Planning Rwanda

Thirteen years after the genocide, the tiny African nation begins imagining its future.

Just before nine one morning in May, I arrived at the Alpha Palace Hotel, not far from the center of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. A team of American architects waited nervously outside, dressed in blue suits and holding battered travel tubes of drawings. In them was the conceptual master plan for the future of Kigali: a sweeping vision to turn today’s red-dirt ad-hoc city into a verdant capital with tree-lined boulevards, mixed-use neighborhoods, a new university, parks, and a network of wetlands to mitigate storm-water runoff. OZ Architecture, from Denver, along with EDAW, a landscape-architecture and urban-planning firm, had been quietly working on the scheme for three years. This morning, 13 years after Rwanda’s genocide, they would present it to an audience of local planning officials, foreign consultants, and politicians. I had come to watch, to see what American-style urban planning looked like in Rwanda, and what it could possibly do to help transform a place of poverty and struggle into one of prosperity and peace.

The crowd of 25 gathered in a large light-filled conference room with tile floors, and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Outside was a tidy neighborhood of cinder-block houses beside the barest mud shacks, separated by high walls topped with shards of broken bottles, along streets filled with barefoot children and late-model SUVs. Lush hills hemmed in the landscape, and a goat bleated outside. Dieudonné Rumara-gishyika, the officious vice mayor in charge of finance, economy, and devel­opment, wearing a sharp European suit, opened the meeting with ceremony: “We are the beneficiaries of this plan. We hope to get good ideas. We await your comments and look forward to give you comments back.” The audience—a mix of bureaucrats, GIS-mapping experts, engineers, and land-rights specialists wearing crisp dress shirts and lugging laptops—erupted in applause. After about a dozen trips since 2005, and months of bad phone connections and difficult-to-understand e-mails, they were all glad to be face to face again. The Rwandans were eager to see what OZ had come up with, OZ was eager for their feedback, and the small group of European technical experts was warm to the general atmosphere of progress—for the next few of a thousand baby steps toward a new Rwanda.

It can’t come soon enough. Rwanda ranks 158 out of 177 on the United Nations Human Development Index; five percent of the population has steady access to electricity. But its president, Paul Kagame, has fostered a powerful vision of Rwanda’s future as a kind of Singapore for sub-Saharan Africa, a center of medicine, banking, and technology for the region’s 770 million people, a number expected to more than double in the next 50 years. OZ’s task is to give that vision physical shape.

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“We are thinking of Kigali as a hub for Rwanda, and a hub for Africa,” began Carl Worthington, the senior OZ architect, pausing after each sentence to let a university student hired for the day translate into Kinyarwanda. All of OZ’s recommendations, he explained, are rooted in an understanding of the terrain and its ecology, and aimed at ensuring the “triple bottom line”—environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social equity. “A goal of the plan is to provide a sense of belonging,” Worthington said, before arriving at its startling ambition: to bring Kigali from a city of one million people to a city of three million as a crucial step in the transformation of Rwanda from an agrarian economy (92 percent of its pop­ulation are subsistence farmers) to an information economy.

OZ had been hired by President Kagame himself, after being introduced by John Dick, a Channel Islands–based Canadian industrialist and adviser to the Rwandan government. Worthington had worked for Dick since the 1970s on the design of the Denver Technological Center, an office park south of the city that has grown to more than ten million square feet of space. OZ may be little known outside of Colorado—and its work tends toward schools and ski villages rather than nationwide master plans—but offers what an SOM, Calthorpe, or Gensler would not: Rwanda dominates the studio, and the emotional investment is high, which means a lot to a tiny country that wears its challenges on its sleeve. OZ has been eager to expand the scope of its work, which already includes a master plan for Rwanda’s Eastern Province and a massive new airport. The entire country, about the size of New Hampshire, is on the table.

Ten minutes into Worthington’s presentation, a murmur went through the audience. The OZ team shot glances back and forth, trying to decipher what was going on. Vice Mayor Rumaragishyika stood up, told the translator to sit down, and asked Worthington to proceed in English. He did, for another hour, highlighting the steps OZ and its team have taken to develop the plan (including extensive mapping and a series of public workshops to solicit input); ideas for immediate improvements, such as upgrading “informal settlements” (or slums) with cobble pavers, neighborhood water taps, and biogas systems (which transform sewage into cooking fuel); and their overarching strategy of decentralized growth, managed by independent planning departments for each district of the city. When Worthington came to the biggest move of the plan by far—the new city center for up to three million on what is today a rural hilltop southeast of downtown—the laptop keys started clicking all at once.

