Help with a placemaking plan in the Gambia, by Cliff Hague

I was involved in a project to develop “barefoot placemakers” in The Gambia’s capital Banjul – a pilot for the wider ambition to develop a Global Planning Aid service to communities facing global urban challenges.

At the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi in February, PAS (Scotland’s place and citizenship charity) and the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) floated the Global Planning Aid (GPA) idea of using volunteers to deliver online mentoring and support to global communities facing serious urban challenges. 

It met with an enthusiastic response, particularly from the Mayor of Banjul, Rohey Malick Lowe, The Gambia’s first female mayor. 

In the end, it was a disappointment. Our bid to the UK Innovation Funding Service was highly praised but unsuccessful. 

Despite the setback, we are not giving up.

In the weeks that followed the bid, we liaised with the Mayor of Banjul and identified a local NGO, Development Oriented Citizens of Banjul, as a partner to deliver the project, set up a special purpose company between PAS and ISOCARP, and set out to build our funding bid.

The Gambia is one of the least developed countries. Nearly 50% of all women are illiterate; nearly 50% of girls are married before they are 18. 

Banjul is less than a metre above sea level. Residents and businesses face many challenges – flooding, poor disposal and management of waste, inadequate public transportation, air pollution and lack of adequate basic services. 

The central market is a vital economic resource, an interface between formal and informal business. The nearby port is also economically important, but unregulated encroachment of warehousing threatens the market, areas of cultural heritage and homes. 

The Gambian Local Government Act 2002 gave local councils mandates for economic development, health, education and other basic services. However, there is an acute shortage of professionals to deliver, and none with skills to do participatory placemaking. The UN is training officials, but there is no help at the grassroots level.

Our plan is to connect international volunteers to our local partners and through them to the kind of people who are active at community level, helping neighbours, or setting up informal businesses for example. 

We can train them to use the Scottish Government’s Place Standard Tool and to do local interventions that would make a difference to their lives. 

These might well be very basic things like measures to enhance pedestrian safety, but by planting seeds and skills, and growing local know-how, we believe that the basis for a participatory and inclusive form of local development can be nurtured, shared and spread.

This is a practical way of delivering one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – goal number 11 – to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” by 2030.

Time is not on our side. 

Training professional planners takes years that we don’t have. Longer-term climate targets are vacuous unless we can begin to make a difference in this current decade. 

We have to mobilise and redirect the professional know-how that already exists, and that must be done in a way that is culturally sensitive. 

GPA is not a neo-colonial proposition: it must be driven by the needs of the poor and marginalised, but it cannot be resourced financially by them. And that is where our bid for funds fell down. The fund we bid into is basically structured to support market research for physical products that can then be scaled up and become commercially viable propositions. 

The whole rationale for GPA is that communities dependent on low and irregular incomes will not be able to afford to buy in a conventional way the professional services they need and that governments cannot provide. 

There has to be a different business model, and that must be nimble, using only a small management team to train, connect and support volunteers and local NGOs.

Is there any firm out there who might back this as part of corporate social responsibility?

Cliff Hague is a patron of PAS with special responsibility for international networking. He can be contacted on .

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