We are thrilled to announce that one of our projects—Gabon, Africa’s Akanda Masterplan and SmartCode—is the recipient of the 2016 Pierre L’Enfant International Planning Achievement Award given to groundbreaking international projects by the American Planning Association. Opticos Principal Dan Parolek reflects on the innovative effort to provide a sustainable future for a growing capital.
Our recent project in Gabon, Africa was one of the most exciting we have worked on to date. Involving a partnership with The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, it required us to do extensive research and several trips to the dynamic city of Libreville to gain a more thorough understanding of local urbanism, Gabonese culture, and tropical building design.
The end result of the project was a “toolbox” of documents and strategies that the Gabonese government will use to ensure improved quality of life for its residents, and a sustainable framework of growth for the capital city of Gabon. The “toolbox” included a Masterplan, a SmartCode (Development Standards), Tropical Building Guidelines, and a Sustainability Guide. The Masterplan covers approximately 900 hectares (2,200 acres) to the north of the Gabonese city of Libreville and south and west of the Akanda National Park. The area is targeted for growth, but with its mangroves, mudflats, coastal water and patches of moist coastal forest, any growth here would need to be sensitive to these existing natural conditions. The purpose of the project was to establish a framework of green, walkable communities of varying scales that will provide up to 20,000 new homes, support public and commercial uses, enable development of the capital, and showcase Gabonese nature, culture and commerce. The vision of the Masterplan was developed through an Enquiry by Design process that brought together an international design team, local stakeholders, and the expertise of L’Agence Nationale des Grands Travaux (ANGT).
This project raised the question and challenge: How do you successfully plan and regulate for a sustainable future for a rapidly growing capital city in a developing country, and do so in a way that reinforces and respects the local culture and a robust local economy, while improving the quality of life for residents?
Progress for progress’s sake is not always good: When the team arrived for the first time in Libreville, it was immediately evident that recent development was promoting an unsustainable, auto-dependent lifestyle that a majority of residents could not afford, and it was providing new housing that did not respond to the tropical climate or reflect the patterns of good, walkable urbanism or Gabonese cultural patterns. In addition, it was evident that roadway widenings were detrimental to the local economy and way of life for many residents who relied on the informal, organic commerce that happened along the existing roadways.
The planning process set out to reinforce the natural characteristics of Akanda and protect the local environment while thoughtfully accommodating growth. The plan achieves this aim by determining the location and general boundaries of three community types: the Hameau, Village, and Centre. The ultimate build-out of the plan will create eight Villages, four Hameaus, and one Centre. Each community is centered on a civic facility such as a school or community center, such that all residents can walk to this gathering place—a critical feature given less than four percent of residents own a car. The Masterplan also includes the country’s first public transportation network, which will serve to further promote the region’s progress.
The first question observers might ask is, “Why a SmartCode?” The country had adopted a model SmartCode a few years prior but was struggling to use it because the code had not been calibrated to meet the specific Gabonese cultural or unique physical patterns of a tropical, developing country. However, the government supported the underlying philosophy of sustainable development patterns inherent in the SmartCode, and thus it made sense for our team to build upon the existing general framework, making major refinements to create a more effective regulatory document. Our goal was to complete a mostly graphic, easy-to-use Form-Based Code that could effectively implement the vision of the Masterplan in a country that had no history of development regulations and little history of land ownership, and to do so in a way that created places that reinforced the cultural and physical patterns of Gabon.
The Transect-based code establishes three levels of regulation:
1) The Regional Scale
2) The Community Scale
3) The Block and Building Scale
Effectively establishing and implementing Walkable Urban Community Types became a foundation of the code. Community Types combine a variety of Transect Zones (in other words, the Transect Zones are the “ingredients”), and Transect Zones combine a mix of Building Types (in other words, the Building Types are the “ingredients”).
The code is a true Form-Based Code in that it has no use tables or use requirements, allowing an organic and informal mix of uses, like that which currently exists in the local community. In a place like Libreville, where car ownership is low and mobility options are limited, access to bicycles and walking distances greatly determine the location of services and commercial uses in compact patterns.
Adaptable Tropical Building Type Design
As a foundation for the code, the team created a palette of tropical building types, which is unusual for a SmartCode. This decision was made because we observed that the building type was the most likely scale that would be understood by developers and their design teams; if a building were simply “copied” from the code standards, it would produce good urbanism within the required urban framework defined by the code.
Opticos worked closely with Andrew Coates of Cresolus, a tropical building design expert from Panama, to refine the building types and to illustrate the flexibility in the defined types by showing a variety of plans within the same footprint. Coates also created a prefabricated concrete structural system that would enable building construction to occur quickly, standardize and thus improve the quality and safety of construction, and allow locally trained community members to build the buildings or to open locally owned businesses that provided these structural elements. Tropical building design guidelines were included to ensure that some basic but important principles of tropical building design—such as cross ventilation, airflow, and flooding consideration—were reinforced in future development.
As part of the project, we worked with Town Green’s Stephen Coyle on a sustainability guide, which proposed a set of enduring and flexible solutions for creating more sustainable neighborhoods, buildings, and regions. It covers the following areas: Environmental Design with a focus on habitat protection; Neighborhood Design; Mobility and Circulation; Building and Block Energy Design; Water, including stormwater, potable water, and waste water; and Solid Waste.
Special thought and care were given to usability at several levels. First, the document itself was structured in a way so that the administrators of the code could pull out and provide only sections of the code that were applicable to the scale of a project being proposed. Additionally, the code document presented a checklist system useful for both administrative reviewers and project applicants. A color coding system was also integrated to differentiate content.
As with all Opticos codes, the final document is hyper-graphic, emphasizing key concepts through pictures and diagrams. Three-dimensional graphics supplemented by limited text are the norm, and the code includes several graphic, how-to pages for both administrators and applicants at all three scales.
Furthermore, each zoning district or transect zone allows only three clearly defined building types and three frontage types tied to each building type, and has minimal level of regulation necessary to create good urbanism.
Collaboration & Innovation
This project was extensive in scale, provides Gabon with the tools necessary to establish a framework for a sustainable future while accommodating growth, and can serve as a model for other rapidly growing capital cities in developing countries.
The documents also address the challenges of land ownership, establishing an entity for administration, providing necessary training, and defining a demonstration project that would illustrate the intent of the Masterplan and vision. Opticos was thrilled to be part of such a groundbreaking project and looks forward to future collaboration with The Prince’s Foundation to establish models in other parts of the world.
—Dan Parolek+ Share