The Demand for Responsive Architectural Planning and Production in Rapidly Urbanizing Regions: the Case of Ethiopia



Africa is considered a rapidly urbanizing continent, but it lags behind when it comes to the discourse of urbanization. According to Achille Mbembé and Sarah Nuttall, “to write the world from Africa or to write Africa into the world, or as a fragment thereof, is a compelling and perplexing task” (2004). In discourses on world affairs and, in particular, urbanization, the case of Africa often falls into a box that many might label otherness. It is only recently that the concept of otherness itself has become a point of interest for those who wish to study the urban revolution in Africa. As with any radical phenomenon, however, most academic literature paints two opposing pictures: one of despair and hopelessness, and the other of an opportunity for a more creative and responsive urban future (Cherenet Mamo, 2015, p. 17). This article attempts to underscore the latter by examining the case of Ethiopia, which is one of the least urbanized nations currently undergoing a rapid transformation.

In terms of settlement structure, Ethiopia is still predominantly rural, its population concentrated in highlands and relying on subsistence rain-fed farming. Various reports estimate that less than 16 per cent of Ethiopians live in urban areas (dense settlements with more than 2,000 inhabitants). It is also a country with a relatively long and continuous history of nationhood with established urban centres. With a growing population—currently estimated at more than 100 million—Ethiopia aims to transform itself rapidly from a predominantly subsistence agrarian economy into an industrial one (MoFED, 2010).

Over the past few years, compelling evidence has emerged that Ethiopia has begun its transformation in almost all spheres, revealing both potentialities and challenges. In this period of heightened dynamism, the subject of urbanization, which has long been neglected in political and development discourse, is becoming a central agenda. For almost the first time in modern Ethiopian history, an intentional, top-down instigation of urbanization is included among the country’s chief development programmes (NPC, 2016). In addition to the expansion of existing cities through public housing and other infrastructural projects, government programmes aim to transform thousands of rural kebeles1 into urban centres in less than five years.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not the capacity of the existing political and administrative apparatuses is strong enough to handle such large-scale sociospatial reorganization, the sheer technical demand for the rapid production of massive architectural space is overwhelming. It entails the construction of millions of houses, and thousands of schools, health centres and administrative buildings, as well as the development of numerous infrastructural projects. Furthermore, this urban transformation is expected to serve as a mechanism for economic stimulus, job creation and trade diversification. In both urban and rural areas, however, these emergent needs for large architectural/urban spaces have to sustain the complexity of local (contextual) realities in order to function as a platform for the long-term processes of cultural transformation.

It is plausible to conceive that, for the foreseeable future, these architectural spaces in both the established cities and emerging towns of Ethiopia would continue to serve as venues for negotiating extreme realities in the economic, environmental and sociopolitical spheres. Hence, architecture, as an enterprise responsible for the transformation of physical space into livable spaces, must adopt a mechanism to properly read these extreme realities and respond to them comprehensively. The task of operating in such a complex setting demands a bold re-evaluation of the classical terms of the practice of and education on architecture and urban planning, which are currently founded on western practices and realities.

Ethiopia is often referred to as a country of complexities (see Woldemariam, 1985; Crummey, 2000; Álvares, 1966, pp. 323-333; Kebede, 1999; Levine, 1965). Both its physical and cultural features are characterized by extreme differences. The combination of the country’s location in a tropical zone and the astounding contrasts in its topographic variations is cited as the main reason for its physical complexity (Woldemariam, 1985. p. 8; see also Woldemariam, 1972). Ethiopia’s location in relation to the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and the inner heart of Africa, coupled with its long and sustained isolation, help explain the country’s cultural diversity and complexity (see Tafla, 2000; Garretson, 2000; Cherenet Mamo, 2010). It is evident that these physical and cultural complexities have influenced the patterns of settlements in the country. The following points further characterize the context in which large-scale and speedy architectural and urban production are expected to cater to the demand for livable spaces in contemporary Ethiopia: 

  • A diverse landscape and strong (but also increasingly dynamic) cultural norms dominated by rural sociospatial settings;
  • Poverty and rapid urbanization, which are tied to prevalent food and income insecurity;
  • A fragile environment affected by large-scale degradation and, increasingly, climate change;
  • Rapid population growth;
  • A growing economy based primarily on agriculture; and
  • A volatile regional and global political and economic landscape.

Operating in and responding comprehensively to such a wide range of societal, environmental, economic and political complexities through architectural planning is obviously demanding. Although simplification is unavoidable, the enterprise of architecture, in its education and practice, in a setting like Ethiopia, has to be reformulated to confront complexities and become responsive to demanding realities. Hence, in order to formulate a design and planning approach, particularly for large-scale architectural and urban projects, the identification of key spatial challenges and their prioritization through a fair understanding of the fabric of social and environmental realities is necessary. 

