HARARE - The trip to Harare’s Roadport to meet my cousin who was travelling from Namibia for the first time in 10 years was exasperating, given the day’s unusually high temperatures.
It was mid-morning but the temperatures were already unbearably high.
As we journeyed back home along Seke Road, the new houses just before Chinhamo Service Station, near the Harare International Airport, caught Tatenda’s (not his real name) eye.
I could see the astonishment on his face but deliberately chose not to talk about it, at least for that time.
In no time, we crossed the Manyame River, and this time he could not hide his consternation any further.
There were houses all over and some were actually encroaching the river.
“There used to be a green corridor here, is that not so? We are lagging behind in the Diaspora while others are building houses,” he added, his voice filled with sarcasm.
Rufaro Road had not changed much for him, save for the flowing stream of raw sewage and piles of uncollected garbage along storm water drains.
The stench from the raw sewage blended with the putrid smell from the rubbish dumps, producing a particularly nauseating effect.
I told him these were inevitable outcomes of rapid urban growth and were characteristic features of most urban settlements in the country.
Though cities are traditionally engines of social transformation, economic growth and places for better standards of living, today’s urbanisation has brought with it severe environmental degradation, seasonal disease outbreaks that continue taking lives among the urban poor while decent living standards have deteriorated with each passing day.
Chitungwiza is a case in point, as the town continues to grow with several open spaces being allocated for housing and commercial purposes, while more piles of waste dumps complement the growing urban sprawl.
In the year 2000, the world population reached 6,1 billion and is growing at an annual rate of 1,2 percent or 77 million per year.
With half of the world’s population declared to be living in the world’s cities, the pressure of service delivery on urban infrastructure is mounting enormously on municipalities in developing countries.
As migrants move from rural to urban settlements, there is more demand for accommodation, energy, water and other services.
In a way, these sights and smells are nothing unusual in most towns and cities with limited capacity to cope with service delivery issues causing unprecedented solid waste management challenges.
Waste management is one of the most visible urban services.
As such, what is seen in today’s urban environment indicates the state of the quality of urban life, which has deteriorated due to rapid growth.
High unemployment and poverty levels among urban populations influence the conversion of residential spaces for numerous economic activities at undesignated places.
For this reason, waste generation levels and disposal become uncontrolled.
Apart from dealing with household solid waste, municipalities will then have to collect commercial waste that comes from such economic activities being conducted within residential areas.
Rapid urban land-use change is now the order of the day with open spaces being used for residential, commercial and vending purposes.
Some farmlands have been converted due to the prevalent demand for accommodation.
Urbanisation in developing countries has changed the way cities function.
As a result, most cities are operating in a very unsustainable and disconnected ways.
This is so because rampant urbanisation is taking place without the proportional industrialisation that should complement urban growth.
The aspect of compact, coordinated and connected cities is far off from the current scenario.
People are highly populated in areas where there are too few resources to sustain them.
They have one area where they all go for work at once and each time they put pressure on the limited available services and resources.
With these challenges, it becomes clear that rapid urbanisation requires serious political-will when dealing with the trend.
Such development challenges are not happening in industrialised nations but in poor countries where the era of rural growth is declining when compared to previous decades.
Municipalities should begin supporting some level of residents’ participation in the planning and designing of their services, in the urban planning process.
Today’s ICT is providing an opportunity for effective communication between service providers and their customers (e-governance).
E-governance makes municipalities competitive as they become accessible and as a result provide timeous response when required.
Despite the developmental potential of e-governance, several local governments in Zimbabwe have not yet embraced e-governance as a means to address service delivery challenges in today’s complex urban societies.
Such innovations can improve cities’ competitiveness, which in turn attracts investment thereby lifting local citizens out of poverty.
This calls for local development to the benefit and not the detriment of urban growth.
Now is the time that communities, together with their governments, should start collaborating towards urban coping strategies.
This is more important now because cities are growing faster than the infrastructure that supports them.
City growth and expansion should happen in a way that does not destroy the land that provides goods and services that support human populations.
Energy generation in our cities today must come from multiple renewable energy sources.
Town planning should move away from setting single-family homes to vertical buildings as a way of improving the quality of lives and the well-being of citizens.
Governments can play a pivotal role in fostering support and inclusive communities in which everyone can thrive.
There are several urban planning mistakes that we can learn from and as cities grow, there is need to rethink development and the time is now.
*Gilbert Mandaga is a director of Green Africa Network, an organisation with a keen interest in community-driven development programmes.