Addis Ababa: ‘New Flower’ in an Old Vase

4 October 2019

Reflections on the city following the Urban Age Conference in Ethiopia

By Biruk Terrefe, PhD Candidate, University of Oxford

©Charlie Rosser

Nowhere is the concept of ‘path-dependence’ – the idea that a set of outstanding decisions are constrained by decisions made in the past – more tangible than in the urban bricolage that has emerged in Addis Ababa over the last fifty years. Addis Ababa’s façade blends across time and space, ranging from the century-old Imperial palaces and Italian modern architecture of the 1930s, to Soviet-influenced office buildings as well as the Chinese-backed Light-Rail transit system and skyscrapers.

The Urban Age Conference in 2018 hosted at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa provided a platform not only to engage with international academics and current and former mayors from across the world, but also offered the space for much-needed internal reflection among Ethiopia’s urban thinkers.

Ethiopia has had the highest expenditure rate on infrastructure in Africa, investing heavily in road networks, railways, dams, and housing.[i] While this has contributed to the rapid economic growth of the country in the last decade, it has also led to the demise of central tenets of urban planning. New roads and a city-wide rail system have been planned, built and constructed on the basis of engineering principles, where questions of social integration and connectivity with existing systems were of secondary importance.  It is important to remember that roads are built for cars, streets, on the other hand, are built to maintain the vibrant interactions between vendors, pedestrians, shop owners, and vehicles. Unfortunately, Addis Ababa has lost sight of this vital distinction.

©Charlie Rosser

Central to the dynamic of rapid urban growth is the political question of multi-layered governance. Cities like London and Paris have extremely powerful city administrations that can singlehandedly enact large swaths of policies that shape the urban fabric. In Ethiopia, there is a fundamental question about the independence, authority, and capacity of city governments to shape urban life. Historically, the federal government has dominated the urban agenda, often sidelining local administrations in the decision-making process or imposing projects on the city, such as the Light-Rail Transit System (LRT). The LRT’s disconnection to existing transport modes and its impact on vehicular traffic are not incidental consequences, but a result of failed coordination in the planning process.

The latest mega-infrastructure project announced in late 2018 by the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seems to have also largely blind-sighted the officials of the city government. The new Dubai-sponsored, 36-hectare real estate complex La Gare in the geographic center of Addis Ababa raises numerous questions about how this project fits into the existing structure plan of the city. The developer Eagle Hills has been criticized for its failed endeavors in Belgrade. Prof. Edgar Pieterse in his keynote at the Urban Age argued insightfully that “pro-urban policy approaches that foreground the resolution of land markets are simply creating smooth landing pads for the wrong kind of capital”. In his view, it should not just be about “markets and trade, it’s about spatial justice”.

Addis Ababa is a city that is in desperate need of affordable housing and, as an urban-late comer, it can learn from the mistakes of others. However, as Prof. Fasil Giorghis based at EiABC said, “we are still attracted to these flashy images”. Protecting and shaping the growth of the Addis Ababa in the next decade, he added, is not just “about saving a few old buildings,” but rather “about maintaining the vibrant, multi-layered street life that exists”.

The conference session titled Ethiopia’s urban transformation highlighted many of the challenges that Ethiopian cities will face in the coming decades. While only 22% of Ethiopia’s population currently lives in cities, 70% of the country’s total economic output happens in these urban centres. In search of these jobs, young people in rural areas tired of “waithood” are heading to Addis Ababa as well as flocking to Adama, Bahir Dar, Dire Dawa, Hawassa and Mekelle. These secondary cities are rapidly increasing in size, partly due to an explicit strategy by the Ethiopian government to ease the growing pressures on Addis Ababa.

©Charlie Rosser

Addis Ababa is also home to a number of different administrations, in addition to the city administration, Addis Ababa hosts a continental, national and regional administration: the African Union; the federal government of Ethiopia; and the Oromia regional government. This creates a vibrant political environment at different scales within the city but also causes tension. Due to the complex political dynamics between the city government and the Oromia regional government, there are very defined planning boundaries within which the city must stay and beyond which the city has little influence.[ii]

Local political dynamics like this are often not understood by international actors. Maheder Gebremedhin, lead architect at YEMA Architecture at the Urban Age Conference rightly asked: “Who sets the urban agenda in Ethiopia?” The city faces an onslaught of foreign policy advisors, international NGOs, researchers and self-proclaimed experts that are engaged financially and technically across the city. NACTO, Bloomberg, ITDP, GIZ, and UN-Habitat among others are working with different actors at the city administration on issues ranging from non-motorized transport, road safety, and road design standards to the introduction of bike lanes. This creates a cocktail of well-intentioned policy reports, workshops, capacity-building exercises and the like that in fact are sometimes competing, often distracting and very seldom coordinated. While learning from the experience of other cities is both encouraged and essential, Addis Ababa needs to set its own urban policy by being strategic and deliberate in its engagement with external partners.

Ethiopia’s architects and urban planners have long acknowledged that the city’s growth is no longer controlled. Rahel Shawl, founder of RAAS Architects, admitted during the conference that “when the growth is so fast, you’re not in control of the urban fabric and the way you build.” Ethiopia is at a critical juncture not just in terms of its political reform process, but also the future of its cities. As the density and compactness of Addis Ababa increases and as housing and transport shortages become ever more apparent, we need to regain control of this rapid expansion. There needs to be a move away from building houses to developing housing, from making roads to creating streets, from construction in sectoral silos to connecting with the plethora of urban actors. The new flower needs a new vase.

[i] Sennoga, E., Zerihun, A., Wakiaga, J., & Kibret, H. (2016). Ethiopia 2016 – African Economic Outlook. Retrieved from

[ii] Lavers, Tom. 2018. Responding to land-based conflict in Ethiopia: The land rights of ethnic minorities under federalism. African Affairs 117(468): 462-484.