1000 Hills, 1 Plan

Urban development has a new rising star. Kigali is revolutionizing our understanding of a smart city. With its master plan, the East African metropolis is focusing on functionality over novel technological features, bringing together dimensions of sustainability and putting people at the center.

New construction projects are springing up like mushrooms in the lush green hills of Rwanda. Kigali, the capital city, is one of Africa's fastest growing economies; as the gross domestic product grows, so does the population. By 2050, 3.8 million people will call Kigali their home - a challenge that the Kigali Master Plan aims to meet through its unique path to become a smart city of the future. According to Donna Rubinoff, a sustainability consultant and a key stakeholder in the design and implementation of the detailed plan in 2013, smartness is primarily aimed at technological advancements. Anyone who now thinks of floating high-speed trains, winding their ways through shining skyscrapers, as ‘smart’ is mistaken. Technology is instead a means to an end: the development of a sustainable, energy-efficient city that is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Smart also includes a human dimension where the development of a city involves dialogue, open communication and consultation with its inhabitants.

A city for the people

"Kigali is not Singapore" was the clear message from the population as the signature of the Singaporean advisors hired by the Rwandan government became increasingly visible in the master plan. That wake-up call had an impact. Today, Kigali is said to be one of the most inclusive urban development projects. Urbanization, according to Donna Rubinoff, would not be understood as the mere construction of buildings, but rather as a living, breathing construct. Urban development comes alive through the people involved - architects, environmental scientists and, last but not least, the inhabitants whose ideas and concerns need to be heard. This is the strength of the Kigali Masterplan: it is not a plan that is above reproach, but a project that constantly adapts to new knowledge and needs. Thus, the conceptual master plan presented in 2007 became a detailed plan in 2013, followed by a revised version in 2020. This latest version of the master plan is called Kigali Yacu (Our Kigali) and is fundamentally different from its predecessors in that it is characterized by an inclusive and incremental approach to urban development.

In Kigali, many stakeholders, including ministries and international organizations, were involved in the planning process in order to benefit from a large circle of experts, to pool efforts and to create a sense of responsibility. Yet for a long time, decision-makers closed their ears to a much-criticized issue: the lack of affordable housing. For this reason, Donna Rubinoff initiated a study of the Kigalese housing market in 2012, financed by the European Union, the results of which landed on the desk of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. The figures speak for themselves: 78% of the demand for new housing came from the lowest quartile, i.e. those people living below the poverty line and dependent on fully subsidized housing. Up to this point, only just under 13% of new construction projects would have been dedicated to social housing - a clear discrepancy between supply and demand, between rich and poor. The research team then developed a housing typology tailored to the needs of the poorest part of the population. A plot of land with basic sanitation, enclosed by a wall and with a simple roof that protects against the environment - this is what the researchers expect more than 50% of housing projects to look like in the next 10 years. With the support of the Swiss government, architect Fatou Dieye has developed a modular wall system that is cost-efficient and resource-efficient through the use of regional clay tiles. Using this system, a 3-room maisonette flat would be financially feasible from around ten thousand euros. This design has little to do with the modern skyscrapers and their high-tech features that have become deeply embedded in ‘western’ idea of smart cities, yet it illustrates that smartness is not a question of style but rather a question of functionality.

The destructive potential of uncontrolled urbanization

The relevance of this finding becomes particularly clear in light of current growth and urbanization rates. Africa's urban population is expected to more than triple in the next 40 years, and Kigali's annual population growth is said to be 4% per year. Such rapid urbanization harbors environmental as well as social risks. Low-income earners are being pushed out of Kigali's city center due to the high cost of living, and the economic elite keep to themselves in gated communities. This problem exists because the annual demand for 30,000 affordable properties is matched by only 2,000 completed housing projects. The result is a drastic increase in unplanned settlements, as the citizens themselves are forced to meet the unsatisfied demand for affordable housing. The increase in unplanned settlements and neighborhoods without basic sanitary facilities and drinking water is particularly drastic. The consequence of this geographically conditioned inequality is social segregation, which in the light of the 1994 genocide has particularly destructive potential and runs counter to the government's reconciliation policy. The government has succeeded in ensuring that perpetrators and victims of the genocide live together peacefully to the greatest possible extent. It is the feeling of togetherness in lively neighborhoods that builds bridges - between social classes and city dwellers traumatized by the past. Uncontrolled urbanization threatens to bring down this sensitive social framework.

Ecological, economic and social sustainability must be viewed holistically

Within the Sustainable Development Goals, there is a guideline for newer development cooperation projects and a holistic concept of sustainability. How the three dimensions of the concept of sustainability interact with each other is particularly evident in the planning of individual urban districts in Kigali. These are to be designed in such a way that the most important points of contact for daily needs, such as markets, schools and workplaces can be reached by the residents of the district within a few minutes. This condition may seem simple, but it has considerable implications.

Additionally, equipping a neighborhood with such infrastructure ensures that it does not lag behind more prosperous neighborhoods in terms of development and guarantees security of supply. Moreover, such planning also has major economic effects. Long distances for the procurement of everyday goods become superfluous. According to Rubinoff, this saving of time and money through short distances can lead to more people being able to pursue meaningful employment: "it is estimated that an increase of 10% of the gross domestic product could be realized by planning good neighborhoods.” An economic increase which could give an additional boost to Rwanda's already impressive growth figures.

Ultimately, short distances also mean that more trips can be made on foot, bicycle or through motorbike cabs. This will result in fewer emissions and in the long term the city can move away from "automotive centrism" in favor of more sustainable and efficient alternatives.

Kigali - not only a model for cities in the Global South

Kigali breaks with the Western dominance of best practices in urban development - Vienna, Munich or Barcelona are well-known examples - and serves as a model for many African cities in similar circumstances. In fact, all major cities around the world can learn from Kigali's pioneering work in the conception of the plan. Technological "smartness" of a city should not be an end in itself but should always serve its inhabitants. For European urban planning, the master plan raises the question of how smartness can be linked to everyday, changing needs. Kigali shows that "smartness" does not necessarily require USB charging plugs at every park bench, but rather neighborhoods that guarantee an efficient, decentralized supply, bring sustainability dimensions together and bring them to life.  

Text: Livia Morscher und Timo Nothdurft
(icons - consulting by students)
Fotos: Paul Schwarzmann, Daniel Wyss, Fatou Dieye, Isaac Rudakubana

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

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