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Co-Managing Meskel Square to City Hall

Bisrat K. Woldeyessus
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Meskel Square to City Hall Project (MSCH) of Addis Ababa, inaugurated recently in June 2021, has demonstrated the need for increased involvement of citizens in order to co-manage the services delivered by the city. Less than a week into service, some of the waste bins at Churchill Avenue have been vandalized, stolen, and inappropriately used. The street chairs installed along the walkway are in some cases used by street kids to sleep and street vendors to stuck their products both against the intended purpose. The new pedestrian way has opened for a wide range of purposes, both formal and informal, legal and illegal, essential and nonessential, all depending on the way each of these starts to take shape and subsequent actions by the city.

Apart from the introduction of a wide, dedicated, and furnished pedestrian route, the project has blurred the boundary between public and private, by expanding the private into the public and vice versa. Contrary to the controversial front setback requirement by the city, existing buildings along Churchill Avenue are not required to demolish their structure within the right of way but integrate their ground floor with the public walkway. The newly created walkway under the post office building is now a public space, while the floors above are offices. Similarly, a number of other private and public buildings have merged their ground floor with the walkway while maintaining their upper floors within the right of way. The general idea of removing fences and connecting streets with adjacent developments has led to increased and shared responsibility. As all public spaces within this project are fully accessible to the public and non are fenced, the way we use them will determine the longevity and applicability of the approach.

The implementation phase of MSCH involved multiple stakeholders and institutions whose direct and proactive engagement has led to improved delivery of the service. For example, the boundary of three buildings belonging to Ethio-Telecom has been shifted to expand the Churchill Av walkway and public plaza at Churchill view. In all three cases, the active involvement of Ethio-Telecom, as a key stakeholder, has paved for an easier and instant solution to right of way issues. Similarly, both Black Lion and Lycee Gebremariam schools have given up a large portion of their land to the expansion of the street, which in effect has only shifted from enclosed underutilized semi-public space into accessible and more efficient public space. As a result, hundreds of their students can walk safely all along the school’s frontage leading to reduced traffic congestion due to pickup and drop-off queues. Understanding this, both schools have cooperated with the city to give up an average of nearly 14meters depth from their previous boundary.

This kind of cooperation is also witnessed among private sectors. For example, shop owners near Tedros square voluntarily demolished their walls to allow expansion of the street. Although formal compensations are provided by the city administration for the properties to be demolished, their proactive action to remove the obstruction, construct temporary bridges and passages have led to instant construction of the walkway. Clearly, they are primarily motivated as the improvement of the walkway would directly benefit them but their contribution extends far and to many.

Image Courtesy of: Abinet Teshome

“Churchill avenue has suddenly opened new possibilities for walking…”

Highly secured institutions like the Ministry of Defense and EBC also removed their fences to expand the street and this was possible partly due to their willingness to see their institutions become part of the new development. When one journalist from EBC came to interview me after the completion of the project, She cherished the changes around their office and working along a clean and walkable street. She has been following the project from early days but never expected the street to be as pedestrian-friendly as it is now. Being a long-time public transport user, mainly minibusses, she now enjoys walking easily to Piasa or Laghar to meet with friends and socialize. Churchill avenue has suddenly opened new possibilities for walking and encouraged several users, like the EBC journalist, to avoid using cars for short and medium distances. She told me that walking has become her passion and first choice to access services along the avenue. We have removed a total of about 200 car parking from Leghar to EBC and created walkable streets for thousands.

However, walking is possible when the spaces are not filled with street vendors, and there is sufficient space for everyone to contemplate. It is evident that street businesses are both socially and economically required. However, if there are no guidelines on where and how the businesses shall be located, spontaneous and uncontrolled use will result in reduced regular pedestrians. In this regard, the role of citizens to respect the safety and comfort of others is indisputable. If street businesses claim a significant part of the walkway, creating hindrance to the movement of people, an easy and quick solution would be to restrain from buying the services that are blocking the street. Surprisingly, some consumers expose themselves to traffic accidents trying to purchase items from street vendors. It is, therefore, necessary to act collectively and in collaboration with the law enforcement bodies, to develop the culture of using our streets reasonably and appropriately.

Image Courtesy of: Aron Simeneh

While working at Meskel Square in May this year, an old man approached us and started talking although none of us seriously paid attention as we were occupied dealing with water leakages at the ventilation shaft. He kept on talking and started to comment about the type of trees at Meskel Square. Carefully and with a reduced tone, he appreciated the 24/7 working hours and told us how grateful he is to see this. He continued his talk and put forward his wishes to visit the project as soon as it opens. When I asked him if he wishes to visit it now, he did not believe it and was highly grateful. We walked on the plaza towards entrance number 3. There are six entrances from the plaza to the basement and the first one starts from the east side. As he walked into the basement and saw the basement parking, his eyes were filled with tears. He literarily said, “I am grateful to live this long and see this in my own country”. He visited the basements and went to the steps. He quickly walked to a corner near Addis Ababa Museum and spotted an area. He told me that he used to come to that specific location with the late Sebhat G/Egziabher, a renowned writer. He sat down on the concrete curb and started to tell me how important this space is to focus and write his poems. I didn’t know what he does until this point. He narrated for me the changes at Meskel Square, which used to be called Revolution Square during the socialist regime. For him, the current refurbishment is well deserved for all the historical and political values of the square but fears how it would be kept clean and safe for him and others to come back and use it. He left me with more questions including the historical value of Meskel Square being far more than what we thought we knew. At least, I never knew Sebhat had a favorite spot at the steps. As a concerned citizen, the old man called me back to share his opinions and ideas on how to manage the space. His visit, among many others, left us with another unforgettable memory.

“…removing fences and connecting streets with adjacent developments has led to increased and shared responsibility.

The initiation to co-manage the shared public spaces of the MSCH project can come either from the government or end-users. The most important issue remains to be understood that this kind of public project can greatly benefit from shared responsibility and participation. It is necessary to see the direct and increased engagement of citizens in managing our shared public spaces. The city administration and its affiliates can greatly benefit from empowered citizens, with an increased sense of ownership and belongingness in the city. Co-managing our shared spaces can start easily when citizens appropriately use services provided by the city. The success of MSCH relies not only on the realization of the project but appropriate use of the services and facilities by end-users. This demands the reorganization of our social and economic characteristics. If we fail to collectively become a society that deserves and properly uses the advanced public services provided by our city, the public services could decline towards us. Co-managing MSCH can lead us to direct and enhanced involvement as citizens and a progressive society.

Image Courtesy of: Aron Simeneh

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© July, 2024 Ketema Journal

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