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Planning

Why is Post-war Reconstruction and Conflict ignored by Urban Planners

Informal housing adorns Kabul's mountains, complete with no water, no sanitation, and no roads (Photo: Sutika Sipus)
A quick look at some of the more popular urban planning websites and forums, such as Planetizen, Engaging Cities, Cyburbia, or the American Planning Association, and one will discover  articles on a vast array of issues such as rehabilitating industrial sites, methods for inclusive public participation in urban design, suburban sprawl and conservation, and occasionally the generic term "international development."  While I occasionally search these forums to see what new ideas have popped up, its disappointing to find that little of the content relates to my own daily work in cities like Kabul Afghanistan or Mogadishu Somalia, or within future projects in Libya and Nigeria.

Yet whenever I look at these forums, the same question always crosses my mind:

Why are conflict and post-war reconstruction not central to the discussion of 
 Urban Planning as a profession or Urban Planning education?

The Recently Completed Darulaman Road in Kabul (Sutika Sipus)
The topic is rarely discussed, yet reconstruction has been a mainstay of the planning profession throughout history.  One can quickly cite examples of planning and reconstruction, such as the rebuilding of London in 1666,  the rebuilding of Europe after WWII with the Marshal Plan, or the current reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.  Throughout each example there has been a massive demand for skilled individuals with the balanced knowledge of design, infrastructure, economics, and social sciences to design and implement sustainable initiatives.  In Afghanistan alone, USAID has spent 7.9 billion dollars on reconstruction efforts over the course of 10 years, with large portions of that funding directed toward road construction, agricultural development, and education.  Yet where is the discussion of Afghanistan on popular planning forums?  


So who is rebuilding cities in conflict?
In the 6 years that I've been working in urban planning, most of that time has been spent in conflicted or complex territories such as refugee camps, urban slums, or conflict cities.  Throughout this process, I've encountered only 4 other urban planners working in these environments!  There are always plenty of engineers, former military, active military, or aid/developments professionals with social, legal, and political science backgrounds but I've found that planners maintain certain advantages.
  • Planners are trained with a balance of contextual and technical knowledge that promotes clear communication between team members.
  • Planners have an innate understanding of  administrative and management skills
Defensive Perimeter, Kabul Afghanistan (Sutika Sipus)
  • Some consulting firms like to market themselves as skilled in "strategic design" but actually have little or no ability with design-thinking or the design process
  • Architects and engineers rarely have the ethnographic research skills to recognize and integrate subtle social processes into their design
  • Many architects and engineers do realize the value of basic site visits and create plans that are not consistent with the local economy or patterns in land use
  • Most professionals in social or political skills have the research skills, but are weak in areas of communication, presentation, and further more do not have the hard skills to design solutions from the research.  At best, they can only advise on policy or suggest solutions for others to design.
Because urban planners have so much to offer, I've found those working in the field of post-war reconstruction quickly gather respect by their employers and colleagues.  Sure, the sample pool is small, but it has been consistent enough to make me ask, so where are all the other planners?


The career track for most urban planners
Understandably, many graduates from urban planning programs are going to work for local or regional governments or private sector architecture studios.  I know a lot of planners who work for cities like Houston or Portland, and they spend most of their time sitting in public hearings, debating the merits of city zoning changes or traffic plans.  Often this was not the career path imagined while in school, but rather it was the mundane reality they discovered upon graduation.  This isn't unusual as graduate school frequently gives one a false sense of global influence, as if the future of humanity were dependent upon the outcome of your thesis research, but if planning education is so dynamic, why is normative planning practice so dull?  In this case, we as urban planners can blame no one but ourselves.  With so much training and capacity, not to mention an understanding of organizational structure and project management, only to end up working in a field overflowing with of boiler-plated building codes? No one else is at fault.

The more interesting work in the planning profession is frequently undertaken from an architectural perspective, but again, limitations arise.  The world continues to lust for new urban forms and beautifully rendered master plans.  Not a problem.  Yet where is the broader disciplinary attention to healing traumatized landscapes, rebuilding war torn cities, and nurturing emerging economies with scaled, responsive infrastructure?  Typically these sorts of plans are more glitz than substance, and lack the relationship to local informal economic structures or conflict remediation options to be viable.


