Loeb Rahel Shawl is a proselytizer: for her beloved continent of Africa and for the power of good design to harness the benefits of explosive growth for real people. She shared her passion with Harvard Graduate School of Design students in a recent J-term course, and she reports here on the results.
I am a proud African, a native Ethiopian, a lifetime resident of Addis Ababa, an architect of passion, a mentor of youth, but most of all an incurable optimist in the bright future of this great continent, Africa. I have experienced first hand the momentous economic explosion in our cities of the last two decades, the excitement and the challenges that cities inevitably face with fast growth and development.
Giving a short J-term class on the topic came easily to me, though Africa by no means is a COUNTRY but a huge, vast CONTINENT of around 11.7 million square miles, a population of around 1.2 billion and 54 recognized sovereign states and countries of diverse history and cultures. I wanted to show about the “other side” of African cities, the ones with beautiful skylines, vibrant street life, amazing histories, and diverse cultures and how they developed to be important megacities in their own right.
Focusing this workshop on a few select cities in Sub Saharan Africa was an exciting way of offering a glimpse of how important this phenomenon is to the changing narrative of Africa.
As part of the introduction I presented images of the amazing urban skylines of some of the fastest growing cities in the continent based on their population explosions. From Cairo and Casablanca in the Northern Regions to Nairobi, Dar Es Selaam and Addis Ababa in the Eastern Regions; Luanda and Johannesburg in the Southern Regions; Lagos and Abidjan in the Western Regions; and Kinshasa in the Central Africa Region we were able to see the importance of these cities in the world today.
We posed the questions: What are the many factors that are shaping and leading to the fast urban growth of African cities? What changes do we see in the architecture, infrastructure, and urban landscapes, as well as in the socioeconomic dynamics of these cities and the challenges of accelerated growth? What are the prospects and opportunities that create excitement and hope for these cities and their inhabitants?
We explored these questions with my hometown Addis Ababa as a case study. From the history and inception of Addis to its present day importance as the “Capital City of Africa,” we explored its many facets through different lenses of urban change. We discussed the characteristics of its urbanization, the opportunities created, and some of the challenges associated to its rapid growth. Based on our discussions of Addis Ababa, students made quick studies of 4 Sub Saharan cities–Dar-es Salaam, Luanda, Kinshasa and Lagos–and analyzed their urbanization processes.
I concluded our short workshop by sharing my deep conviction in the importance of continuing to empower the youth and young women as the means to achieve sustainable and equitable growth. Africa's population is the youngest among all the continents of the world, and tapping into this energy and investing in human capital is a critical step in the right direction. Overall integrity, dedication to improving and standardizing quality planning and design, and efficient construction of infrastructure and civil works are most important for building resilient cities of the future.
This course was meant as a spur to bringing awareness and creating conversation around Africa and African cities. It certainly gave me a great pleasure to share, to learn and in a way…to inspire!