African cities can learn from experiments (...) - INTI - International New Town Institute

The burden of being planned. How African cities can learn from experiments of the past: New Town Dodoma, Tanzania
article by Sophie van Ginneken

Throughout history, the transformation of African cities has always attracted large master plans. Sometimes they are unsustainable. The capital of Tanzania, Dodoma, is an obvious example. Conceptualized as an African city, inspired by Maoist ideals, designed by Canadians and Americans, built by Europeans and Asians, paid for by many, and soon to be re-built by South Koreans - this hidden place has been flooded with global interest and disappointing plans.

“Anyone going to Dodoma?” asks the pilot to his passengers. I raise my hand, as the only one of five in total. The single engine plane is about to take off from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma, Tanzania’s capital city. At least, that’s what the schedule says. Despite Dodoma being his travel destination, the pilot apparently has other plans. In reality, Dodoma is not the most obvious place to go to, neither for Tanzanians nor for tourists. “All right, we’ll stop over at Dodoma then”, the pilot says. This would be the first and probably the last time that a plane hit the ground for me alone. Not quite what you would expect while visiting a capital city.

Central shopping street in Dodoma (photo: Sophie van Ginneken)

This was two years ago. This African New Town, where I spent a week doing research, is obviously not the urban heart of the nation. In fact, with its calm and dusty streets, a few cars and not a single tall building, it’s more like a large village. Today, however, 40 years after Dodoma was declared the capital of Tanzania, several reports state that the capital city project is finally taking off. In December 2013, a brand new master plan, made by SAMAN Corporation (a South Korean engineering firm), was presented to the national government. [1]

Dodoma is a regional distribution centre for agricultural products: central market place in the centre of town (photo: Sophie van Ginneken)

With a target population of 3 million people, and the ambition to finally live up to its political status, Dodoma is soon to be ‘remodelled’ once more. It all started in 1973, the year that Dodoma was declared the new capital of Tanzania by the legendary first president Julius Nyerere (1922-1999). As in other African nations, leaders in the era following independence sought new symbols of national identity. Often, these ambitions were channelled into the building of new cities. Other examples are Tema (Ghana), Abuja (Nigeria) or, more recently, Ramciel (planned in 2011 as the new capital city of South Sudan). Located in the middle of the country, the then-small and sleepy town of Dodoma was chosen as the site of the new capital city to replace the existing capital Dar es Salaam. Here, a brand new ‘city of self reliance’ was to rise, as an embodiment of Nyerere’s ideology of African Socialism, named ‘Ujamaa’. Based on equality and collective rural life, Ujamaa (Swahili for ‘familyhood’) referred to traditional African values and culture. The need for a new capital city was thus justified as not only a political or symbolic decision, but also an economic and social one.
One of the ideas was that a city in the countryside would benefit mostly peasants, who were living in the least developed part of the country. Peasants who, according to Nyerere were the ‘true’ builders of a new society, as opposed to urbanites who he saw as their exploiters. In this, he chose the exact opposite policy from Kwame Nkrumah, who at the same time reformed the newly independent Ghana favouring industrialization to agriculture. Nyerere expected the peasants, ‘working together for the benefit of all’, to have the potential to turn Tanzania into a 100% rural, self-reliant economy. A planned pattern of thousands of newly established villages, evenly scattered throughout the country, was the physical expression of the socialist reform agenda. Dodoma, was planned as the centrepiece of this huge Ujamaa Villagization program: a model African city, without skyscrapers or superhighways but instead a rural city, produced and lived in by peasants.

Dodoma in the geographical middle of the country (source: Dodoma master plan by Project Planning Associates Ltd, 1976)
Design for the National Capital Centre by the American architect James Rossant (unbuilt) (source:

As the geographer Garth Myers puts it, Ujamaa was “one of the most significant ‘alternative visions’ of urbanism and human settlement that has emerged from postcolonial Africa”. [2] With the idea of an autarkic city, reconciling agriculture and urbanism into a self-reliant rural economy, Nyerere took a unique standpoint. At the same time the idea of ‘collectivization’ of the country’s agricultural system was heavily inspired by Chinese Maoist reform plans. Given the socialist aims of the new city and Nyerere’s heavy reliance on local traditions and rural habits, it is fairly ironic that a Canadian office was asked to design the master plan. Landscape architect Macklin Hancock (1925-2010) from Toronto, principal consultant of Project Planning Associates Ltd, designed the new capital for which he, in turn, borrowed the American suburban planning model. The outcome of the rather strange partnership between the Tanzanian government and the Canadian consultants was a very western, typical New Town plan, while simultaneously conveying Nyerere’s message of a rural self-reliant city. In reality, the plan had nothing to do with Ujamaa or even ‘just’ socialism. In fact the scheme holds striking parallels with Don Mills, a 1950s suburb of Toronto, also built by Hancock. This famous Canadian experiment, a physical example of Clarence Perry’s neighbourhood unit, shows typical New Town characteristics such as the hierarchical setup into neighbourhood units, the separation of vehicular roads from pedestrian paths and spaciously designed cul-de-sacs.