The Planning Advantage
Art Deco Architecture in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Having started my career as an artist and designer, before transitioning into architecture, planning, and refugee law, credit my foundation in creative problem solving as my greatest asset. Working in conflict cities and post-war reconstruction as an urban planner is not a simple task.  It requires flexibility, creativity, and long hours.  It carries personal risks to myself and my family and demands great sacrifice.  

Yet it is also the most rewarding capacity in which I can apply my abilities to facilitate the collective interest of communities around the world.  By working in challenging conditions, I actually have the opportunity to do far more than my teachers in grad school ever suggested was possible.  I have the daily opportunity to work with all facets of planning, to work with people from many different backgrounds, and to creatively explore options for development that might be otherwise quickly tossed out the window. 

Sure, sometimes I have to sit in long meetings, but rarely is it over something as droll as stoplights.  I hope as more planners discover and read this blog they will be compelled to expand their own definition of the urban planning, and in the near future I will have the chance to find more individuals in the field with the sophisticated training necessary to solve some the worlds greatest problems.

Urban Planning in Kabul - Convention vs Demand; #Kabul, #Afghanistan, #engineering, #transportation

Urban Planning is more than an attempt to solve existing problems.  Urban Planning is about directly shaping the future and I would argue that a sense of vision is the greatest skill needed by Planners.   Yet somehow there is a common disconnect within the discipline, where graduate programs encourage rich brainstorming and imaginative concepts, or individual architectural studios pursue elaborate renderings of the future - but in the end, the final projects are unimpressively droll.  

Frequently this disconnect is due to the over-reliance upon trends, conventions and buzzwords.  In the last 10 years, thousands of Planners have pursued their work within the confines of new urbanism, transit-oriented development, and sustainability.  The danger of course is that Planners can and do make decisions that dehabilitate future development in the name of social advancement, or they fail to account for pre-existing variables because those variables do not fall within the confines of the trend.  An obvious example is the manner in which NYC planner Robert Moses frequently advocated the needs of automobiles over local communities - yet Moses was merely working within the conventions of the era.  In his mind, automobiles and transportation were the most critical asset to urban health and it was impossible for him to assess the negative repercussions.  How many planners today make the same poor decisions as Moses, but in the name of sustainability or economic growth?  

In Kabul, urban planning and development is subject to the same conceptual limitations although the city contains an seemingly more complex array of variables.  I would argue however that the variables are no different than any other metropolis, but rather the organizational methods and logistics  for implementation contain more obstacles.  Regardless, various discipline-centric examples can be found for planning the future of Kabul.  For example, within the proposed project, City of Light, great emphasis is placed upon developing a skyline to accentuate the mountainous horizon lines following the city.  Other proposals focus on typical urban planning strategies such as sector-based zoning, green corridors, centralized business and historic districts and residential living.


Yet why?  Why should Kabul develop according to these guidelines?  In fact, the city has remained in place for thousands of years, and while never emulating the mountains in its skyline, has managed to capture many hearts with its beauty.   Likewise, while I appreciate the sense of vision, I also wonder why the planners simply ignored the most common and visible feature of Kabul - the hillside residential sprawl.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the most obvious characteristic of Kabul is the verticality of its organization.  The hillsides are covered with formally and informally constructed housing, stretching far up the mountains and on all sides.  There are no paved roads up the mountains, rather residents must walk along narrow pathways and hand carved staircases.  Running water is inconsistently distributed but many of the houses have electricity.   To my understanding, the houses along the mountainsides are fairly new, all constructed sometime in the last 10 years.  I was told that majority of these houses are the result of mass displacement in outlying provinces, as millions of people have sought safety and economic opportunities within Kabul.  Unable to secure housing in the central valley, housing has been informally constructed from the bottom upward.  This also implies that the communities are composed of mixed ethnic groups, potentially with a collection of diverse languages and cultural practices.  In addition to localized sociocultural identities, they may also contain localized economic traits, and each community is the foundation for new identity constructions, in particular among the youth who must balance imported identity constructs with local Kabuli characteristics.  

