Plant a tomato and a potato might come out: Ethiopia’s urban development challenges

Ethiopia’s cities are currently facing rapid population growth, leaving them with the challenge of accommodating an increasing number of inhabitants on tight individual and public budgets. At the same time, changing ideas of modern urban representation influences the development agenda.

Zegeye Cherenet, an architect and university teacher based at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (EiABC), questions the idea of complying with international models. He is looking for local solutions to guide sustainable urban development. Nadine Appelhans spoke with him about urban development challenges in Ethiopia.

Nadine Appelhans: Rapid urbanisation is a major issue in all Ethiopian cities. What are the challenges you face as a practicing architect?

Zegeye Cherenet: Two things can be mentioned. One is the technical ability in handling and implementing architectural projects in housing construction, in terms of design and management. We design things. And, you know, the ability to implement is so limited. You don’t have masons, carpenters or basic engineers working on site. So, as an architect you design buildings, but then you throw your design out to be constructed, having no confidence in its proper implementation. The capacity to implement projects is one of the biggest challenges that we have, when you see it from the perspective of the rapid growth of cities. And the growth of technical capacity through education is not matching the growth of cities.

At this time of transformation, everything in Ethiopia is in short supply, due to the massive demands of rapid urbanization. The secondary and tertiary cities in particular do not have technical professionals to handle implementation of larger projects. It is sometimes horrible to see the way projects are being implemented on site. Going there as an architect, sometimes it is like you are required to build it by yourself from the basics. The government seems to notice this gap and is trying to address it by expanding the skills development programmes. You see, the country was not technically ready to face such an explosion of urban growth.

The other challenge is the legal and institutional frameworks and guidelines for architectural and urban development projects. I think we do not have efficiently operational urban management systems to lead urban development and project implementation yet. Particularly if you go outside of Addis Ababa: the municipalities have very limited technical capability to follow up projects and safeguard implementation of projects based on the building by-laws of the country. Generally, you don’t have a system that gives you confidence for the implementation of what you have designed. We sometimes make jokes: plant a potato, but you can never be sureit might be a tomato which comes out! To operate in such systems is challenging. So as practicing architects in a transitional society, these are the things we always have to deal with.

NA: The EiABC in Addis is the central institution for the education of building professionals. What are the key skills needed to work in this sector in Ethiopia?

ZC: When we first started to reform the institute in 2003 we tried to formulate our curriculums primarily targeting the contextual realities of Ethiopia. I can say that our earlier curriculums were not connected to the social, political, economic and environmental realities in Ethiopia. Our earlier curriculum was based on idealized Western civilization –- probably stuck in the assumptions of the 1950s and 60s. So our agenda was to have a context-based study. The building professionals, starting from architects, have to have a realistic understanding of the reality in which they are expected to operate.

If you ask, what are the key-skills needed in Ethiopia, I would say the skill of reading (to understand) reality and the skill of responding creatively as designers, as construction technologists, as planners. Because we always see through books and papers imported from somewhere. You swallow lots of theories and flashy magazines on architecture and urbanism and end up in clashing with the reality around you. We have to come up with context-based solutions. Invent materials, upgrade skills, understand natural processes and resources, including climates. For us, the skill of understanding reality, and the creative skill of responding to this as designers, are the two things we really are committed to promote in our school.

NA: What changes do you wish to see in Ethiopian cities within the next 10 years?

ZC: I wish our cities would develop a physical structure, which accommodates both the poor and the rich. Addis Ababa for so long was praised for its mixed structure, but now we are looking into dangerous ambitions: you see segregation and land being controlled by the few. So concerning the physical structure of our cities, I wish (and I work for it) , they become more mixed and accommodative to the different social groups and societal backgrounds. I say that because Ethiopian urbanisation, whether we like it or not, will be dependent on migration from the rural areas. Poor farmers will be coming and they need to be accommodated, having access to services, to housing, education and also health and other services.

And then physically I wish for our cities to explore the richness of nature. When you see buildings coming up in Addis Ababa (I am also criticising myself here), they have no regard to the riches of their setting. Addis Ababa has one of the best landscapes and climates and we could have created wonders with proper spatial design. Except for the two months of rainy season spent mostly indoors, it is possible to create a city with less built-up structures and more spaces, with active urban spaces, gardens and promenades with mixed low-rise, high-density development, and green structures. Instead, tall glass buildings are coming out and concrete lamination of surfaces is changing the green city into a desert. Physically speaking, regarding architectural design, urban design, I wish that our cities, or we, become more aware of the richness already available.

But the second point is about putting in place institutional and legal set-ups. I hope in the coming 10 years we get ready super-fast to accommodate the huge urbanisation processes. Currently not enough emphasis is given to cities. It is still rural oriented political economy that we are following and in my view it has really affected our development. So, I see the importance of proper processes of democracy, of accountability, and reversing the cultural and political deadlocks against cities.

Ethiopia has been living in patriarchal, extremely hierarchical social and political systems for so long. Because of these, our cities and our common properties suffer from the lack of ownership. People do not feel that their city belongs to them, except for their private compound. This is a matter of culture and history. But if you don’t own the city, you cannot care, because it is not yours. So this demands the right institutional system, which allows collective decisions about the future of cities and has to allow people to develop feelings of ownership. Today I am not very surprised when I see a public road being built, street furniture installed, and then I see this destroyed the next day. But it is a cultural and political experience that we need to confront in order to develop a democratic culture, in order to install these feelings of belonging into urban life.

Nadine Appelhans is an urban planner, PhD candidate and lecturer at HafenCity University Hamburg, with special research interests in informal urbanisation and post-colonial urbanism. Her current research investigates the relation of everyday urbanisation and governmental planning in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.

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