OZ is eager for the plan to be “pro-poor, not just for the elites,” explains Donna Rubinoff, a planner with a Ph.D. in geography who joined OZ full-time to focus on the social implications of the work. But inevitably the big moves suck up the air—and presumably hold the attention of the government ministers who pay OZ’s bills. That tension between glittering transformation and the need for basic infrastructure is constant—among the OZ team, among its Rwandan clients, and in the macro-politics of the country. This project is an urban planner’s dream: to draw lines on a map and shape the ideal city. But (and the OZ team knows this) it is also the urban planner’s curse: a city for whom?

To make the situation more challenging, everything that happens in Rwanda is quietly tinged with the lingering “sectarian politics” of the gen­ocide. President Kagame preaches “one Rwanda,” and there is frequent talk of democracy and public participation. But there are also whispers of elections won with 101 percent of the vote, and foreign-watchdog accounts of newspapers critical of the government being shut down. No one doubts the desperate need for change, but that doesn’t temper the possibility that any plan would most benefit the top of the power structure—a power structure that may have been democratically established, but only following years of violence and subjugation. Rwanda remains a powder keg that everyone—the government, the planners, international aid ­organizations and foundations—is desperately trying to defuse.

When Worthington finished, he took a couple of questions from the audience before Rumaragishyika interrupted again, and asked that the presentation be repeated in Kinyarwanda “for the benefit of those who do not speak English well.” The microphone went to a lean man with round glasses and a dark tie, the PowerPoint was set to the first slide, and speaking without notes, he ran through the entire presentation in about 20 minutes, after which he received thunderous applause followed by a few cheerful giggles. The architects—none of whom, needless to say, speak Kinyarwanda—glanced around nervously, utterly clueless as to how their carefully considered presentation had been delivered, but pleased with how it had been received. It seemed an astounding disconnect—how could their work be taken seriously with such a basic breakdown of communication? But just as quickly, the group launched into a series of sophisticated questions, in English, about maximizing Kigali’s natural constraints, the advantages of higher densities, the importance of avoiding wholesale slum clearance in favor of incremental improvement, and the pressing need for a building code.

Planners are often accused of swooping in—and this would seem the ultimate case—but, at least for the people at the Alpha Palace, all of whom are professionally engaged with shaping Rwanda’s physical future, that wasn’t an issue. The bigger question was how quickly they could implement OZ’s suggestions. Rhona Nyakulama, who worked in the land office at Kigali’s city hall, said they had already been using the draft maps OZ had sent to make decisions. David Bakora, the land commissioner for Nyarugenge, the downtown district, straightened his rep tie, stood up, and addressed the OZ team: “Opening a new site and planning it is easy, but the problem here is that Kigali is informal. We believe in expats. I’m begging and asking you to put there [in the plan] the right tools. And we don’t have to displace many people. We can displace as few people as possible. But we must increase their capacity for modernization.” When Rwandans agree, they make a low humming noise. The audience hummed gently.

In the United States, urban planning most often means mixed-use shopping malls and golf communities—and even then we sometimes take to the barricades in protest. In Rwanda, planning is seen as a tool for survival. As historian Jared Diamond notes in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, among the many complex (and, in the end, wholly inexplicable) causes of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which left 800,000 dead, was overpopulation: the battle over land, over who uses it and how. Rwanda’s current population of 9.7 million is expected to double in the next 25 years. Josh Ruxin, a public-health expert who has lived in Rwanda for the last two years, wrote recently in the New York Times, “Rwanda is fast becoming a perfect Mal­thusian storm,” with population growth outstripping food production. Yet President Kagame’s government—with support from the likes of Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, and Bono—is responding with a broad swath of initiatives, urban planning among them. The opportunity is clear: with only the most minimal infrastructure already in place, Rwanda can use its rapid urbanization as the moment to implement today’s best practices in infrastructure and planning, the things most familiar from places like Vancouver, Portland, or Stockholm—but even then almost never all in one place.

Before the meeting, Andrew Irvine, a landscape architect at EDAW with a loud and eloquent voice, had caught me examining some of the drawings hung on the walls (with tape brought from Denver). “The solutions we’re looking at are just so much better than what we’re able to do in the States,” he said—and that seemed right. Not that it would be easy. Later in the week I heard the energy minister, Albert Butare, give a speech in which he an­-nounced the “ambitious target” of providing access to electricity to ten percent of the population by 2011. OZ may be designing for a 15-, 25-, sometimes even a 50-year time frame, but that projection seems to be painfully slow progress given the extent of the “big vision,” as everyone always calls it.

