Alemseged Ghebrekidan, an Eritrean Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Juba, South Sudan, a consultant and an author is our guest today. With his many years of practice in Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Sudan, Alemseged works hard to contribute towards urbanization, using the right approach, in several African cities and towns.
- -Thank you for your time. Let us start with a brief introduction about you?
I was born and raised in Ethiopia. I finished my undergrad studies there and moved back to Eritrea soon after graduation. I did my post graduate in Holland and Sweden. My professional journey started when I was in Ethiopia but I worked mostly in Eritrea and now as of lately I have been working in South Sudan. I have been engaged in several research programs starting from 2009 and I am still at it. I look in to ways of embarking on strategic urban planning and expansion of cities and towns in different countries of the Horn of Africa. I worked as a lecturer at EIT and I am currently working as an assistant professor at the University of Juba. I am passionate about my profession and I believe that African countries should encourage a multi-disciplinary approach towards the urbanization of their cities and towns.
- -In simple words, what is urban planning?
Urban planning is a tool for bringing rational development of towns, cities and nations. It is an integrated approach for a nation’s socio-economic development.
- -Asmara is an African pride being one of the earliest urban settlements of Africa. What is your opinion about Asmara, its edifice and its expansion, now, after more than a century?
Asmara has its peculiar characters and feature that make it unique. So Asmara is not only about the arrangement of its building structure nor its roads, parks or sewage system. It is a city that reflects beauty beyond the physical arrangements. Asmara is about its people and their diverse cultures, its geographical location, its beautiful climate and other assets that make Asmara special. Many refer to “Asmara” as the Asmara of the 1889. But it is wrong. Asmara existed many centuries before the arrival of the Italians. There were four towns whose women decided to unite in one settlement to stand against brigades. Even the name of the city is the Tigrigna pronoun for ‘they, feminine, united’. These four towns that later united to form Asmara had their own tradition and customary laws. The Italians were in Tripoli and Mogadishu as well. But why do you think it was easier for them to construct a city in Asmara? That is because, principally, there existed regulations that enabled the four towns to function as one body; an integrated system of coexistence typical of urbanization. Of course, the colonial era saw the building and beautification of a city built on European architectural trends that make Asmara even more beautiful. Therefore, the significance of Asmara is driven from multiple aspects that I just explained. This is my opinion.
As per its expansion, Asmara started expanding soon after Independence. There were massive ambitions to build new buildings to replace older ones with high-rise buildings. The people complained against those plans. The President then took the community’s side in one of the public meetings. He strongly advocated for new constructions to be carried out outside the city settlement and for the city to be maintained and safeguarded. Once again, the people’s tradition and indigenous knowledge prevailed and the high-rise buildings that don’t fit the character of the art deco of the city were stopped almost immediately.
- -Keren, Akordat and Massawa are cities of Eritrea, which alongside other beautiful towns, compose a pleasing structure for the country? How should they be preserved and what is the role of urban planning in their preservation and expansion?
Each city and town is explained beyond its physical edifice, especially in Eritrea, where the culture shelters traditional laws that regulate the socio-economic affairs of the people. In modern times the expansion of towns and cities should be studied and analyzed, avoiding urban sprawls. The concept of land should be respected. If you respect your land and environment they will respect you. If not the punishment is severe. It goes down to generations. The expansion of towns and cities should follow certain principles, especially that of density. New settlements should be built for a minimum of 300 people in a hectare. There is no need of ungoverned expansion. We should watch out for the mistake we see in many African cities. Luckily, that was detected early on around Asmara, when big chunks of land were initially given out to residents but was stopped early on after revisions. Making policies drafted upon basic principles of planning strategies for development that put ahead the social, economic, cultural and environmental aspects of development that bind people living in urban areas. It is important that there exists integration between rural and urban areas. The linkage there is extremely important.
Asmara saw a slight horizontal expansion when 500 meter square of land was being allocated for individuals for housing and other purposes. I had a consultancy office at that time and neither my office nor other professionals saw the negative impact of it. Many houses were built in a short time. The stoppage of it soon after seemed wrong to many. But it was the right decision. Even if it meant that my office had to be out of work and I became broke the cessation of land allotment was a decision made for sustainable development. The move forward now will avoid making the same mistake.
- -You have worked in Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Sudan. What is your opinion?
I was born and raised in Addis Ababa and now I am working in Juba. I also have been in other African cities for personal reasons. I have to say that Eritrean cities are better off than the rest. I am not saying this because I am an Eritrean, but this is strictly my professional opinion. The reason is that Eritrean towns and cities are less dense than other African cities and towns. Urban sprawls are evident in many African cities. People complain about sicknesses and epidemics being spread, environmental pollution, crimes, evident societal hierarchies and more… all of that is the result of failed planning strategies.
- -In poor countries it is easier for people to set up small and cheap edifices to survive. Don’t you think that maybe the process of urban advancement might be unaffordable?
It is not about the money but the awareness of urban development. It is a question of management. Urban development is about preserving the identity of a community while granting a healthy socio-economic development. The nation means its people, land and government. The government has the duty of allocating the nation’s resources equally and sustainably for the society without compromising the future of the coming generations. Every part of the society and professionals in all disciplines should be involved.