Among the major coordinates of the context of Ethiopia listed above, we argue that poverty—food and income insecurity within poverty-driven rapid urbanization—and the need for environmental rehabilitation have to be considered as primary issues that must be addressed promptly in any large-scale architectural space production scheme. It must also be understood, however, that any spatial strategy to address such issues in countries like Ethiopia, which are predominantly rural, will also have to confront diverse and deep rural, sociospatial norms and settings. Accordingly, these unavoidable challenges can be formulated as the following questions:

  • How can architecture, as a discipline responsible for the structuring of physical space, be responsive to the prime challenge of poverty, and food and income insecurity?
  • In a massive reorganization of societies and landscapes due to rapid urbanization, how can architectural and urban projects be responsive to environmental rehabilitation and ensure the sustainable supply of key resources such as water and energy?

In search of a city model

In this period of multifaceted transformation of the region, the questions posed above invite the current generation of Ethiopian and African architects and planners to search for an appropriate city model with its own architectural formulations. The questions call for models that are responsive to the fundamental challenges of societies with proper respect to cultural norms, both as an artifact (an operational product) and in its entire process of becoming. The period can also be seen as an important moment during which the least-urbanized regions can use their position to avoid the obvious mistakes that the regions that urbanized earlier—the global North, for instance—struggled with.

As urbanization in the global North is entwined with industrialization and economic growth, cities and city models of that part of the world are structured or were restructured by the industrial revolution and its subsequent evolution. Scholars have argued, however, that African urbanization is not necessarily rooted in industrialization or economic growth2 and hence the attempt to import city models of the global North to Africa makes little sense. We argue that the attempt to find an appropriate city model in terms of architecture and urban planning in countries like Ethiopia have to be founded on the need to confront the society’s prevalent challenges—poverty and environmental rehabilitation.

Calestous Juma, in his book entitled The New Harvest, underlines the crucial importance of “enabling infrastructure” investments, and their value in “promoting agricultural trade and integrating economies into the world market”. He particularly cites transportation infrastructure—roads, railways, airports and seaports—as a catalyst in connecting farmers to markets, boosting export-led agribusinesses and creating diversified livelihoods for millions of people. In countries like Ethiopia, however, where the substantial majority of the population lives in scattered rural areas, and where rural-to-urban migration is increasing, it is difficult to imagine the development of enabling infrastructure across the vast countryside connecting the fragmented small-hold farmlands. Such development can easily be appropriated when it is related to a proper urbanization strategy. Furthermore, the emerging urban centres should not be limited to processing industries, or providing markets, transport hubs and other services. Within the current unstable global economic landscape, we suggest that these new urban centres must be developed to ensure food security by allowing food production within the centres themselves, and should incorporate sound strategies for environmental rehabilitation. Additionally, the city-making process itself has to be adapted as a means of livelihood production and an opportunity for trade diversification geared towards the massive numbers of rural migrants.

What does architecture have to do with this?

In a rapidly urbanizing region, space (environmental space in an urban area) can be seen as one of the most basic contested resources. Both poverty and climate-change-induced environmental degradation—the two most articulated challenges in the global South—are the functions of the organization and appropriation of physical space. The enterprise of architecture, traditionally perceived as the art of organizing space or making spaces livable, is confronted with the unprecedented challenge of resolving societal problems in Africa. It can also be considered an opportunity to redefine the terms by which physical space is appropriated.

Architectural planning in Africa has to play a key role in livelihood production and stimulating balanced and equitable growth by re-structuring urban development processes to function as livelihood-production and skill-diversification platforms. It must also dare to re-imagine the design of towns and the public utilities, mass housing, public spaces, and transportation and research facilities within towns, so as to facilitate urban food production. Furthermore, architectural space production schemes have to be designed to engage the labour and skills of the rural migrants who are the major shareholders of Africa’s cities. Densification strategies, other than optimizing land usage and providing access to public services and infrastructure, should incorporate the necessary infrastructure and mechanisms to maximize food production within cities.

If it is plausible to consider poverty and environmental degradation as the major challenges facing the global South, architects and planners need to assume a role beyond that of designing a building or city. They have to use their expertise in spatial design to address major societal challenges. They have to assume a role as activists and strategists in defining projects from a larger contextual reality. As has traditionally been the case, they cannot deliver a plan and demand its implementation; instead, they should focus on designing processes of urban production and engage in the development of implementation strategies.



1. A kebele is the smallest administrative unit or a neighbourhood in Ethiopia.

2. For more information on “urbanization without growth”, see World Bank, 2009; Fay and Opal, 2000; Fox, 2011; Gollin, Jedwab and Vollrath, 2016. For more information on “urbanization without industrialization”, see Fay and Opal, 2000; Collier and Venables, 2007; Gollin, Jedwab and Vollrath, 2013; Fox, 2011.



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