Designing the Addis Ababa of Tomorrow

Ordinarily, I get pretty lukewarm reaction when writing about improving life in Addis Ababa. I suppose people realize that’s never an easy task. That said, there are certain issues that deserve our attention. The city’s silence on how to use the now cleared up slums is one of them.
Not satisfied with the areas already cleared, the government is now heavily committed to extending the program to your own backyard.
In typical fashion, the authorities do not want you to voice your concern on the matter. “Trust us,” they say. “It’s for your own good.”
Skeptical?
Decent folk don’t know where Addis Ababa is heading. They see roads, rail lines, low cost apartments being built. But at the same time they witness classic government failures to deliver public services (water, power, telecom, public transport, health, garbage) because of negligence as well as insufficient financial and physical resources. Let me stop here as there is too much to cover and go straight to the crucial question: What kind of city do you want to live in?
Yes, what kind of city do you want to live in? Is it the type of city where you get in your car (those lucky ones) and drive without thinking of infuriating traffic? Do you want light rail or would you prefer the bus system to go away completely? Would you like to live in homes around a central business district? Would you like to see lots of public squares, plazas, boulevards and parks for recreation and entertainment? What about a city where pedestrians have sidewalks and are not merely road kill? Do you really want a city where development is pursued at any cost, without regard to the most vulnerable among us, and what about the environment? Anyway, we cannot talk about the kind of city we want to live in until we know what kind of city we want, and to talk about the kind of city we want, we have to know how we want to live. And this is the question we have not properly discussed in Ethiopia.
Last week, I followed the discussion between city fixers, including Mayor Kuma Demeksa, and residents. The discussion was about the major problems residents face in Addis Ababa and what’s being done to address them. Some extraordinary complaints were voiced from the residents: mobile not working properly, commercial weights failing and affecting poor households, cobblestone contractors not honoring existing contracts, corruption in Woreda offices growing etc… These are serious problems… and City Hall tries to solve these problems… even though every time they don’t get solved at all.
The trouble may be with the manner of our planning process, which is deeply flawed. In the current model, a group of planners get to decide what the city wants and needs. Then they ‘invite’ the public ‘to make suggestions and objections’ when the city’s goose is pretty much already cooked. The result is always a plan that is exclusionary: it largely ignores the poor and the weak and makes no effective provision for their housing, health, sanitation and transport. Matters are made worse by the builder-politician nexus and when ultimate planning control, with no system of oversight, is retained in the hands of one minister who owes nothing to the city.
This method of planning is simply wrong. From Barcelona to Ottawa, the process is exactly the reverse: first try and ascertain the needs of citizens, and then develop the plan. Public consultation is the foundation of all planning; but it must precede the planning, not follow it. Post-facto public participation is necessary to correct and fine-tune, but it is no substitute for prior consultation. Whose city is it anyway?
Of course government apologists insist that there is no better way than letting politicians and bureaucrats running City Hall. Modern cities can’t exist without them, they claim.
Maybe. All we can say for sure, without benefit of a giant particle collider, or a know-it-all bureaucrats, is that City Hall, as we know it today, is not responding to the needs of the residents.
So what to do? First, the government has to lessen its big brother dominant position and embrace full heartedly the participatory approach or involvement of stakeholders in the city planning and government process. Of course this government is well aware that people’s involvement is essential for a genuine democratic development process. It has, however, been reluctant to introduce a coherent, all inclusive new mechanism giving people a chance to participate in planning and managing processes.  Just imagine the residents of Arada deciding together when new schools are built, where parks are located, and which library programs are offered. Imagine a Bole where people voluntarily direct their tax Birr to poorer communities, where community policing is the norm (already in progress). Imagine a Kirkos where thousands of residents of different ages, and values regularly meet together to build a better common future. This scenario can be the reality. It is already a reality in many parts of the world.
Does the approach demands new democratic institutions? Of course it does. Is it easy to make such an approach work? No. But it’s worth trying. It’s worth trying because it promotes democracy, equity, community, education, transparency, and efficiency. The good news: you can start small and build on it.
Now coming back to the beginning of the article:  what’s next after the slums are cleared, e.g. after the residents are moved from shantytowns to vertical ghettos.
No one knows. Indeed there is no history of success in clearing slums and moving the people somewhere else.
That’s why it may be important to revisit those areas yet to be cleared. Why not concentrate on improving the conditions of the neighbourhood instead of outright clearing and relocating residents. The fact that low-income people in, say, Kebena live in smaller houses is not bad. What’s bad is when the government does not help improve the conditions of existing slums and slum-dwellers, as well as prevent the formation of new slums. Shiro Meda could have gardens, clinics, schools, shops and space for residents to run small businesses had the government upgraded the physical, social, economic, organizational and environmental infrastructure. Arat Kilo, had it been given the opportunity to upgrade, would have kept many more of its inhabitants (and its ‘charm’,) which would have benefitted from its proximity to transport, cheaper living costs and proximity to schools.
The bottom line is that if Ethiopia (this government, actually) encouraged and brought citizens to actively take part in the building of their city, we would have, a much, much pleasant Addis Ababa.