Ethiopia’s new UTOPIA; Entoto Park
Exhilarating, stupendous, mesmerizing, marvelous, astounding and elegant are some of the most popular terminologies frequently used to describe the national emblem and trending city attraction that is Entoto Park. The park named “biggest park in Africa” by prominent critics and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PHD), is located in the northern hilltops of the capital, rising 3200 meters above sea level and comprising of 1300 hectares of land with balanced precipitation throughout the year.
As I hiked up the reviving hills, my first impression could easily be generalized by a single word: Unexpected. Entoto mountain has been and is the lung of the city, the healer, refresher and entertainer of tourists because it is mainly covered with numerous plantation family like ‘kosso, zigba, warka and bahirzaf’ making it the main tourist attraction site and a health-oriented park.
Entoto park being a government-owned project and budgeted by several fund-raising platforms together with eleven private investors, hit the ground running on the 22nd of November, 2019 given a time constraint of only 5 months prior to the conceptual/preliminary design well-articulated and presented by the prime minister and appointed professionals.
The Prime Minister noted that he used to personally visit the mountain long before the park’s commencement; to sit on a stone putting the stressed mind at ease, to enjoy the view of the city and the long-hauled trees that nature has to offer.
Proportionate site visits were manifested by the prime minister himself and respected advisory officials before the project was publicly announced and ground breaking ceremony was held.
Situated on the mountain range covering the northern part of the capital, Entoto is a categorical forest long considered the lung of the city. Due to the high altitude and an abundance of fresh oxygen from the forest it used to be known for two things: a training ground for the iconic Ethiopian long distance runners and an income generation method via firewood collection for the local residents. The park’s inception highlights both the potential and the problem it aimed to solve; create a space for the city dwellers on a healthy and recreational basis while also alleviating the conditions of local residents by providing jobs and a means of income.
Families living in and around the forest, primarily the women, used to gather colossal amount of firewood which they carried on their backs down the mountain to the nearest market in Kechene an average distance of 3.5 Km. This task not only gained these people meager profits which increased with the amount of firewood but also caused major deformation and spinal injuries for these women. Thus, transforming the lives of these residents needed to take a primary seat in the design inception of the park’s many facilities. This transformation took two steps, first through employment during the construction phase and second through gainful employment during the operational phase.
The rough terrain of the mountain chain was an excruciating ordeal for the design team as the primary question before anything started was the provision of a secure transportation infrastructure. Numerous construction companies like Value Engineering, Rama Construction and Melcon Construction were involved in this multi-tiered project with 24 hour shifts and consistent supervisions by the government and relevant professionals. This undoubtedly attained a rapid progression as a 4km road was unearthed and covered by asphalt in just 3 weeks.
The major part of the project was completed in just 7 months time as envisioned in the beginning phase proving to the construction industry that huge scale projects like Entoto park can be completed with the quality and excellence necessary if aided with compulsory time management and perseverance. The fact that all the design, construction and budgeting of this local project was all transpired by Ethiopians added an inspirational part to play in the belongingness and attribution of the professional’s motivation to succeed. An interesting factor that made the construction lively and proactive was the demanding nature of the individuals who visited the park whilst it was undergoing construction keeping the professionals involved on their toes.
What’s more impressive is that many considered the construction of the park would devastate the local flora. After all, the steep contours of the site must have been a huge challenge for any excavator to be efficient. Not only did the road plan advocate for ‘minimal intervention’ as much as possible but also trees affected were transplanted locally instead of being chopped down as mere construction inputs. This precise effort to preserve the flora was a prolonging effort that will payback for decades to come.
As for the architectural essence, Entoto park as seen from the top of the hill has a metaphorical view that resembles the form of a human silhouette. The pathways are deliberately designed and aligned in such a manner that the roads provided for pedestrians and easy-going bicycles run along with the form of a human from head to hands and legs. Practically speaking if one wishes to eagerly complete the whole park, he also completes one full human body cycle. Such an allegorical concept implication in a natural park-like this makes it an outstanding of its kind and shine out to compete with the other world leading parks.
Entoto constitutes 4 main gateways named differently at the four directions of the city inviting anyone interested to visit and enjoy the iconic gift of nature in the four villages/spaces/zones of the park as one might refer to it.
