Master Planning in Developing Countries

From Afghanistan to Angola, Botswana to Pakistan, Kazikstan to Mozambique, societies are at varying levels of development, some governments are in turmoil, and economies range from stable to struggling. But one thing the developing world seems to have in common is the desire for a greater degree of higher education. Countries intent on improving themselves and becoming fully integrated into the global community realize they need good colleges and universities — to produce graduates who will enable them to compete on the world stage and who can help them achieve and sustain stable growth in the 21st century and beyond.

U.S. colleges are working with countries that want access to the unique qualities of higher education for their citizens. Accordingly, this global drive toward more competitive and comprehensive higher education systems is attracting significant attention among engineering and architectural design firms that have higher education experience and proven success in creating and building everything from specialized academic facilities to entire campuses.

At the same time, education ministries in developing country governments, administrators of existing colleges and universities, and in-country architects and builders are striving to find design engineering partners in Asia, Europe, and North America who know how to work successfully in the developing world. As a firm that has designed buildings and campuses throughout Southeast Asia and Africa, we know that great institutions grow out of well-conceived master plans. But we also know that if there is one factor that can influence the success or failure of such a plan, it is cultural sensitivity.

A Brief Definition
To provide perspective for higher education administrators who may be engaged in a campus planning exercise, we define a master plan as a framework. As such it will encompass highly detailed descriptions and views of the structural elements of a new campus, an extension, or a renovation. It will include expected elevations and floor plans, overall site specifications, and the relative locations of buildings, infrastructure, and adjacent elements such as structures that are not part of the campus itself.

But equally important, as a framework, the plan must accommodate the unknown. By this is meant that conditions or factors that underpin a campus project now — and inform specific design decisions now — can and may in fact change in the future. And the design firm and its partners who will retain work on the project, and earn future consideration as well, are those with a commitment to be flexible and who are willing to adapt and change their design recommendations as conditions and factors dictate.

Indicators of Cultural Sensitivity
Developing countries see their growth and development tied to their university systems — which are essential to producing the professionals they need to develop their economies. But they must have robust institutions so they can attract students from other countries as well. However, a U.S. design firm — even one with international higher education experience — cannot on its own simply design and build a campus. A key cultural tenet is the need to establish and build partnerships with local architects, designers, and planners because they know best what it’s like to work in a particular country or city, and are most knowledgeable about how people use and interact with their environments.

Based on our experience in Africa, for example, we recognize what local partners know intuitively: In particular, that change is inevitable, but some decisions, once made, will not change even though the need to do so seems logical and necessary. What one learns is that once a structure is built, there is strong reluctance to modify it or move it, though the latest iteration of a master plan calls for it for highly compelling financial or pragmatic reasons. Built structures are seen as important assets and spent resources; thus there is usually reluctance to replace them though they may have exceeded their useful lives. An older building may be operating on a marginal basis, but is acceptable, as opposed to a newer building that may never be built.

Taking the long-term view is also essential. In the U.S., we’re used to having project decisions made in timeframes as short as a few weeks. That will rarely be so when master planning in a developing country, even with solid partner relations in place. Decision-making, especially around major institutional planning, is a long-term process. Repeat work comes when the designer demonstrates his or her dedication and cultural understanding, through campus visits, and by taking a suggestive approach in offering ideas.

Being culturally sensitive also means understanding a country’s “guiding principles.” Based on our work on the master plan for American University in Afghanistan, for example, we know that a key guiding principle is to have the campus layout reflect the manner in which traditional Afghani cities and towns are planned and laid out. This means establishing main plazas and public spaces, and then surrounding these spaces with the academic core, and branching off to modules, or “bots” of student housing, amenities, and further out to other buildings such as maintenance, security, etc.

Added to this is the need to design spaces in accordance with accepted norms. For instance, taking into account how men and women interact, what constitutes acceptable “personal space,” and what is considered appropriate space for the sizes of classrooms, labs, lecture halls, etc.

Not to be overlooked is planning that reflects the economic needs of the country. A master plan that calls for all the facilities one finds on a U.S. campus — buildings for science, business, the arts, communications, theology and so on — is not likely to be well received. The designer has to learn what the country needs to grow and prosper and then plan accordingly. In one country, the future may lie in improved agricultural development, pointing to the need for facilities and academic programs supporting that path. In another, more western-style business may be the objective, thereby informing a different set of structural and programmatic needs. Planning must be approached from the standpoint of what’s needed most for the country: more scientists, business experts, or geologists. What is the big picture for the country, how will the university support it and attract students with the right interests and talents?

A Few More Words About Partnerships
 It’s essential to have a local partner and a mutual trust. Local counterparts know the country better than any outsider ever will and it is imperative to seek their active involvement to benefit of the project. At the same time, they know that the outside designer brings a wealth of planning and building experience. To be a successful partner requires visiting and meeting with them in their offices (even when there may be no active project or planning work to be done), hosting them in your own offices, and going so far as to assist them in visiting colleges or universities that are similar to that which they are planning in their country.

Further, strong partnerships are those in which the designer also shares technology, resources, process, and ideas. Be open to their input. Ask, “How do you instruct in your country?” Accepting their ideas and allowing them to have a say in the planning decisions will go a long way toward ensuring success on an initial master plan, and will motivate them to seek your involvement in future plans and projects.

John Medvec, AIA, LEED-AP, is a senior associate and project manager at Yost Grube Hall Architecture, with nearly 25 years experience. He leads multi-disciplinary teams focused on technically complex, international projects for clients such as the University of Botswana, the U.S. Department of State, and Chevron.