City growing pains


As I drive home in the evening after work and get closer to the neighbourhood and my residence, I can’t help but wonder what next surprise or shock will meet me on the way.
A few months ago, roads in the neighbourhood were broken open to allow for the placing of large sewage pipes. While that seems a good thing to do, the workers carrying out the job seem to have only one responsibility and that is to place the pipes. After the job was done, the unearthed selected materials were shovelled back into the open spaces. The roads were not brought back into their original state and became very poor passages indeed. Now that we have entered into the main rainy season, the roads are in an appalling state and difficult to negotiate by both pedestrians and vehicles. Only the young motorbike riders, who have joined  city traffic over the past year or so, seem not to be troubled. In addition, a major road is being constructed, crossing the neighbourhood, causing all sorts of inconveniences, including undirected traffic diversions and unannounced irregular electricity and water supply interruptions. Two weeks or more without water is now more the rule than the exception. The past few weeks we also saw a flaw in solid waste collection. Normally the waste is collected manually from the residences by groups of young workers using a hand cart, who offload the waste bags at collection points for further removal. The waste is collected from the homes alright but never picked again from the collection points, where heaps of waste bags were left to the elements and street dogs, turning into serious health hazards. One such collection point is right in front of my home and next to a medical clinic. I don’t know exactly what went wrong in the system but somebody did not do their  job, leaving entire neighbourhoods in a mess.
What we are witnessing is some of the fastest urbanisation taking place in Africa. Cities and towns throughout the continent, including Ethiopia face serious challenges of growth and management. There are issues of potential overcrowding, congestion, insufficient infrastructure and inadequate provision of services, which if not handled adequately will negatively affect social-economic development. Urban planning is therefore key, together with the capacity to organize cities, manage their growth and make them more efficient and sustainable.
There are good examples in terms of providing housing for families of various income groups and in terms of widening major roads and there are also examples where the expansion of infrastructures falls behind the exponentially increasing population numbers. Effective and efficient infrastructure will provide for the quality of life and enhance social and economic development.
We also see climate change causing more heavy rains and a rise in temperature threatening city life, causing flooding and health hazards. The sprawling buildings need to be constructed in a way to withstand earthquakes and tremors, while the sewage and drainage systems have to be able to allow a smooth outflow of storm water and liquid waste. There are real risks that need to be understood as well as the social, economic and financial consequences when the causes of risks are not mitigated effectively.
Shocks and stresses that cities endure include but are not limited to unprecedented growth, water scarcity, unemployment, floods, fires and traffic accidents.
To render cities habitable and more resilient it is important to understand the nature of any immediate threats to people and assets, as well as the dependencies and interdependencies of urban services and systems, which can cause disruption or failure or compound existing vulnerabilities.
A holistic rather than a sector approach is necessary to identify critical gaps or areas of weakness, followed by the planning and implementation of aligned actions and investments. If done effectively, this will help urban communities better able to withstand hazards that come their way.
I foresee a few challenges though, including coordination, capacity to deliver quality works and the need to include the people in the neighbourhood in the entire process. In terms of coordination we see a road being constructed, only to be broken up to lay down the sewage or water piping system. Closing it again leaves permanent marks in an otherwise new road. As far as the quality of public works is concerned we see roads made but without proper sidewalks endangering pedestrians and with gaping manholes on the side, which people fall in to and which get clogged by solid waste instead. As a result, we create health hazards instead of preventing them.
Finally, it is crucial we include the people who live in a neighbourhood in planning. Their opinion in the design of the neighbourhood matters, including green areas, playgrounds, location of schools and health centres, the kind of business and services, solid waste management etc.
Otherwise we will continue seeing the youngsters blocking the road on Sunday morning to play a game of football. Let us ensure inclusive urban development planning instead, so that cities can grow and go through their growing pains in a controlled manner instead of being suffocated in the process.

Ton Haverkort
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