Rwanda is caught between circumstance and possibility. The country is landlocked, with no railroad (although plans are actively under way), requiring all building materials to come by truck, usually from Mombasa, in Kenya, a journey that can take weeks, or by airfreight, which is enormously expensive. Kigali’s new airport, also being designed by OZ, is conceived to pull commercial traffic away from Nairobi and, local rumor has it, to serve the U.S. military. But construction of the runway alone would suck dry Rwanda’s entire concrete-production capability. (There’s also a new $80 million American embassy, designed by Austin’s Page Southerland Page, nearing completion.) Beyond Rwanda’s poverty, its attendant health issues, and the massively underdeveloped economy is the legacy of the genocide itself. The country is nearly entirely free of crime, but the experience of violence is total: if people didn’t have family members killed in the genocide, they certainly saw killing or were killers themselves. The London Telegraph recently reported that rapes during the genocide resulted in the conception of an estimated 20,000 children, who are now 12 years old. Rwandans are immensely friendly and warm, but there can sometimes seem to be a hollowness in their eyes. On the way home from dinner one night, I happened to mention my dog to my driver. He said he used to like dogs, but not since the genocide, when they ate the corpses that littered the very streets we now rolled through.

Yet 13 years later Rwanda has a surprising amount going for it: minimal corruption, empathetic political leadership, manageable geography, incredible natural beauty, and more than its likely share of the world’s attention. Yet above and beyond all that—and more than a bit perversely—the genocide itself has become a sort of psychic engine for development, the glimpse of darkness that inspires the light. When OZ began the project, President Kagame told the team: “We already have a museum. Let’s build a dream.” Straton Uwizeyimana, an architect in Kigali, put it to me more bluntly: “We have to change. If we want to develop, if we want to evolve, change is unavoidable. Especially for us.” He added, “The vision is not to stay in our small country, on our hills. The vision is to link to the rest of the world.”

After a lunch at the Alpha Palace of Fanta, rice, and scrawny stewed chicken, the OZ team and a core group from Kigali’s city hall (minus the vice mayor) rearranged the tables into a circle and dug into the details. There were few impediments to their enthusiasm. Kigali, at least, was booming, with construction everywhere; and the land commissioners were constantly being asked to select appropriate plots for development—and eager for a detailed plan to guide them. “We have physical needs facing us, but we do not have the tools,” Nyakulama said. “We’re saying, ‘What’s next?’ But what’s next is already in front of us.” They did have a concern about the hillsides: to prevent erosion, OZ and Tetra Tech, the engineering consultant, had suggested prohibiting building on slopes greater than 20 percent. At a stroke, that eliminated a substantial portion of hilly Kigali. OZ has strived to root all its recommendations in its understanding of the terrain and its ecology, but the satellite cartography commissioned for the planning process was too small-scale to account for Kigali’s steep hills. A closer view was needed—particularly in the Gasabo District, which is expected to accommodate 60 percent of Kigali’s population growth. The Rwandans suggested that we take a look, and plans were made to drive out there the next afternoon.

Our minibus, mostly full of muzungus—the ubiquitous word for white ­people—was an unusual sight, and as we headed toward the edge of Kigali, even the traffic cops stared. James Edison, an economist with Economics Research Associates and a consultant to the OZ team, dubbed us the “muzungu express,” and everybody laughed. It was good to get out of the conference room, and people were in high spirits—invigorated by the potential, by the collaboration, by the movement. We zipped along a newly paved road filled with women carrying bundles on their heads and men pushing bikes loaded with plastic jerry cans of water. When the pavement ended, the minibus bumped over bathtub-size ruts at a walking pace. Eventually we arrived at the top of a hill—a spectacular spot with views back toward the existing city. According to the OZ plan, this would be the center of a dense mixed-use neighborhood. For now there was a hillside of banana trees and a half-finished government building—a small sign of progress. We watched a plane land at the airport on a nearby plateau, but earlier Rubinoff had used another metaphor: “It’s like turning a steamship. I can’t say it’s perfect, but we have made significant progress.”

After a few group photos, people passed around snapshots of their kids—in Little League uniforms in Colorado or dressed up for school in Kigali. All of them know that children are starving in Rwanda, that three percent of the population has AIDS, and that no one can forget the genocide. Yet they are themselves proof of the existence of a new professional class, looking for outside help, looking toward the future. We climbed back into the minibus and headed back in time for Nyakulama to pick up her child from school. Urban planning is an optimistic act.

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