List

Summary

What can urbanists learn from West-Central Africa? That Lean describes a way of life for many residents, merchants, and builders who encounter a thick layer of buronic bureaucracy on the one hand, and a lifestyle often stripped down to basic necessities. Working around both extremes builds Lean muscle.

Education should foster innovation. To succeed they should take the risk. Youths should not wait to have a lot of money before they can venture into business. They should think big, start small, and start now.

– Eric Kinoti, MD, Shade Systems, East Africa (Kenya)

 Back to All Publications
 Download the PDF

Context

A small country on the Atlantic coast in West-Central Africa, Gabon covers nearly 270,000 square kilometers, or about 104,000 square miles — about the size of Colorado, but with a population of only about 1,650,000 people. Children younger than 16 make up almost 50 percent of the population, and more than 800,000 people live in the capital, Libreville. Many live in substandard conditions a hundred meters from luxury apartments. Despite the stark differences with much of North America, and the United States in particular, Lean lessons abound.

In West-Central Africa, many people live with scarcities of clean water, shelter, and public sanitation. The poor Gabonese villager carries untreated water from a common pump or well to a shack that lacks screens, and uses an outhouse. The wealthier five kilometers west might drink premium bottled water, occupy a weekend maison, and use a bidet.


Similarities

Relying on the front yard for cooling may seem irrelevant for Americans who enjoy air conditioning and moderate electrical rates. But in both places, the poor live in dwellings with inadequate ventilation and walls that transmit the heat, so they sit outside for a breeze despite mosquitos while those farther up on the economic scale opt for a cooler AC setting.

For both cultures, a Lean solution is windows that are suitably sized, operable, well-placed, screened, and shaded, in walls that don’t absorb daytime solar heat. This requires an accommodative building design that allows adequate internal airflow and perhaps extended roof overhangs or other shading devices. A very basic, properly designed building can achieve this objective in most any Transect Zone. In the hot and humid climate of West-Central Africa, or in comparable US regions, a detached, semi-attached, or attached dwelling with sufficient front and rear windows can permit outside air to move in and out through an open floor plan or gaps between walls and ceilings, perhaps with the assistance of a window fan.

In West-Central Africa, palms and shade trees grow fast, but they are often cut down as quickly to make room for parking or additions. In North America, mature shade trees are often removed during conventional development grading that re-contours large sites and removes topsoil and plantings. Natural shade can reduce surrounding temperatures <http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/landscaping-shade> as much as 9°F and as much as 25°F directly underneath. In both parts of the world, a Lean solution is to protect healthy specimens through conservative design and construction practices.

In Gabon, blocks are not oriented to capture prevailing breezes as they are in some Central and South American colonial cities or in Southern traditional and New Urbanist communities. Gabon lacked a substantial colonial building period, so there are few surviving examples of Lean block patterns that leverage the sea breezes along the coast. Our ubiquitous solid perimeter lot walls, six feet and higher, present a second lesson of what not to do: orientation that ignores prevailing winds and walls that block breezes like their counterparts in walled and miss-oriented US subdivisions.


Self-Building – Unintended Consequences

The Gabonese, prolific self-builders, historically employed a Lean vernacular consisting of semi-permanent, lightweight structures made of durable hardwood and water-resistant plant materials that capture the breezes. However, termites eventually ruined the wood, and mosquitoes infiltrated the structures. In a mistaken response, the current building convention of concrete frame with concrete block walls and corrugated metal roof with minimal overhangs creates the perfect heat sink that requires mechanical cooling, if one can afford the equipment and power. The desire for “solid walls,” associated with quality of the high-end concrete villa, helps drive this aspiration, even among the poor, while fired, clay bricks are viewed as substandard. The concrete block and framed building that uses relatively inexpensive labor and locally sourced aggregate offers a lesson that local construction practices and materials are neither Lean nor comfortable if the local climate is ignored.

Gabon-Concrete block walls

Concrete block walls and corrugated metal roof with minimal overhangs requires mechanical cooling. Ignoring the climate is neither Lean nor comfortable. Credit: Steve Coyle.

Another unintended consequence of self-building is that its growth can be at the expense of sustainable, higher-density neighborhoods. This is due to three primary reasons.

First, there is a pervasive goal in Gabon to build a three- or four-bedroom detached house on a lot of more than 500 square meters (5,382 square feet) to fit the average family of four or more. But if 65,000 dwellings, Libreville’s current shortfall, were built on lots of 500 square meters, that would equal a land area of 32,500 hectares (80,311 acres), or about .5 units per hectare (1.2 units per acre). This pattern would lead to motor vehicle-dependent sprawl, which is the opposite of Lean.