The Landmarks: The Historical Entrance
This first zone located at the left-hand portion of the human silhouette is the historic entrance to the site. Before settling the plain low lands below Entoto, Emperor Menelik and his cohorts first settled there. This zone serves as the historical point of view to Entoto’s unique situation in addition to the local Entoto Mariam Church and the old palace museum found adjacent to the site. More than the other areas of the park, this site emphasizes the wide sweeping views of Entoto’s peak overlooking the lowlands below. An ideal location during those early days. Telescope-aided city views add to this atmosphere, fast food spots enhance the senses, photoshoot sites and outdoor sitting spaces for relaxation and reading are just some of the features of this entrance.
The centerpiece of this zone is the white circular platform building serving as the observatory at the edge of a cliff overlooking the city. The contrasting white against the dense foliage and a funneling bamboo structure which takes inspiration from firewood bundles marks this structure kilometers away. The building houses a circular memorial room as an ode to the women who lived their lives carrying firewood.
Among the remarkable projects here, Fresh Corner’s floating restaurant draws the eyes as a noticeable feature in the scenery. These floating service areas use the slope of the site to jut out from the restaurant horizontally into the trees, zig-zagging in between the canopy. This creates a unique experiential feeling, compared to the rest of the eateries in the area. Other noticeable projects include the Green Gold’s eye-catching design work and a heartwarming monument to the dearly departed CoVID-19 first responders which was placed by the proposal of the Prime Minister to commemorate their heroic act of sacrifice.
The Recreation Zone
The second zone located at the main entrance from ‘Shiro Meda’ road resides at the bottom left portion of the human silhouette making it the prominent attraction and landmark location of the park. It’s a relatively low-lying terrain accessible to most people for its integration into the cityscape. This zone primarily focuses on entertainment and recreation as it contains an archery range, a paint-ball field, a go-cart circuit, horseback riding ranches, and a rock-climbing station.
This zone also contains Zoma Museums plant nursery and Zoma Village. As one of the major plant conservation institutions Zoma played an important role in the construction phase in transplanting trees from construction sites and currently continues the preservation efforts of the forest. In addition to that, Zoma is also constructing a Village, an extensive floating platform projecting from a cliff side and overlooking the city. This project is a massive undertaking that required an entire restructuring of the steep hillsides and the artificial dam below. When finished this project can easily become the poster image of the park.
Along the hike up the trail, Kuriftu Resorts has planted several lodges and relaxation facilities including camping tents, respite areas and spas that cater to the multitude of crowds that enjoy such pleasures. Services like these are committed to promoting a healthy lifestyle that has been enabled by this forest and it’s serene atmosphere.
The Art Center
Dubbed ‘Art Center’, the third zone is located at the most impervious section of the human form; the heart. This zone is everything public, the beating center of the park. It is significantly wide and consists of outdoor amphitheaters with an art center, art gallery and exhibition that can hold several open cinema and music events making it the first large scale public art space in Ethiopia and the biggest gallery in east Africa. Collaboration between ‘YeAle Art School’ and EiABC lecturers and 8 promising graduate volunteers was the inspirational guide and factor that led to both the design and construction of this spaces leading to the zone’s mental healing essence. This particular zone is where the major construction efforts focused more than the other zones.
As one gazes upon the walkways, a significant number of restaurants and cafés greets the eyes. The space is ever more wholesome due to the presence of a first-aid medical responder station. For the audience perceiving this zone, the interior and facades of the buildings here create an Eco-friendly atmosphere through the use of vernacular elements. The materials used in the construction were more of natural ones like tree trunks and mud. Kuriftu Resort and Bilo’s pastry are some of the popular entertainment centers using this method of construction to attract their customers.
In a more general outlook, the necessary features were to provide the visitors with a 1.5km apart dining place and restrooms throughout the park as consistent elements. Many claim that this project taught them an important lesson; with harmonious collaboration and stupendous time management, any grand project can become a reality. Bridging the gap between water tunnel plantations, telecom line installations, electric systems provision and most importantly the design and integration of internal roads was a noted out strategic approach to meet the time set to finish the project without delay and other implications.
The local residents and carrier women who were directly affected by this project were the major beneficiaries of this project. Not only did they gain meaningful employment in construction and/or operations, but they also received an emphasized attention afterward. Women and Recycling, a company advocating for women’s employment in the recycling sector provided proper training and preparation so that these people may lead productive lives in conjunction with preserving the park.
Endnote: It was a blessing to rectify the experience of this pure work of art, to get the emotional roller-coaster feel of the whole park and to be able to share it with Ketema Journal. One undeniable mindset refurbishment that this project provided for me and others was proving the statement “Radical change is more than a possibility; It is a certainty”.