The case of Ethiopia: the demand for responsive architectural planning and production in rapidly urbanizing regions.

Author:Mamo, Zegeye Cherenet
 
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Africa is considered a rapidly urbanizing continent, but it lags behind when it comes to the discourse of urbanization. According to Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, "to write the world from Africa or to write Africa into the world, or as a fragment thereof, is a compelling and perplexing task" (2004). In discourses on world affairs and, in particular, urbanization, the case of Africa often falls into a box that many might label otherness. It is only recently that the concept of otherness itself has become a point of interest for those who wish to study the urban revolution in Africa. As with any radical phenomenon, however, most academic literature paints two opposing pictures: one of despair and hopelessness, and the other of an opportunity for a more creative and responsive urban future (Cherenet Mamo, 2015, p. 17). This article attempts to underscore the latter by examining the case of Ethiopia, which is one of the least urbanized nations currently undergoing a rapid transformation.

In terms of settlement structure, Ethiopia is still predominantly rural, its population concentrated in highlands and relying on subsistence rain-fed farming. Various reports estimate that less than 16 per cent of Ethiopians live in urban areas (dense settlements with more than 2,000 inhabitants). It is also a country with a relatively long and continuous history of nationhood with established urban centres. With a growing population--currently estimated at more than 100 million--Ethiopia aims to transform itself rapidly from a predominantly subsistence agrarian economy into an industrial one (MoFED, 2010).

Over the past few years, compelling evidence has emerged that Ethiopia has begun its transformation in almost all spheres, revealing both potentialities and challenges. In this period of heightened dynamism, the subject of urbanization, which has long been neglected in political and development discourse, is becoming a central agenda. For almost the first time in modern Ethiopian history, an intentional, top-down instigation of urbanization is included among the country's chief development programmes (NPC, 2016). In addition to the expansion of existing cities through public housing and other infrastructural projects, government programmes aim to transform thousands of rural kebeles (1) into urban centres in less than five years.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not the capacity of the existing political and administrative apparatuses is strong enough to handle such large-scale sociospatial reorganization, the sheer technical demand for the rapid production of massive architectural space is overwhelming. It entails the construction of millions of houses, and thousands of schools, health centres and administrative buildings, as well as the development of numerous infrastructural projects. Furthermore, this urban transformation is expected to serve as a mechanism for economic stimulus, job creation and trade diversification. In both urban and rural areas, however, these emergent needs for large architectural/urban spaces have to sustain the complexity of local (contextual) realities in order to function as a platform for the long-term processes of cultural transformation.

It is plausible to conceive that, for the foreseeable future, these architectural spaces in both the established cities and emerging towns of Ethiopia would continue to serve as venues for negotiating extreme realities in the economic, environmental and sociopolitical spheres. Hence, architecture, as an enterprise responsible for the transformation of physical space into livable spaces, must adopt a mechanism to properly read these extreme realities and respond to them comprehensively. The task of operating in such a complex setting demands a bold re-evaluation of the classical terms of the practice of and education on architecture and urban planning...

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