Khartoum: Urban Chaos and the Reclaiming of City Character

An integral part of urban culture, the form of cities’ built environment has considerable impact on the quality of urban life. Elaborating on the case of Khartoum, Sudan, Khalafalla Omer makes a case for a new approach in urban planning policies.

Urban development in Khartoum city is shaped by different types of irregular settlements – a manifestation of inappropriate planning policies that lead to chaotic urban forms due to their inability to control property development. Cities can avoid such chaotic development by establishing policies to coordinate the process of land use planning, architecture design code, and building construction activities to ensure a predictable form of the city that reflect the local cultures and innovations. But this is not always the case in Khartoum city.

The city features many poor urban structures which harm the appearance of the city. There is a need for a major shift in urban planning to ensure a better quality of spatial patterns that is accompanied by an increase in socio-economic resources available for property development.

A Loss of Physical Character

Many researches demonstrate that local earth architecture and traditional roofing systems constitute safe and stable building techniques. They don’t, however, address the problem that there is a lack of design code that would change Khartoum’s building culture and thus make the city more attractive.

Current property development lacks a sense of proportions; the city has lost its physical character. Proof of this is the irregular spatial structure, poor architecture features, and uncoordinated open space. Along with other minor clutters (such as sign proliferation, poor finishes, visible mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) utilities, inadequate external material, and dull external colours), this leads to a dramatic display of visual pollution which reduces visual amenity, distracts public movement, decreases property value and, above all, disregards the local urban culture and vernacular traditional innovations.

There are different arguments on the causes of such chaotic urban patterns. Some see them as a result of noncompliance with approved architecture design and of poor building inspection, meaning that the responsibility is shared by council and contractors. Others claim that unauthorised building extension and partial building constructions along with the misuse of building assets are the main reasons behind the spatial chaos. These arguments do not seem to suffice, seeing that even in the best-case scenarios of many first-class new residential neighbourhoods, where buildings comply with permitted architectural design, additional irregular settlements remain.

It seems therefore more promising to look at land use planning systems for potential causes. Property development processes are often driven by (revised) colonial land use planning systems and building regulations. They lack an adequate framework to address the quality of built environment based on the available building material and labour skill resource.

Insufficient Planning Systems

The current land use planning system is meant to accommodate urban growth and determine appropriate density of the city through a zoning-based regulation that subdivides land into different residential, commercial, and industrial districts and plots. Additionally, building regulations are meant to control the setbacks, floor area ration, size, heights, and the placement of each construction to allow natural ventilation, user privacy, a space for building service, and user movement.

Even so, the land use planning system along with the building regulations have shown no power to control the shape of urban development. Thus, there is a need to move from land plan approaches to sustainable block plan approaches of form-based code, where land use is coordinated by a design code to ensure appropriate layout, features, components, and specification of building units, landscape, open spaces, retail signage, and external building materials. Elements of urban form are identified at the earliest stage of planning process. Thus, planners can consequently design along these identified forms, ensuring liveable and sustainable public spaces.

A Set of Recommendations for Khartoum’s City Council

  1. Set a spatial vision for the city that guides the production of liveable built environment and public spaces.
  2. Enhance the use of locally available resources and vernacular architecture innovations.
  3. Replace the current zoning regulation with a form-base code approach.
  4. Architectural design approval should be controlled by a submission of detailed architecture design drawings that comply with the urban design code set by local authorities.
  5. Do not grant building permissions until financing is ensured in order to avoid only partial completion of construction processes.
  6. Ensure to issue occupancy certificates only for building construction in accordance with the authorised design code.
  7. Develop enforcement regulation to investigate planning breaches and variance throughout the property development process.
  8. Prohibit visible MEP utilities that distract building facade design.
  9. Allocate space for local art and advertising posters while prohibiting unregulated use of external building patterns.

A Note to Critics

Such planning interventions surely would cause some criticism, as many city planners tend to advocate a discretionary approach over a regulatory system. Many planners claim that such an approach is dictating a single view on city form while limiting the capacity for innovative architectural ideas. Others claim that these regulations may not be workable for developing cities with limited financial resources, where informal activities are mainstream. Finally, many planners argue that these recommendations would increase property value and limit the capability of low-income residents to access higher living standards.

However, all these concerns can be tackled if certain issues are considered. First, form-based code has to develop through participatory consultations between the city council and other urban actors to build a collective agreement on spatial vision. It needs to be ensured that this process regards the city as public asset of its residents rather than as private interest of landowners.

Second, these recommendations are planning tools – not a development outcome. It is their utilisation of socio-economic resources along with vernacular architecture innovations that makes them relevant to the local context.

Finally, design codes can be based on simple layout and cost-effective building material to ensure affordable housing units.

Khartoum faces dramatic unplanned urbanisation, causing irregular formation of settlements. Thus, there is a need to control urban growth through a sustainable design code that is based on available resources and cultural innovations if the city wants to ensure better quality of urban public life.

Khalafalla Omer

Architect and Urban Planner at Royal Town Planning Institute
Khalafalla Omer is an architect and urban planner. He is currently working for Planning Aid England to review the progress of neighborhood planning in Lancashire district, UK. He has been involved in reviewing The UK National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and The Road Map to Sudan National Urban Policy (SNUP). He has been taking the the role of developing neighborhood plans, proposing property development projects, creating architecture designs, and monitoring building construction activities. He holds a M.Sc. in Urban Development and Planning, an MBA in Project Management and a B.Sc. in Architecture and Spatial Planning. He is a licentiate member of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), the International Development Network (IDN) and the Sudan Engineering Council. He has published many academic publications and is an author for URBANET.
Khalafalla Omer