My Space? The Transformation of Ethiopia’s Capital Addis Ababa

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  • Addis Ababa is developed as a polycentric city. A financial district is under construction at the heart of the city. The vision of a modern Addis derives from other global cities such as Shanghai or Dubai.

  • To foster the development of high-rise and high-density structures, and to create a visual skyline of skyscrapers, the Addis Ababa City Government has introduced minimum building height of twenty floors (or seventy meters) in central areas. Most of the existing buildings, many of them residential, are just knocked down.

  • Informal settlers squat in make-shift shelters. They were not part of the formal urban renewal and compensation process and now have to live in temporarily available open spaces. As long as urban development does not reach there, the government usually tolerates families living in such pockets, since there is no viable solution at this time.

  • The typical urban fabric of the existing neighborhoods of Addis Ababa is comprised of low-rise, low-density housing, made of materials such as wood and mud. The lack of access to services is predominant.

  • Urban renewal in Addis usually means total clearance of the existing buildings. In some cases it is also used to deliberately remove pockets where there are “social” tensions. Here is the area around the Old Palace, today the Prime Minister’s Office.

  • The area has officially been cleared, but dwellings remain on the site due to the lack of alternative housing options. The site has been cleared several times for development in recent years.

  • The historic quarters are not valued or preserved. Potential real estate projects are prioritized over architectural heritage, social networks, livelihoods or spatial qualities. On the right is the Ymtubezznas building, which used to be owned by a rich landowner. The two-story building was constructed from mud and wood.

  • This tailor kept his business in the middle of the renewal area, even though he had to move his housing. It is challenging for people to reestablish their livelihoods elsewhere, as their livelihoods often rely on a neighborhood’s networks of people.

  • During the 1960s and until the mid 1970s, Emperor Haile Selassie initiated the construction of a great number of public buildings with modern, high quality design, contracting renowned architects such as Arturo Mezzedimi and Zalman Enav. Buildings from this period include the City Hall and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as apartment buildings like the Bedilu Building picture here.

  • With a high quality architectural and urban design, these buildings are in clear contrast with the poor design quality of buildings today, which often do not take any reference to Ethiopia’s climate and culture, or spatial use in general. Here, the interior of an apartment at the Bedilu Building, which is now owned by the city and rented out to government employees.

  • Stark contrast between the Bedilu Building and surrounding new constructions.

  • Since 2005, Ethiopia has run one of the biggest public housing programs in the world. 146,000 condominium units have already been handed over with an additional 165,000 currently under construction. Most of them have four floors; communal buildings try to accommodate functions like traditional cooking, which cannot be integrated in the apartments.

  • This family received a condominium because they were relocated from a redevelopment area in the center of Addis. This picture shows the importance of social interaction in Ethiopia, especially the “coffee ceremony,” to connect with other people, be it family or neighbors. Living in a modern apartment therefore does not automatically mean that those functions are lost.

  • The government diversified the housing program with regard to architectural design, location and financing models based on savings schemes, reacting to the diverse needs of different income groups. Here, one construction site for middle-income condominiums located in the new Financial District.

  • Piazza is one of the oldest neighborhoods of Addis Ababa. It used to be the city center and market area. On the right is the five-story building that used to be the tallest in Addis. It was the residence of the Armenian engineer and chief architect of the Addis Ababa municipality, Minas Kherbekian.

  • Most of the historic buildings were nationalized under the Derg Regime in 1975. Today they are subdivided and rented out at low cost. Low rents contribute to the severe lack of maintenance.

  • Inside the Minas Kherbekian building, traditional practices, many of them related to food preparation, remain. The woman cleans dried chilies in the corridor in from of her apartment which are used in many Ethiopian dishes.

  • Ethiopia is the land of coffee. The coffee ceremony as ritual includes roasting and grinding of the first green coffee beans as well as the brewing in special pot ‘jebena’ on charcoal. Grinding coffee requires a stable floor and has therefore usually to be performed outside the apartment.

  • In the backyard of one of the old buildings, we can see the importance of activities in outdoor spaces and the social dimension that is attached to activities such as washing clothes or grinding spices, which are often performed in groups.

  • What will a city that experiences a swift, total physical renewal in a country where architects and planners still lack appropriate references finally look like?

  • A new hotel is being built in the Piazza area.

  • Here, the recently built headquarters of the African Union. Entirely funded by the Chinese government, the building was handed over in 2012.

  • The new light rail system is a milestone in Addis Ababa’s transformation process.

  • The light rail consist of a North-South and an East-West line, comprising about 35km.

  • The transformation of Addis Ababa comes with the “modernization” of central areas and the development of the periphery. Citizens have to commute longer distances. Mass transport systems are not yet coping with the increased demand, and many of the trips still depend on mini buses or are done by foot.

  • The public watching a performance during the first African Circus Festival in Addis Ababa in November 2015.