Second, a lack of code enforcement places occupants of multi-story buildings at risk. Investigations of building failures often reveal concrete compressive strengths at half the required capacity, and missing or undersized steel reinforcement. This is due to inadequate third-party testing and enforcement rather than to the building code itself. Structural inspections for multi-story buildings, however, should avoid a slide into over-enforcement that tends to increase corruption and avoidance of compliance with building codes.

Third, compact development of higher quality is limited primarily to higher-end neighborhoods in Libreville and the pockets lining the coast that are popular among ex-pats. The region’s undulating topography often focuses development into higher densities that can exceed 20 units per hectare on flatter sites. These are often composed of continuous rows of small-footprint stores along transportation corridors and crowds of shacks filling flood-prone areas. The desire to leave those conditions, and the lack of safe, affordable, compact developments contribute to the desire to build on larger lots.

Gabon-Lack of affordable, safe, high-quality compact development

The lack of affordable, safe, high-quality compact development contributes to the desire to build larger homes on larger lots. Credit: Steve Coyle.

The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, together with Opticos and Town Green, developed a SmartCode for an area north of Libreville. While the T3 areas can accommodate mostly single-family homes, the market for T4 and T5 remains largely untested.

The market constraints to building T4 and T5 are bolstered by self-building: The average Gabonese family building its own house cannot construct a multi-story structure without professional assistance. In a small country with a limited number of professional designers and builders, few have the means to build decent three-, four-, and five-story buildings. This in turn constrains the ability to market T4 and T5 apartments and attached dwellings. Proper training of design and building trades and management is necessary to produce these buildings and develop this market.


Land Ownership – Titling and Entitling

Gabon reports a national housing deficit of more than 200,000, with the largest portion of the scarcity in Libreville. Yet the process of entitling land for development can take ten years or longer. A mandate introduced in 2013 limits the process time to roughly a year, though that will be difficult to achieve because most land in the Libreville area has never been platted or surveyed, and thus remains untitled. And land claims enforced by politicians or bribes to the powerful, though decreasing, trump due process. The hundreds or thousands of houses built in flood plains are one result of this dysfunctional process.

Besides building in flood-prone areas, the workarounds to securing land ownership include “squatting” on undeveloped plots and purchasing lots with no legal title, or even a false title. While the squatters face the possibility of government “expropriation,” they often make “improvements,” such as the ubiquitous perimeter lot wall and concrete-block house, in hopes of remuneration if they are evicted. Such “improvements” often need to be demolished, adding negative value to the land.

Gabon-Building in flood plains and squatting

Current workarounds for affordable housing include building in flood plains and squatting without proper titles. Credit: Steve Coyle.

Rent-seeking developers continue to purchase ancestral and other untitled lands for resale, sometimes for high-end homes or to clear and burn the jungle for oil palm plantations. As a protective measure, ancestral settlements may receive land titles in exchange for an agreement to not sell their land.

Barriers to land ownership can result in unfair or unprincipled ways to surmount these constraints. Americans may not face these kinds of difficulties in securing land titles, but obtaining permits for mixed-use buildings and infill development can present formidable obstacles. For both countries, the land-entitlement process should be Lean: simple, speedy, equitable, and transparent — environmentally, economically, and socially.

West-Central Africa may seem a world apart, but it offers much to learn as we seek to use Lean Urbanism to allow both peoples and places to flourish.

 

Steve Coyle

Steve Coyle

Over the last 25 years, Steve Coyle has affected positive change in the design, form-based coding, and development of towns and cities large and small as an architect, urban planner, and developer. A national expert in the field of sustainable planning, his book, Sustainable and Resilient Communities (www.sustainableandresilient.com), codifies a set of practices in design, planning, and engineering. Co-founder of the National Charrette Institute (www.charretteinstitute.org) and contributing author to the Charrette Handbook, Coyle remains an innovator in public engagement and the design of beautiful, healthy, and cool places that children, grown-ups, and businesses love. Always ready for a design challenge, he has worked in the West Bank, Mongolia, and presently works for the Prince's Foundation in Gabon, Africa.

