Thursday, October 14, 2010

Addis Ababa by Design: An experiment in urban planning in Ethiopia's capital city

Source Credit Suisse

An experiment in urban planning in Ethiopia's capital city tackles the complex problem of preparing for the myriad needs of a rapidly expanding urban population in a sustainable way. But the project aspires to more: as architects Marc Angélil and Dirk Hebel explain, it also aims at giving citizens a stronger voice in their own development.

Low on the list of the United Nations Human Development Index, Ethiopia is repeatedly cast as one of the poorest nations in the world. Nonetheless, there is another side to the country that seldom draws attention. Current developments on the fringes of this culture might prove a prospective model for success throughout Africa. While tenuous, measures undertaken to promote communal solidarity and selfempowerment suggest an alternative to a dominant socioeconomic order that sustains the status quo of despair. Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing nations worldwide. In 2008, the country had approximately 81 million inhabitants; in 2025, the number could reach 125 million. Today, 83% of Ethiopia's people live in rural areas, generating their income from agriculture and relying on limited resources.

Furthermore, Ethiopia is currently experiencing a major demographic shift and evolving into an urban society. Migration from rural to urban regions is having a significant effect on its cities. If current estimates prove correct, Addis Ababa will need to house roughly an additional four million people by the year 2025. New neighborhoods and settlements will need to be built, transportation and communication networks established, and social and technical infrastructure realized. How will this transformation take place? What planning processes must be initiated? And to what degree will Ethiopia be able to modernize without losing its identity?

Urban Design Laboratory
To answer these questions, ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) Zurich and Addis Ababa University established the Urban Design Laboratory – a think tank dedicated to sustainable development and advancing knowledge in the key disciplines relevant to the formation of the built environment. Reaching beyond the realm of academia, the research is inspired by a mandate for innovation within practice and offers solutions for implementation: inquiry directed toward practical performance. One of the key objectives is to identify strategies for transforming existing unsustainable conditions into sustainable ones.

The laboratory bases its efforts on a specific theoretical framework known as the flux model. Here, the city is viewed as a dynamic system, delineated by stocks of resources and interrelated networks of flows, including input and output cycles relative to long-term development. Accordingly, the work addresses the consequences of resource allocation, distribution and deployment. The behavior of urban systems is modeled in time, taking into account the dynamic state of resource fluxes. A broad range of resources can be addressed: people, energy, water, material, waste, money, space, information and so forth. Moreover, resource flows are treated as mutually dependent. Thus, the combined impact of a multitude of stocks and flows on the constitution of cities and the potential for steering their performance in view of sustainable development forms the main thrust of the endeavor. With current urban development relying primarily on linear input-output processes, more and more material is being accumulated in cities – a reservoir potentially to be mined. Hence, framing the city in view of sustainable handling of resources requires a paradigm shift to a circular understanding of urban metabolisms.

Various Resource Flows Drive a Modern City
Because cities are settlements for their inhabitants, the role of individuals within the framework of social collectives must be at the forefront of urban research. Sociology offers insights into the relationship between social and physical space. The flux model considers developments in the demographic composition of communities and their impact on forms of urbanization. Sustainable city development forms a primary investigatory trajectory of the laboratory. Consequently, energy – in terms of resources and their attendant emissions – plays a prominent role in the research, and renewable energy sources and technologies for reducing emissions are promoted. Similarly, specific emphasis is placed on managing water, including its retention, collection, reuse and discharge, to minimize consumption and maximize the effectiveness of water distribution and irrigation systems. Because space, too, is a resource, we address questions of territorial allocation, organization, logistics and use. Specific attention is given to infrastructural systems and optimizing flows of people, goods and materials. Means are identified for maximizing the capacity of limited spatial resources in view of qualitative demands.

Cities are physical artifacts. Therefore, we place special emphasis on the behavior of materials and the means of construction. Reframing questions of recycling and waste management in the context of circular metabolisms makes it possible to take into account the impact of materials throughout the life cycle of structures as well as the material stocks found in cities. Cities not only generate money; they also require significant financial investment. Combining questions of urbanism and economics aids in assessing the ramifications of financial models on the constitution of cities to better balance public and private sectors, local and global economies, and formal and informal structures. Finally, the flow of information plays a key role in urban formation. Accordingly, the model emphasizes communication within the social body and the participation of stakeholders in decisionmaking processes, as well as methods of governance oriented toward consensus among various actors. One of the laboratory's primary objectives is to encourage the interaction of disciplines that play a role in making the built environment, for it is only through their interface that new ideas can arise. Of significance within this framework is the role attributed to the design research studio, understood as a platform for producing knowledge through design.

The Flux Model in Practice

Using Addis Ababa as a case study, we are assessing various hypotheses and propositions for its future development. The conditions we work with are real, but the explorations are speculative – they help to predict challenges and identify potential solutions. One important objective is to imagine how Addis Ababa might evolve over time. The design of anticipated developments offers a practical means of identifying prospective transformations. Because change is the only constant, we assume the urban fabric of a given site to be not an entity fixed in time, but an incessantly evolving system. Thus, designing also entails the design of processes. Investigations combine strategies for analysis, design and realization. The following three examples show a range of propositions that were developed within the laboratory and that are currently being implemented in practice.

To reduce migration from rural to urban regions, we have identified strategies to promote the construction of new towns outside Addis Ababa. Governmental authorities have agreed to implement the "Nestown" – New Energy Self-sufficient Town – project, which should ultimately lead to over 200 new sustainable settlements. Construction of the first town in Bura at Lake Tana started in the summer of 2010. The public transportation infrastructure in Ethiopia is significantly in need of promotion. The laboratory sought collaborations with state officials and engineers to promote the introduction of light-rail and streetcar systems. These efforts led to a new public-private partnership that is currently planning an extended network of transit links both within and between urban areas. Power will be supplied by the Ethiopian Electric and Power Authority using solar and hydroelectric energy.

Despite important work done in the low-cost housing sector within the past decade, new solutions are required to alleviate the current lack of units with appropriate infrastructure for water, sewage and electricity. Learning from the Grand Housing Program sponsored by the Addis Ababa city government, the laboratory initiated the Addis Built project for slum upgrading and densification, combining self-built with prefab construction and supporting community-based micro- and small enterprises. Other themes addressed within the laboratory include developing local materials for construction, implementing offgrid and microgrid infrastructure for generating electrical power and sewage treatment, and identifying strategies for the reforestation of entire stretches of land.

Viewing Ethiopia's present urbanization from the vantage of human resources and their fluctuations raises the question whether changed circumstances will be taken as an opportunity for strengthening the sovereignty of citizens. Whereas, in many parts of Africa, people are frequently treated as pawns to be discarded when no longer needed, efforts are under way in Ethiopia to promote communal solidarity, based on merged top-down and bottom-up processes. The task ahead to build new towns and cities envisages the deployment of urban planning as a collective endeavor, one supporting civic works projects, vocational programs, micro- and small enterprises, worker unions, housing collaboratives and so forth. These are still early days. But Ethiopia's urban transformation offers the potential for a new social contract – keeping in mind that the terms "city" and "citizenship" share the same root.

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