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is a young city. Founded in 1886 by King Menelik II and Queen Taitu, in its first decades the city grew organically, without any formal planning.1 Addis Ababa’s establishment represented a change for the nation as a whole—it was envisioned as a “modernist monument” that would function as a catalyst for Ethiopia to enter the world economy. Today, Addis Ababa is undergoing a massive transformation. With approximately 4 million inhabitants, the city population is still small, but with a fast growth rate of 3.5 percent per year.3

Most of the city’s physical structure is swiftly changing. For instance, the construction of the first light rail train in Sub-Saharan Africa was recently completed. The rationale behind this development is to brand the city as Africa’s diplomatic capital

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is a young city. Founded in 1886 by King Menelik II and Queen Taitu, in its first decades the city grew organically, without any formal planning.1 Addis Ababa’s establishment represented a change for the nation as a whole—it was envisioned as a “modernist monument” that would function as a catalyst for Ethiopia to enter the world economy. Today, Addis Ababa is undergoing a massive transformation. With approximately 4 million inhabitants, the city population is still small, but with a fast growth rate of 3.5 percent per year.3

Most of the city’s physical structure is swiftly changing. For instance, the construction of the first light rail train in Sub-Saharan Africa was recently completed. The rationale behind this development is to brand the city as Africa’s diplomatic capital and international hub, thereby helping Ethiopia become a middle-income country.4

Built through tabula rasa clearing in the four inner-city sub-sections, the new Central Business District showcases Addis Ababa as a modern, globally competitive city that adheres to international standards, creating a business friendly environment. Through aesthetic inter-referencing of the built environment with other global cities such as Shanghai and Dubai, its skyline and signature buildings project Addis Ababa’s political and economic ambitions. The downside is that it creates a homogenous environment and a shared visibility with other cities, causing the city to lose its “sense of place” and strong cultural identity.

Addis Ababa is one of the safest cities in Africa. However, this is rapidly changing due to the segregation of population groups. The new Central Business District might grow in a form of splintered urbanism, where low-income groups are pushed out of the center and the servicing of the central areas is prioritized over meeting basic needs elsewhere.5 This social and spatial segregation of population groups can potentially be a form of polarization that will put the city’s existing social fabric and social cohesion at risk, compromising future safety.

Currently, slums comprise 80 percent of the city. The predominantly low-rise and low-density housing is made of traditional building materials. In addition to the poor condition of the current housing stock, the city is also facing a tremendous housing backlog.6 In contrast with the city’s horizontal expansion since its establishment, the city’s boundaries have now been reached, creating the need to expand vertically. In 2005 the Integrated Housing Development Programme was launched. Its main aim is to address the housing backlog, improve access to urban services, and offer relocation homes for urban dwellers displaced from the inner-city renewal areas, while creating job opportunities.7

However, UN-Habitat research shows that low-income households still cannot afford housing units that are compatible with their family size. Therefore, there are no sustainable solutions to the city’s current housing problems.8 Although households that relocated from the inner-city areas to make space for development are supposed to be compensated, this is often not the case. For instance, informal households are ineligible for compensation. Urban dwellers continue to rent in the private sector in another area or informally build shelters wherever they can, until urban development forces them to move further.

 

About the Author

Manuela Graetz is an urban and regional planner and has spent more than eight years working on urban development in Ethiopia, especially in the area of housing. Her wish is for the cultural, spatial, and natural treasures of Addis Ababa to receive recognition and survive the aggressive desire for “international style” transformation. manuela.graetz@gmail.com

Geo Kalev is a photographer from Sofia, Bulgaria. He is the founder of Studio Fo. He came to Addis Ababa to support the first African Circus Festival in December 2015. www.geokalev.com www.studiofo.net

Marjan Kloosterboer is an urban researcher based in Addis Ababa. Kloosterboer teaches at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture Building Construction and City Development EiABC. She is currently a PhD student at Glasgow University, researching the transformation process of Addis Ababa. marjankloosterboer@gmail.com

[1] Dandena Tufa, “Historical Development of Addis Ababa: plans and realities,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 41 (2008): 27-59.

[2] Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, “City as Nation: Imagining and Practicing Addis Ababa as a Modern and National Space,” Northeast African Studies 13 (2013): 167–213.

[3] Ministry of Urban Development, Housing and Construction of Ethiopia, National Report on Housing & Sustainable Development (2014). Maria Cristina Pasquali, Addis Ababa: End of an Era, (Addis Ababa: Shama Books Plc, 2014).

[4] AASZDPPO, Addis Ababa and Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Integrated Development Plan, (2013).

[5] Watson, Vanessa, “African urban fantasies: dreams or nightmares?,” Environment and Urbanization 26 (2014) : 561–567.

[6] United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT), Situation Analysis of Informal Settlements in Addis Ababa, Addis Ababa Slum Upgrading Programme, and Cities Without Slums Sub-Regional Programme for Eastern and Southern Africa, (2007).

[7] United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), The Ethiopia Case of Condominium Housing: The Integrated Housing Development Programme, 2011.

[8] Ibid.

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