Addis Ababa, the high altitude capital of Ethiopia, is a city undergoing one of the fastest rates of urban growth in the world. The huge scale of development and change that is occurring makes it seem like the entire city is just one big construction site.
All across the city new houses, condominiums, offices, roads and other pieces of urban infrastructure are being built more or less simultaneously. This includes the city’s first light rail network that is part of a plan to make the Ethiopian capital city’s public transport system more sustainable, by shifting it away from the current dependence on an informal network of minivan taxis and buses.
Unfortunately, a side effect of all this development activity is a number of negative social, environmental and economic impacts.
For example, poorly regulated construction activities cause a great deal of inconvenience for city residents and businesses. Many major and minor roads are cut off or have limited access due to the extension of building sites onto roads and footpaths, forcing some businesses to close down due to the lack of customers. Large potholes on roads (often where new water pipes have been laid and filled in without a sufficient amount of gravel or a new coat of asphalt) create traffic hazards, particularly for cars with a low wheel base, and cause wear and tear to vehicles imposing additional maintenance costs. Pedestrians probably fare the worst however, as they are forced to trek through muddy or dusty streets and to walk along the edges of busy roads to avoid construction sites.
Another issue is the apparent lack of urban planning mechanisms and regulation, which in some areas of the city has resulted in poor urban design outcomes. For example, some tall commercial buildings have been constructed in areas which are primarily residential and overshadow the surrounding homes. While some large apartment blocks are sometimes built without any provision for car parking for tenants. A number of major arterial roads have also been built without sufficient provision for pedestrian bridges or crossings, as such many pedestrians jump fences and risk themselves in busy traffic in order to cross to the other side of the road rather than walk the long way to the nearest bridge.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Ethiopian government is strongly influencing this situation by providing incentives that encourage quantity and speed in the implementation of infrastructure and urban development projects, rather than incentivising quality of implementation or minimising disruption to residents and businesses.
But what is the upside of all this construction chaos and urban activity?
In short, Addis Ababa is experiencing rapid economic growth rates, which is creating jobs and raising tax revenues for the national government to spend on its largely rural population. It is also providing new homes for the city’s expanding population, and once finished the new infrastructure should greatly improve the city’s transport network and provide safer and more sustainable public transport options.
Despite the apparent lack of urban planning and regulation, some sections of the city also possess an ‘urban village‘ type of urban environment. These medium density areas are host to a mix of housing types, social classes, and small and large businesses. Albeit cars remain predominate and accommodations for pedestrians are minimal. This is likely to be part of the reason that Addis Ababa has a much lower crime rate and is considered much safer than other African cities, although petty crime and harassment are not uncommon. The city also has only a limited number of gated communities, which are very common in other Africa cities (and many other developing countries) and have emerged in response to high crime rates. They are also representative of a growing gap between rich and poor.
There is also a notable lack of modern supermarkets in Addis, at least the enormous types that are taken for granted in developed countries. While there are a small number of larger ‘hypermarkets’ that certainly resemble modern supermarkets, these only stock a limited range of products and are easily outnumbered by a high number of smaller specialist retail outlets and a plethora of markets, street stalls and food vendors. This can be seen as largely a positive situation as it escapes the traps of supermarket-dominated and monopolised food systems in countries like the United States and Australia. But on the negative side there are a number of food safety and quality issues that are difficult to address under the current situation. For example, it is common to see dairy products being delivered in unrefrigerated vehicles or fresh produce being packed, transported or handled unhygienically.
So what insights can be gleaned from these observations in relation to complexity, sustainability and development?
A few things that come to mind include:
- Better planning and sequencing of new infrastructure and other urban development activities could result in less negative social and economic impacts. However, this also needs to be weighed against the cost of enhanced regulation of these activities and whether regulation would actually achieve the desired outcome given the low levels of capacity within the city and national administrations.
- Despite the inconveniences and costs of living in city undergoing rapid urban development, people are very adaptable and have found ways to live and cope with such conditions. For example, informal retailers can easily pack up shop and move to a new location if need be, and minibus taxi services can change their routes to avoid road works or construction activities.
- The prevalence of smaller supermarkets over large modern varieties is likely a reflection of the socioeconomic standing of the majority of city residents. Modern supermarkets are reliant on consumers having access to a motor vehicle and relatively high incomes in order to purchase large quantities of food products and transport them home again. Given that the majority of residents in Addis Ababa do not have ready access to a motor vehicle and very low incomes, they are more likely to shop for food close to home and to only buy smaller amounts of food at a time. They may also not own a refrigerator (or have secure access to electricity to power it) so buying large amounts of perishable goods is out of the question anyway.
- Alternative forms of urban development are possible and in many ways Addis Ababa appears to have charted its own unique version of urbanization, possibly due to the fact it never inherited an urban planning system from a colonial power (Although the brief occupation by the Italians during WWII left a cultural legacy that is still very visible today).
The rapid pace of urban development in Addis Ababa is resulting in social and economic costs to city residents and businesses due to a lack of consideration for the social, environmental and economic impacts of urban development activities. However, urban growth is also contributing to economic growth and raising government revenues, although the benefits of this growth are not distributed evenly. The situation in Addis Ababa also highlights the fact that urbanisation is a complex and dynamic process, with many actors and systems interacting and influencing each other. And despite the efforts of governments and planning authorities, the outcomes of these interactions are difficult to control and are sometimes unpredictable.