Across the Somali territories we have witnessed a raft of construction projects of late. Whilst such activity testifies to a gradual return to normality, the speed and nature of the development raises some fundamental questions. In all post-conflict economies there is an initial. During this period, it is imperative that there is focus on winning the peace, just as there has been in winning the war. Those familiar with the region are well aware that the elements intent on using violence to achieve their ends have not been totally defeated, but have been dispersed and are very much on the back foot. Psychologically this has given a tremendous fillip to the business community and has helped create an environment where investors feel sufficiently confident to engage in commercial activity again. The international community has also sought to bolster this situation and as a result locals and returning members of the Diaspora see opportunities that previously seemed non-existent.
Cities such as the likes of Hargeisa, Mogadishu and Berbera currently exude entrepreneurial activity and as a consequence land prices are spiralling ever upwards. The rate of new construction is rather alarming as it allows precious little time for a coherent planning strategy, let alone adequate regulations and safeguards that protect such cities from the worse aspects of urban development. Already it is clear that little or no thought is being given to preserving spaces for recreation, regrettably a construction free-for-all has broken out that is seeing land going to the highest bidder. Locals and friends of the region are rightly concerned that there is a real danger that existing problems in regard to flooding, refuse, sewage and land rights are being exacerbated and thus it is beholden on both national and municipal authorities to be far more proactive, rather than taking a detached or laissez-faire approach. Thankfully there are some splendid African examples of good practice in this regard, the finest being that of Rwanda, especially in regard to Kigali. The approach in Kigali is both bold and enlightened. From the outset the planners and the authorities have set great store in ensuring that there is a co-ordinated approach to urban development, one based on genuine consultation, a transparent bidding process and promotion on merit as opposed to age or connections. Kigali has not been allowed to fall under the tyrannical rule of the motor car, thankfully equal thought has been given to pedestrians and their safety and convenience. In any town or city green spaces are not merely about recreation, but about creating micro-climates that help cherish local plants and trees that support various wildlife as well as acting as natural filters for pollution and dust. Rwanda has a zero-tolerance approach to litter and has been extraordinarily successful in tackling the blight of discarded plastic bags and bottles. In this age of recycling rather than viewing waste as a problem, it has viewed the processing as an asset, with certain products being recycled or converted into energy. Equal attention has been paid to the nature of the cityscape, with a conscious decision being made to use a blend of high rise structures and those on a more human scale.
Somalis as the great entrepreneurs of Africa are often desirous to demonstrate their modernity and their success. Whilst matt black, glass and chrome structures may work for some, in reality it would make far more sense if greater cognizance was taken of vernacular architectural traditions. In view of the climate it is logical to focus on soft hues, lattice work, natural ventilation and vegetation. Somalo-Islamic architecture affords a wealth of styles that are distinctive, eminently sensible and aesthetically in keeping with the landscape. In domestic architecture the Arabesque influence encourages the use of open courtyards featuring fountains, fruit trees and local shrubs and flowers. It is heartening to hear that in Mogadishu people are beginning to appreciate real plants and flowers as opposed to tawdry plastic imitations. Sadly, some architects seem to have totally turned their backs on local styles and traditions and are intent on creating structures that are infinitely forgettable. The sensitive use of muted colours can help enhance the built environment, especially when it comes to development in costal locations, anyone familiar with Manarola in La Spezia, Italy will appreciate how it colour can be used to marvellous effect.
Mention of the distinctive nature of coastal settings underscores the importance of providing appropriate safeguards to prevent unfettered construction. Lessons need to be learnt from what has happened elsewhere. Land must be set aside and protected for sport, recreation as well as for conservation purposes. Enlightened and forward looking leadership will ensure that there are statutory requirements for Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) and that there is proper transparency and effective communication with stakeholders. All societies need to pay more attention to better energy efficiency and water management, as well as disability access and better health and safety practises across the construction sector. Things may be changing rapidly, but Somalis will remain the intensely sociable and entrepreneurial people they have always been. Towns and cities are collections of communities and thus should be designed with this in mind. Interaction and engagement helps foster greater understanding and trust and therefore it is important that the trend towards gated communities be kept to a absolute minimum.
With a spirit of optimism abroad across much of the Horn of Africa it is vital that policy makers and planners look to the future and approach things in a holistic manner. After years of trial and tribulation the region requires not only peace, but the vision to move forward in such a manner as to help create a healthy and harmonious built environment, one that is conducive to investment and that stimulates employment and opportunity. Whilst plenty of challenges remain I believe that Somali determination, innovation and ingenuity can win through if given half a chance.
Mark T Jones – Leadership Specialist