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Cities, settlements development post COVID-19: An urban planner’s perspective

Changing scapes: COVID-19 will reshape urban planning and strategy PIC:MORERI SEJAKGOMO
Cities and Settlements Development Planning is shaped and influenced by different dynamics, being Social, Economic and Environmental factors, and linked by a robust Urban Governance system, to ensure these three dynamics function in a coherent manner.

These dynamics can be health-related pandemics like COVID-19, environment and climate related disasters like floods, political and civil unrest as well as the needs of the inhabitants in their everyday lives. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2019, is now dictating a different way of life, thus influencing a different approach towards global development. A common phrase says, ‘in every crisis we should be able to learn a lesson and also explore opportunities from that crisis.’

It is in no doubt that life will never be the same post COVID-19. The same should apply to the planning and design of our cities and settlements.

The outbreak of COVID-19 across the globe has seen the trialling of our Cities and Settlements preparedness in the three spheres that hold an urban/rural space together, to qualify it as being resilient.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a well-planned and resilient urban space is one that has the ability to absorb, recover and prepare for future shocks, which can be social, economic, environmental, and institutional. In Botswana’s context, the key areas, tested to the maximum by COVID-19, are the social and economic standpoints of our cities and settlements.

While the world, (including Botswana) is grappling with how to control the spread of the virus, and developing some interventions like extreme social distancing, mobility restrictions, termed ‘Lock-Down’ and encouraging the washing of hands with water and soap, these efforts have tested the level of preparedness of our cities and settlements to embrace/support such interventions.

The readiness of our local Cities and settlements to embrace COVID-19 interventions can be assessed, using the following:

l Availability of urban data to inform decision-making and,

l Access to housing and sanitation, infrastructure and housing as well as the application of technology to link the social, physical and business infrastructure to leverage the collective intelligence of a city to function during a crisis (smart cities concept). 

Below I give an overview of each of these elements, and how they tested the preparedness of our settlements during the pandemic.  

Availability of urban data to inform decision-making

Urban data takes a more central role in Urban/Local Governance and Management, and with readily available and up-to-date data, for every sector, urban planners and decision makers are able to analyse current conditions and design evidence-based strategies for better performance of cities and settlements, amid the pandemic.

Apart from readily available data on vulnerable populations being the orphans and vulnerable children, and the destitute, there was insufficient data to know how COVID-19 interventions would affect some sections of the population and other sectors, to enable closing of any gaps.

One example is data on local economies, particularly the informal sector. Informal sector is the key variable that keeps the economic engine of a certain locality running, and the majority of our population is engaged in this sector for their livelihoods.

Being responsible for facilitating urban and regional economies, urban planners should have documented and spatially mapped data on local economies to advise on what sector is dominating in their localities, and how these sectors could be affected by the mobility restrictions.

Data on food security, particularly on fresh produce was also a challenge, evidenced by the Department of Agri-Business’ call for fresh produce farmers to register with the local offices, a sign that data on fresh produce was not updated or adequate.

Another example that can be cited is the use of spatial data, which could have come handy during the socio-economic assessments as well the distribution of social services. Data on urban mobility is one area that also tested the preparedness of our cities and settlement to support COVID-19 interventions. Urban mobility sustains the economy, and is key for settlement planning.

Availability of data for both intra-city and inter-city mobility would have informed decision-making on the suspension of public transport, to estimate the extent to which the suspension would affect the essential services providers.

Urban mobility data would have ‘given a picture’ of the state and availability of alternative modes, being non-motorised transport like cycling, which has also proved to be effective in curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Housing and infrastructure provision also tested our cities and settlements, to support COVID-19 interventions, and post COVID-19, there is a need to focus on this area.

The United Nations Human Settlements (UN Habitat) and its partners like Cities Alliance, have indicated that quality standard housing remains unaffordable to some sections of our populations, more especially in urban centres, leading to over-crowding in the low-income areas within our cities and towns.

These poor housing conditions are common in developing countries, where the standards of housing are not adequate to support social distancing and lack readily installed hand-washing facilities to support continuous washing of hands with soap and water, frustrates the COVID-19 interventions.

With this experience, COVID-19 calls for transformation and reviewing of our urban policies, with more focus on the housing and the land policies.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the New Urban Agenda offer Countries (including Botswana), an opportunity to review our urban policies, re-alignment and restructuring of our institutions, with much focus on access to housing visa-vee access to Land, as well as ceding more powers to local governments to develop urban policies that would improve service delivery, including housing provision.


Transport Infrastructure

COVID-19 has tested the preparedness of our urban spaces to accommodate non-motorised transport, during ‘lockdown.’ Cyclist friendly urban spaces could have also offered an alternative transport to the essential service providers, during the suspension of motorised public transport. Most of our urban centres have not catered for non-motorised transport, particularly cycling, and this is the mode of transport,

which has been widely used as an alternative transport, to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.  

