Translate ‘Addis Ababa’ to a foreigner and her eyes glaze over at the thought of miles of beautiful parks, boulevards and streets lined up with ornamental prune trees, and pedestrian-friendly clean neighborhoods. Alas, the reality could not be further from the truth. Addis Ababa is today a dense, brutal, and crowded city, with serious deficiencies in housing, drinking water, power, sewerage, solid waste disposal, and other services. Everywhere we look, we see evidence of unthinkable inequality, deprivation and filth.
Fifty years ago, my father likened to say ‘There is no garden in Addis Ababa… Addis is in a garden.’ I suppose with the speed of growth Addis witnessed in the past few decades, and the scarcity of means with which it could respond to it, things must have gone out of control. Yes, cities are messy, complex places to administer. But what cities can be, is smarter about how they approach the issue. Today, Addis Ababa has the exclusive opportunity to reinvent its city centre. It can not only rejuvenate itself, but also give a preview of how an African City of the 21st Century could look like and function.
These last ten years, as large amount of area is freed up right in the heart of the city, the chance to plan a completely new activity centre for the city has arisen. Unfortunately, the redevelopment so far seems to be utterly sterile. Look at Arat Kilo (my home quarter), where there was once a vibrant community, busy alleys, family owned businesses, artisan workshops, small soccer fields and more, is today being replaced by new residents, soulless new assemblage of buildings with absolutely zero character or taste. And yet, poor Arat Kilo could have been one of the tourist attraction of the city, had it been allowed to keep its mixed-use habitats, and high-density neighborhoods and was provided with sewage systems, water, electricity, roads, wi-fis and other state of the art amenities, regardless of how slummy or messy it looked.
Go further to AYAT and beyond, a featureless new quarter.
Over the past decade and a half, the nation’s developers and government officials have replicated discredited urban planning templates, importing ideas that were tested, failed and long since abandoned in places like Europe and the US.
But the most amusing development of all is the attempt by the city to create a so called financial centre between Mexico Square and the National Bank of Ethiopia – which meant for the authorities replicating the plans for the Loop in Chicago or Canary Wharf in London, or Wall Street in New York. Here the containers are mistaken for the contents. But no one goes to Mexico Square to see the buildings.
That’s not all, now check out the development around the UNECA, where monotonous hotel buildings and bunch of apartments completely masked one of the magnificent UN campuses in the world. Today that complex is almost out of sight. A repeat around the AU Commission campus may be developing.
In the whole, the wrong sort of architecture and urban planning has been favored – an approach that favors, horizontal grouping of buildings (of any kind) instead of, say, business. And what’s frightening is the lack of citizens’ engagement in policymaking and the design of public services. So, to any Addis Ababian willing to listen – before it’s too late – it’s time to claim back the essence of the new flower or the image of Addis Ababa.
Here are six modest ideas:
First, let’s decide on the kind of city we, the citizens, want to have and then start rebuilding our city the way we want it. Ideally government should provide the land and the infrastructure, but beyond that, we should be free to build what we need, neighborhood by neighborhood, each with its own main street, shops, banks, schools, hospitals, entertainment centers etc . Each complex becoming a small town, and their numbers would make up this sprawling capital. Indeed, this was how Addis was founded at the start of the 20th century, with the then aristocrats and army commanders setting up their own camps i.e. Ras Mulugeta Sefer, Dejazmach Zewedu Abba Koran, Dejach Wube are some among others.
Today, many misunderstand Addis Ababa as informal and illogical because of the dualist notion of the city as divided into polar opposites: Urban and rural, rich and poor, formal and informal, order and mess. But Ethiopian culture accepts that mess and order are inseparable: this is why Ethiopians are so tolerant of urban forms that the West would see as “irrational” or “messy” — neighborhoods develop and slowly integrate with the larger urban system on their own terms. Addis was built with no zoning rules to become a fantastically integrated mixed-use city. With some imagination, involvement, and incremental development we can still build what would be a prosperous city where the inhabitants would preserve their customs and social organization. In other words, a city with character.
Second, let’s make (not talk) Addis the greenest city of Africa, a city that builds electric light train, but also provides a new way of thinking about urban living. A city moving from a consumer society to a collaborative society; a city that has high acceptance of public transit, bicycle pathways, and pedestrian walkways; a city that can encourage and support residents to grow their own food. Utopia? Not at all! It is in fact within our ability to change, say, within a time span of twenty years. Encouraging, say, small plot or integrated farming, known as permaculture, is an initiative everyone can be involved in, and make a small difference in their community and surrounding environment, it can even create employment, lots of it, for young people. As you might imagine, for a green future in Addis Ababa, multiple actions need to be taken: from localized high-level policy frameworks, to harnessing residents’ love for nature.
Third, let’s rethink our deference to car travel (a copy paste of another value and culture) and stop crafting our landscape around automotive transport. Look at New York city, note the compactness of its development, the fertile mix of commercial and residential uses, and the availability of public transportation. All that has made automobile ownership all but unnecessary in most of New York city. So why not adopt the same vision for Addis, and promote biking, buses and modern traffic systems, as well the building of pleasant sidewalks.
Fourth, let’s stop pushing out lower wage residents and service workers out to the far-off peripheries, where opportunities are fewest, where they can barely afford to live, and where their economic conditions continues to sink. Aren’t they part of the fabric of Addis Ababa? The future of our city should not be a city of dull, boring, rich people only.
Fifth, let’s build an inclusive Addis Ababa with strong community bonds, incorporating resilience, innovations and technologies in areas such as infrastructure, governance and security. For this is a necessary first step to get political, business and civic leaders to agree on a shared vision and common agenda for joint action on the city’s economic growth and inclusion. Of course collaboration does not happen naturally, particularly in view of past experiences and the way our Kebeles work, where politics and the ruling party members dominate the discourse. Still, I think residents can come together and make Addis a hotbed of high tech and the leading startup cities in Africa. Let’s catch up Nairobi and Kigali.
Which leads me to my sincerest piece of advice: If we have any ambition for creating inclusive, resilient, green, healthy, just, smart or livable Addis Ababa, then we should, above all, effectively tackle corruption.