Leisure facilities at large open spaces soon came to move aside the original focus on communal rural plots as the centres of collectivity (source: CDA Archives, Dodoma)
The setup for Dodoma’s communities was derived from existing model cities and then integrated on site (source: Dodoma master plan by Project Planning Associates, 1976)

Though largely unrealised in its architectural ambitions, the 1976 Canadian master plan has always been the leading scheme for Dodoma –up until now. Western ideas have been copied to help the city ‘move forward’ in the march of civilization, such as a free bus lane, large open spaces for leisure activities and European style houses with private gardens and patios. The finely detailed road network was remarkable in this context, where only few people had access to a car. The plan was to set an example for the future in which everybody had a proper home and a car, commuted daily to the central business district for work, and at the end of the day enjoyed family life in the garden or playing football in one of the numerous parks. Not quite a rural ‘Ujamaa’ city, but rather a classic Northern American suburb.

Dodoma master plan (Project Planning Associates, 1976)

The huge wave of optimism following the planning of Dodoma, and generally accompanying the planning of New Towns anywhere, not only attracted Canadians, but many other foreign city planners as well. James Rossant, (the planner of New Town Reston, USA) designed the city’s National Capital Centre. James Rouse (the planner of Columbia New Town, USA) and a full UN team came to assist with the planning process—to name just a few. They nestled like flies in the middle of the African savannah—in an attempt to turn it into something better. However well intentioned, it is clear that the foreign architects behind this overly ambitious project all applied their own ideas of ‘progress’, wrapped in western templates of ‘the ideal city’. Too ideal to ever have a chance of being built. Moreover, the involvement of so many foreign parties and institutions resulted in a situation where urban development became a matter of public interest; a process almost entirely owned by non-local players who were all very far removed from reality in this part of Tanzania, of the lifestyles of (existing and future) inhabitants, of the socio-cultural and economic capital - in short, the fundamentals of the city’s reason to exist.

Field trip to Islamabad, Pakistan, by Dodoma’s Capital Development Authority (source: Capital Development Authority: Building the National Capital 1978)
Dodoma’s CDA staff with United Nations Environmental program (UNEP) (source: Capital Development Authority: Building the National Capital 1978)

Conceptualized as an African city, inspired by Maoist ideals, designed by Canadians and Americans, built by Europeans and Asians, paid for by many, and soon to be re-built by South Koreans—this hidden place has been flooded with global interest and foreign ideologies. Trapped in a planning cycle, these master plans, all of them extensively detailed, lead time and time again to disappointing results.

However, despite the fact of being a largely unexecuted design project, one would almost overlook the fact that Dodoma itself is also a ‘normal city’ that is actually performing quite successfully. Since it serves as an agricultural hub for the region, the town’s economy is fairly self-reliant—which was Nyerere’s original aim. The Dodoma region has for instance a considerable wine-industry, and has recently put Tanzania on the world’s wine production map. Also, several universities and schools are housed here, among them a Rural Planning Institute, a College of Business Education and a gigantic university complex (the University of Dodoma), set to become one of the leading universities in East Africa. [3] These institutions welcome a growing number of students every year, thereby contributing to economic growth and poverty reduction. [4] None of these successes can be attributed to imported city templates. The reasons for their success lie rather in smaller, well-targeted projects or, in the case of the agricultural sector; the city’s own economy which is not directed from above. Moreover, essential for the success of any planned project is political will —a factor that has always been (and still is) remarkably absent while building the capital city project.

The Institute for Rural Development Planning (left) and the UDOM/University of Dodoma (right), two of Dodoma’s blooming universities (photos: Sophie van Ginneken)

Dodoma is not alone in the ‘tradition of failed plans’, relying on overseas urbanists and engineers, who bring along their models. In fact, it’s become a fairly typical experience for African cities. Ever since the start of colonial planning, we have seen the export of master plans that are based on the values and experiences of overseas planners (mostly westerners), instead of being adequate responses to existing issues. Like the 1976 master plan for Dodoma, most of these master plans are in fact too ‘ideal’, and therefore of little relevance to the actual development of the city. As a result, plans for cities like Abuja, Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Kinshasa have remained largely unbuilt. In the ‘best’ case they have been partly executed, thereby benefitting usually a small group of higher income groups. In most cases, this has led to increasing inequalities and slum growth.

Duka’s (small shops) in the Canadian neighbourhood (photo: Sophie van Ginneken)

Today, Dodoma is neither the classless rural capital envisioned by Nyerere, nor Hancock’s suburban dream. While an extravagantly designed parliament building, performing as a spaceship surrounded by empty streets, reminds us of the fact that it is a capital city after all, all ministries have stayed in Dar es Salaam. In the meantime, Dodoma has developed in its own direction. Over time, an intricate network of duka’s (small shops), daladala’s (buses), markets, playgrounds and pedestrian routes has bypassed its formal logic. The few planned neighbourhoods that have been built are havens for the wealthy. These occasionally realised city bits contrast sharply with the sea of self-built neighbourhoods around them. Considerable parts of these lack the most basic of services. Due to an enormous gap between formal and informal planning rules, the process of city-making in Africa has its own unpredictable logics.