Access to water and sanitation

Continuous washing of hands with soap and water is one of the recommended interventions by the health officials. Access to water has been a major problem, which frustrated efforts towards such intervention in our country.

This challenge has been experienced in major villages like Molepolole, Kanye and Maun, which have been growing faster and now graduated to urban as opposed to being rural areas. The spatial growth of these settlements, suggests that, they should be planned in a sustainable manner to curb urban sprawl, which itself poses a challenge in infrastructure provision, looking at the government’s tight budgets.

Compact Development/Densified development would not be economical to service compared to sprawled development. One of the focus areas post COVID-19 should be, to review the existing urban policies, with much focus on land and housing policies, and how their application to the rapidly urbanising centres affect infrastructure service provision. 

Despite over-crowding and access to water and sanitation being a challenge, it is important to acknowledge the efforts by the government in up scaling the efforts to avail water to all communities, which do not have access, to water. The community-driven solutions, like the application of indigenous knowledge to cater for households without modern hand washing facilities is one aspect that demonstrated participatory urban development, that is always advocated for in the International Development Sphere.

The readiness of Cities and settlements to embrace Smart Cities Concept

As explained earlier, the extent to which a city or settlement is able to function effectively during a crisis like COVID-19 is determined by a number of factors. One of such key factors, is the application of Information Technology Infrastructure to connect the Physical, Social and Business Infrastructure to leverage the collective intelligence of a city to improve its economic, social and environmental standards of and its inhabitants.

The ‘Safer Cities’ as one of the characteristics of a Smart City concept should be fully implemented. It is important to highlight and acknowledge efforts by Botswana Police to play their part in the Safer Cities, but a comprehensive approach with all stakeholders on board would leverage our cities and settlements to embrace the COVID-19 Interventions. With the use of GIS and other software to map key attributes, contract tracing becomes less challenging while the socio economic assessments and distribution of social services become quicker.

Using technology, the World Bank has developed the methodology to identify COVID-19 hot spots, exposure and vulnerability. The analysis needs three data sets-population, building heights, and location of Key Services, all variables that can effectively be mapped and analysed using technology. 

In conclusion, COVID-19 is a lesson and offers us opportunities. From an Urban Planning and governance perspective, City and settlement planning post COVID-19 should not be the same and these are take- away points to prepare for the future; The Compelling need for our cities and settlements to re-shape and re-energise. The UN Habitat recommends re-thinking of the state by National Governments, review of urban policies (housing, land, decentralisation policies), and to re-think our urban morphology, when planning for Cities and settlements.

Reviewing of these urban policies would offer an opportunity to integrated urban development planning with the idea to synergise our Urban Policies.   Strengthening Urban Development Planning System at Local Government and equipping it with the necessary tools to do urban data profiling and mapping for informed/evidence based decisions in future.

Partnerships remain key for post COVID-19 Urban Development Interventions: Private Sector participation in COVID-19 pandemic has been amazing, and this demonstrated their potential for future partnerships in the future development of our cities and settlements. Their partnership in the use of IT to collect, analyse and store urban data, linking communities, governance, infrastructure and buildings, Health Care, technology, energy and transportation, are what we need to prepare for the future. Since we have seen Private Sector potential, Urban Planners and other Professionals in the built environment should be brought to the decision making table to develop long- term innovative solutions, and of course, working with the private sector to re-define our human settlements to prepare them for any future crisis.

The need to reduce the digital divide, to facilitate service provision; Our Cities and settlements should go digital to allow for continuity in Service Provision.  This implies   bringing new players at the table, and this provides an opportunity for Private Sector Participation.

There is a need to review of our Urban/Local Governance policies, to allow for Private Sector/Local Government Partnerships (PPP) in the introduction of smart technologies to facilitate the operation of Cities and towns.

Local Governments in Botswana should claim their full responsibility on Urban Governance, and be empowered through the Local Economic Development Framework, to allow them to develop local policies for economic reactivation, while at the same time developing long- term solutions, to prepare for future pandemics.Heterogeneity of Cities and Settlements- Cities and settlements differ in area, size, topography, population size, spatial distribution, and therefore, in addition to national interventions, there is a need to contextualise solutions or intervention to each locality to ensure the successful performance of interventions.


* Gaokgakala Sobatha is an Urban Planning Specialist. She holds BSc in Urban and Regional Planning, and MSc International Development, with areas of expertise in Global Development Challenges. The views and opinion expressed here are her own contribution towards building local knowledge on Settlement Planning, Urban Governance and COVID-19. The views are her own, and not necessary those of her employer. She can be reached on

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