Tree-lined boulevards, lush urban parks, cosmopolitan plazas
The “New” Addis Ababa as presented through a landscape architecture course at AAU
by Andrew Tadross (Endodo, Tigray & Mekelle, Tigray 2011–13)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s ever-expanding capital city doesn’t evoke images of tree-lined boulevards, lush urban parks, or cosmopolitan plazas. The city is most attractive when looking up at its gleaming new hotels set against the backdrop of 10,000 foot mountains. When you look down, things aren’t quite as inspiring. However, there is new hope for Ethiopia’s urban landscape. In 2015, the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction, and City Development (EIABC) opened the first landscape architecture masters degree program in the country (there is no undergraduate LA degree). This year, ten graduate students will become the first crop of landscape architects to contribute to the transformation of Addis Ababa into a more livable, resilient city.
Upon earning a Masters degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Colorado/Denver, I worked for several years with the City of Houston Parks Dept. and at Rialto Studio in San Antonio. Having taught in Mekele during my service in the Peace Corps and finding a great deal of satisfaction in academia, I jumped at a 1 year teaching contract with EIABC in 2016. With a staff of only four, our young program has a curriculum that is similar to most American landscape architecture programs, but caters only to students with previous background in architecture (thus Autocad and basics design courses are not included). My classes included Construction and Site Engineering, 3rd Semester Design Studio, and two sections of Introduction to Landscape Architecture — an undergrad course for over 160 students.
English is a 2nd or 3rd language for most of my students, and initially I deciphered the students silence as boredom, fascination, or confusion. For the Introduction class, I decided to teach landscape design through case study. There would be 30 groups of 5-6 students, with each group studying a different landscape in Addis. Some of these sites included well known spots such as the splashy gardens and fake Axum obelisk at Bole Airport, the oasis-like Ghion hotel, the historic Meskal Square, and the impressive Bole Medhanalem Orthodox church. Some sites were lesser known — the sprawling park Hamle 19 (near the US Embassy), the new Hope University campus, and the truly unique use of marginal space at Gotera Square — aka Confusion Square.
Each group studied the hardscape (pavements, walls, fountains, drainage, etc), as well as identified trees and shrubs planted on site. They generated perspective sketches, as well as plan view drawings of their site, at two different scales. They were also expected to research the history, ongoing management of the site, and critique the design and facility operations. It was a holistic approach to the study of public spaces, addressing many of the diverse professional skills in the field of landscape architecture. Addis Ababa does not have any books or treatises specifically on landscape architecture or parks – and certainly this body of research would come in handy for starting one.
EIABC student sketches
Overall, I was impressed with the projects submitted, including some exquisite drawings. The research and writing by several groups were above expectation.
If one were to look at these projects in a collection, it is evident that Addis has surprising amount of green spaces dispersed throughout the city. It has been observed that many of the large parks (Peacock Park, Bihere Tsegey, Sheger, Yeka, etc) are often empty — even on weekends with beautiful weather. What is the reason? The 2–10 birr entrance fee might be a deterrent for impoverished citizens, but its not too much of a burden for many residents. Some parks have litter problems, but there seems to be active efforts at periodic cleaning. Safety might be a concern, but every park had security guards. Perhaps it’s a cultural matter. Ethiopians are in the new era of satellite TV and mobile phones. Could it be that an impact of globalization is that they joining the rest of the world in spending their leisure time indoors staring at a various electronic devices?
Another observation is that parks in Addis don’t really inspire a great deal of physical activity. While Ethiopia is known for marathon champions, you are unlikely to see a jogger — or a path — in the local parks. Dog walking is non-existent. Playgrounds are rare — and either ill maintained, or locked up, such as at Africa Park. Many of the parks are overly wooded. In a sunny country, shade is valuable, but excessive trees and shrubbery can obstruct vision and make places feel less safe. Many of the parks are divided into small “islands” or “rooms” by boxy hedges that seem to create a cluster of small spaces rather than expansive open space. Another issue is that most of the parks have a single means of ingress/and egress. While required for security, it’s an obstacle for visitation.
The Addis Ababa Beautification, Park and Cemetary Department is the city agency that is tasked with bringing Addis parks to a level where they can significantly contribute to quality of life and tourism. As with most big cities, funding (low tax base) is a challenge, and evident in the deficiencies in park maintenance and investment. There are income generating activities such as cafés at several parks, but this invites conflicts, as green spaces are increasingly privatized and commercialized for profit. Another issue is the fact that open spaces, unless tightly guarded, end up being unsanitary living quarters for the homeless.
Looking at American history, the great park building eras coincided with industrialization and urbanization. Ethiopia is in the midst of this phase, and will be for decades to come. City leaders have recognized the need to provide recreational spaces for the residents and to keep Addis attractive as a diplomatic hub. The National Green Infrastructure Guidelines are recommending 30% of the city be used for green areas or public space. Most of this would be reclaimed from flood prone areas and slum clearance. Already, significant swaths of forest are protected in the hills above the city within Gullele Botanical Garden, and a patchwork of protected areas. Down in the city, there are concerted efforts to plant street trees (mostly exotics) to shade crowded sidewalks and absorb some of the air pollution.
The almost-completed ECA Park, designed by our chair holder Aziza Abdulfetah, features contemporary looking earthworks, water features, sturdy shade structures, a basketball court, pool and café spaces. The site (between ECA and St. Estafanos) was once an informal housing settlement on the edge of a fetid urban river, but it now serves as a visual treat for office workers in the surrounding buildings, and passengers gliding past on the newly built light rail.
Aser Park located on Bole Road, which will occupy the underside of Rwanda Bridge in Addis Ababa, was one of many projects examined by students in the Landscape Architecture course at AAU. It doesn’t offer much in the way of dirt and grass, but it offers impressive fountains, clean restrooms, a playground, and a café for weary pedestrians to escape the sun.
Gotera Square is a park that makes use of a kind of no-man’s land wedged in between a caucaphonous rail line and freeway fly overs. It is a colorful, extensive hardscape of pavers dotted with seating and raised planting beds in a modernistic grid. The verdict is still out on whether these new parks will be active and inspire further investment, but they do represent a new thrust in park development.
Problems abound in translation of design to construction documents to installation. The grandest dreams of designers can be crushed by the reality of what is actually built by unsupervised contractors. However, these new projects in Addis represent great opportunities for the nascent landscape architecture field. If the economy continues its aggressive growth, there will be continued expansion of resorts, sports complexes, universities, and “everything under the sun” that keep landscape designers employed.
I consider myself fortunate to play a small role in this area of development as I try to pass on some of my skills to a younger generation. My students are very talented, as well as technically proficient. I expect to return to Addis sometime in my 40s and see the great work they’ve accomplished. With rapid urban growth pretty much guaranteed for the next few decades, I’m confident these graduates will have no shortage of work. The challenge will be to convince people they need to hire a landscape architect. That’s not easy to do here — most people haven’t heard of Central Park or Red Rocks Amphitheater. They just think of walking paths, trees, and gardens as the work of layman, rather than a trained designer. So, beyond just getting a job, my students have to promote their own profession to earn the respect it deserves.