Prototype housing blocks (designed by PPAL) are now inhabited by middle and higher incomes (photo: Sophie van Ginneken)

The history of Dodoma teaches us some important lessons. First, it shows how seemingly unnoticed planners (remarkably all foreign) can turn ideologies into plans with completely different (even opposite) aims to their original intentions. Secondly, it shows how the focus on ‘prestige’ (in this case: a capital city) favours costly projects over urgent urban tasks. For many cities on the African continent these urgent tasks are first and foremost: running water, toilets, roads and electricity. Apart from the artificial Bunge (the National Parliament building), left unused for most of the time, Dodoma has in recent years welcomed several newly built communities to be used as pieds-a-terre for a government elite. Furthermore, Rossant’s National Capital Centre plan has apparently been dusted off, as now it is finally being built by Chinese constructors. Remarkably, these ambitious projects are often built on isolated building sites far from the beating heart of town. As a result, they are disconnected and hence seem to lack reason.

The site for the National Capital Centre recently welcomed its first buildings: the Ministry of Finance and the National Bank of Tanzania, both built by Chinese construction companies (photo: Sophie van Ginneken)
The Bunge (National Parliament) (photo: Antoni Folkers)

At the same time, inhabitants of successful developments are sometimes evicted in favour of planned urban panoramas. An early example of this is Chang’ombe, one of Dodoma’s suburbs, which developed rapidly in the 1980s along the spatial fixtures of the designated green belt. Although completely in line with the ideological aims of the master plan as a whole (communities of smallholders cultivating seasonal crops), an attempt was made to relocate the settlers. As shown by Wilbard Kombe and Volker Kreibich, this effort has been largely unsuccessful due to a powerful system of local land market regulations, guided by local land managers. [5] This informal system should not be underestimated. Again, the gap between formal and informal planning in Africa is considerable and is in fact one of the reasons why most of the ‘grand urban visions’ to be built in developing countries are so likely to fail in the first place.

The unplanned neighbourhood of Chang’ombe is an interesting example of informal land management realities (photo: Andrew Faeh)

Lastly, a city that is determined to live up to an urban dream, tends to neglect its existing qualities, as well as the essential needs and potentials of those who live in it. Besides the example of ‘undesirable’ urban developments like Chang’ombe, also the fact that the numerous informal routes and public spaces in the city have never been incorporated in the plans, illustrate this. While European New Towns struggle with too-rigidly planned structures, African cities—and New Towns in particular—seem to struggle with the rigidity of their planners, determined to build their urban fantasies. [6] Too often, these plans neglect existing planning processes, economic and social structures. With their forced setup and zoning of programs, these plans cannot keep up with the actual growth and reality of its informal planning dynamics. When built, they often frustrate valid economic networks, usually located in the existing city; and the dynamics that have contributed to its culture and identity in the first place. The evident path towards more flexible and resilient African cities seems therefore to find its roots in a more open, inclusive planning that integrates the expertise, labour and commitment of local planners, entrepreneurs and residents, while at the same time enabling informal land management systems to participate. These lessons should be kept in mind while building the numerous new city developments that are now on drawing boards throughout the African continent.

Sophie van Ginneken

This article is part of the project ‘New Towns on the Cold War Frontier’, a research and publication project by Crimson Architectural Historians and INTI.

With special thanks to:
_Antoni Folkers (African Architecture Matters), the Netherlands
_Matthias Nuss, Germany
_Capital Development Authority, Dodoma, Tanzania
_Nicola Colangelo, Coastal Aviation, Tanzania


[1‘Tanzania: Dodoma Capital City Master Plan Ready’, Tanzania Daily News, 4 December 2013, Unfortunately, the master plan is not a public document.

[2Garth Myers (2011), African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice, London: Zed Books, p.43-69.

[3Southern African Regional Universities Association,

[4Capital Development Authority, Consultancy Services for the Review of Dodoma Capital City Master Plan, Interim Report Part 1 – Existing Conditions, submitted by SAMAN Corporation, Korea in association with Tanzania Human Settlements Solutions, Tanzania, March 2011, p. PART I EXISTING CONDITIONS - 2.2 Economy & Market Trends.

[5Wilbard J. Kombe and Volker Kreibich (2001), ‘Informal Land Management in Tanzania and the Misconception about its Illegality’, A paper presented at the ESF/N-Aerus Annual Workshop. “Coping with Informality and Illegality in Human Settlements in Developing Countries” in Leuven and Brussels, May 23 – 26, 2001.

[6The term ‘urban fantasy’ is kindly borrowed from Prof. Vanessa Watson, University of Cape Town. See: Vanessa Watson (2013), African Urban Fantasies; dreams or nightmares? Environment and Urbanization, 6 December 2013.

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