More Posts - Website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  Publications

November 23rd, 2016

Tool Survey – Existing and Proposed

Lean Urbanism is a way to restore common sense to the processes of development, building, starting small businesses, community engagement, and acquiring the necessary skills. The Project for Lean Urbanism is collecting and developing tools and daylighting techniques to enable and encourage those activities. This collection is the result of a survey to identify tools developed elsewhere and to track ideas for those that are needed. As tools are developed by the Project for Lean Urbanism, they will be made freely available on this website.

November 4th, 2016

The Pink Zone – Where Small Is Possible

Summary

The Pink Zone is a powerful tool for concentrating resources on the task of enabling small-scale, community-centered development and revitalization. It defines an area of focus, leverages a suite of available tools, and provides a platform for the community to gather resources, make commitments, and work together on projects that enhance community character and allow existing businesses and residents to remain and profit from the improved quality of life. The Pink Zone tool will be developed and refined in a series of pilot projects, and then released to the public.

August 18th, 2015

Lessons from PHX – Embracing Lean Urbanism

Summary

The City of Phoenix has become a model of Lean Governing, demonstrating the benefits of community revitalization when a municipality enables and encourages the work of creative entrepreneurs, small developers, neighborhood leaders, and community organizations. Along the way, it has employed and refined a number of principles and techniques that other cities can use to revitalize their neighborhoods. Phoenix is demonstrating that small projects can lead to big results.

August 13th, 2015

The Lexicon of Lean Urbanism

Summary

The Lexicon of Lean Urbanism defines the “terms of art” and other useful words and phrases that have emerged from extended discussions on the online Lean Urbanism discussion group and at Lean Councils. The first section is dedicated to these terms, and the second presents a selection of helpful quotations.

July 29th, 2015

The Katrina Cottage Movement – A Case Study

Summary

Appealing, context-aware designs for small-scale homes in small-scale neighborhoods grabbed national attention during the 2005 Mississippi Renewal Forum after Hurricane Katrina. Though it took far longer for the ideas to find traction than anyone imagined, trial-and-error progress has produced models worth emulating, and just in time to address new realities in housing demand in post-recession America.

April 15th, 2015

Lean Urbanism and the Right to the City

Summary

The potential for a natural partnership between Lean Urbanism and social-justice groups is self-evident and should be explored. A growing movement of social-justice organizations across the world are coalescing behind the concept of “the right to the city” as a means to garner support for a wide range of social issues that can be characterized by a belief that everyone has a right to design and shape their community. These groups have the energy and determination to alter the status quo of financial and regulatory structures that prevent people who lack access to resources and capital, such as millennials and immigrants, from becoming active in small-scale development. But these groups often also lack the technical knowledge to achieve such goals. Lean Urbanism can provide tools and know-how that these groups need.

April 15th, 2015

Regulatory Barriers to Home Construction and Rehab

Summary

Regulatory barriers make housing less affordable to millions of households in the US and abroad. If regulatory barriers were reduced, small developers could provide housing at more affordable prices. This article assesses the current state of knowledge about the effects of federal, state, and local regulations on the supply and cost of housing.

April 7th, 2015

Low-Fat Vanilla Finance – A Simple Financial Model

Summary

New developers should create their own financial models. Only by doing so will they truly understand the variables and how each affects financial performance. This paper attempts to walk new developers through a financial model that includes development budget, annual return, and capital return. It is simple enough to create but sophisticated enough to present to investors and lenders. It represents one small residential rental building — not condo, and not office or retail.

April 6th, 2015

Lean Financing – Alternatives to Institutional Capital

Summary

Financing Lean Development requires both institutional and non-institutional sources of capital. This paper focuses on project equity from non-institutional sources. Years of observations and anecdotal conversations with developers of small, innovative projects suggest that Lean Development is coming of age, but it has significant hurdles to realizing its potential, and financing is among the more difficult to overcome. Understanding the motivations, requirements and techniques for working with non-institutional investors is critical to overcoming one of the primary hurdles for Lean Development.

April 3rd, 2015

Pilot Projects – Testing Tools, Building Platforms

Summary

The Lean Urbanism movement will come to life through pilot projects, as they will spread the knowledge from the professionals to community builders and entrepreneurs. They are at the core of the Project for Lean Urbanism, as they will serve to demonstrate the potential for and value of incremental, community-scale revitalization and development by tapping local physical, financial, and social assets that are currently underutilized. The pilot projects will also be used to test and refine the tools, to identify and seek solutions to common barriers in regulation or practice that inhibit small-scale development or rebuilding, and to serve as models for use by other communities.