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architects ወርሃዊ

The World Class City. August 2020, Session 22
Abel Assefa
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August 13, 2020 marked the 22nd successful session of the popular architect’s ወርሃዊ event where we held another timely and engaging session titled ‘The world class city; a conversation between architects.’ Our guest for the month was Selamawit Wondimu, an architect / planner and a PHD candidate at the university of Sheffield. We would like to thank Selamawit for the provocative presentation and Brook Teferra for conducting the discussion. The last four sessions of architects ወርሃዊ were held online with our members from different parts of the globe.

The conversation started by first covering What the ‘world class city’ is and the implications it has on cities aspiring to be one. Selam described the ‘world class city’ as a city or cities being built in the image of other global cities like New York, Tokyo, Paris etc. Global cities are primary nodes in the global economic network with a high accumulation of global capital and are part of organizing the world economy. She further explained ‘world class city making’ as the phenomena resulting from the focus on infrastructure investments in cities aiming to attract global capital.

The discussion continued by pointing out in 2018, Ethiopia was the 5th biggest host economy for global capital in Africa. And while most of it went to industrialization and agriculture, we are now seeing it venture into the urban sphere and that is why it’s important to have this discussion about world city making, its features and risks to our city.

Selam further discussed in depth experiences of cities in the global south striving to achieve a “world class status”, mentioning that the process of transformation into a “world class city” is likely to bring about uneven social consequences with a tendency to remove slums and the signs of poverty in public space and the architectural built environment.

Additionally, she discussed the repercussions of world class city building in planning citing Arif Hasan. Few points that were mentioned include; how global capital increasingly determines the physical and social form of the city, how in the process projects have replaced planning, and how land use is determined on the basis of land value alone and not on the social and environmental considerations.

In an interesting visual example, Selam discussed the homogenizing effect the idea has on spaces because it is defining aesthetics through the image of the original world city. And its tendency to reproduce itself was illustrated using the land adjacent to the beautifying sheger project, where more opportunities for building similarly high value projects is created as a result.

When looking at the images of big development projects happening in Addis, she stresses the need to ask the important question of who is missing in the picture? In these proposals, we don’t see the majority of Addis Abeba’s residents. Additionally, we have to pose important strategic planning questions such as, who will use these spaces? How will the project affect land value? Who will benefit from the land value gains? What will happen to the neighborhoods cleared? And where will we fit in this global type aesthetics?

She presented Mumbai’s world class city making experience which included desirable results such as the creation of a multi stakeholder public private planning process, developing a city business plan, developing a housing policy, beautification of historic neighborhoods, creation of innovative online reporting sites etc. On a different case, the less favorable case of Nairobi was presented, where the government came with the plan ‘Nairobi metro 2030’. Slums were cleared and developed by private developers with low quality. And due to corrupt and unethical construction practices many of the buildings have collapsed. Recommended reads on this topic include Rule by Aesthetics: World-class City Making in Delhi, D. Asher Ghertner. And Nairobi in the Making: Landscapes of Time and Urban Belonging, Constance Smith.

Furthermore, Addis Abeba’s 10-year development plan was discussed. While it does not mention ‘world class city making’ explicitly, ambitious developments are planned. An example of this, is the plan by the government to build 4.4 million housing units. It is important to ask where and how these units are going to be built, who will build them? what are the risks? how this effort interacts with the existing fabric and whether the construction industry has the capacity to undertake these projects.

The Dhaka structure plan was discussed as an exemplary case study highlighting basic take away points. Some of the points include; building ethical and efficient local construction industry to cope up with the coming demands, questioning how our cities can be globally competitive and efficient, ensuring FDI induced growth doesn’t exasperate inequalities, ensuring local productivity and committing to functionality.

Discussion points raised include, how we can reconcile the need to create a modern capital while preserving our indigenous character and the need to study suitable and equitable interventions that go side to side with entry of global capital.

Additionally, studying the effect of global capital on urban spaces, promoting efficiency while dealing with social issues, and the economic question of inequality in urban spaces are put at the core challenges of the Architecture and Planning professions.

The session was concluded by stressing the need to start a public conversation on the topic. At this critical point where rapid economic and political shifts are taking place and Addis is changing fast, our active engagement is required to guide the city building outcomes. We will yet see the effect of global capital and its influence on urban space therefore, understanding the contradiction and challenge needs a sensitive approach from Decision makers, Architects and Planners.

This month’s session was intended to start a broader conversation on the topic. The discussions are expected to continue in the virtual platforms with an ever-growing living debate on the topic. Stay tuned!

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