The upward residential sprawl also reflects a spatial settlement structure consistent with an earlier time in western countries.  The wealthy classes live in the middle of the town and the poor live in the difficult to access outskirts.  As Kabul continues to stabilize and develop, this settlement pattern will change.  In many ways, it already has begun to change.  Just as large-scale housing and condominium developments have been constructed along the outskirts of Kabul, near the airport, attracting large segments of the population, the settlement structure between the mountains and the downtown neighborhoods will likely invert.  When improved transportation and utility infrastructures are installed, the mountains will become a site for high-end housing.  Some of the high quality housing will be a consequence of incremental consolidation among existing structures, where  families will continue to expand and upgrade their own housing.  Yet much new housing will also be constructed and as many of the existing legal structures lack a legal claim to the property, inevitable conflicts will emerge when wealthy developers acquire legal titles to property then raise existing settlements in the name  of progress.

Although seemingly separate, one must also recognize that one day a tunnel will be constructed through the mountains, most likely within the next 40 years.  At this time, all transportation is bottlenecked as the city remains bisected by the mountains (illustrated in blue).  Once a tunnel is constructed, the future urban morphology of Kabul will make a dramatic shift, reformulating itself according to new traffic patterns.  New centers of business growth will take root while existing locations will deteriorate.  

If the city can become more integrated with regional developments, such as improved logistical pathways to China and Pakistan, perhaps there will be limited negative repercussions, otherwise one must assume that this aggressive and inevitable demand by the transportation infrastructure will harbor large-scale economic impact.  It also suggests that most urban development plans will be rendered arbitrary, perhaps even harmful.

So what does this all mean?  It means that the most visionary planning will become impotent if the microstructures, points of existing demand, and regional connections are ignored.  It means that the entire functionality of a city can change with a single project when that project is in aggressive demand.  I would argue that within areas of conflict, that these singular interventions can provide the greatest degree of impact, and therefore large-scale planning is fairly limited in its applicability.

Kabul's historic legacy is rooted in its location.  It has always served as the point of intersection between India, China, Central Asia, and Western Europe.  Ultimately, the success of the city has always been founded in its ability to connect disparate points of activity, serving as a critical intersection.  While vision is essential to lead Kabul into the future, this vision cannot exist in a vacuum, and any feasible planning must build upon Kabul's geographic centrality.    Today, urban growth patterns generated by conflict have resulted in a bifurcated city.  In many ways, this division undermines its prospects for stability as the dehabilitated infrastructure supports systems of chaos and undermines the logistics of social order.  Notably, solutions exist - the construction of a single mountain tunnel (high cost, but difficult to sabotage unlike rail transit, and short-term construction time unaffected by seasons) can redirect the entire urban assemblage.  The upfront high-cost becomes proportionately low-cost given the generated value of financial revenue and increased stability.

The Capacity for a New Egypt


There have been countless discussions and analysis' in the last several days regarding the future of Egypt.  As I have a rather personal relationship with Egypt, I have paid great attentions to these discussions.  Most often, they have focused on the lackluster stance of the United States, the omnipresent power vacuum, and the pivital role of the military in securing the state on behalf of the people or on behalf of Mubarak.  Facebook, blogs, and twitter posts have also been quick to point out all the things not being discussed: the role of women in the protests, the socio-economic conditions that led to this uprising, and a discourse on what exactly is the identity of the Muslim Brotherhood within the political landscape.  While Al Jezeera has done an excellent job of providing constant coverage, it seems that most American media have spent their time focussing on hypotheticals.  Not to simply add another analysis to the already cluttered pool, but there is one startling observation that remains heavily undiscussed: what are the assets in place for a better Egypt?  

I'll never forget a couple years ago when I went for a job interview with a non-profit founded and operated by Egypt's former Minister of Culture.  He had many impressive credentials, a nice office in a wealthy neighborhood, and project committed to improving relations between Egypt and Sub-saharan Africa.  In short, I accepted an agreement to do a lot of work and in the end was left stranded with with a rather bad situation.  Ultimately I concluded that the agency was simply a corrupt operation for this guy to siphon funds from the government.   The first thing that tipped me off, however, was the fact that this guy had no understanding of the broad scale of non-government organizations situated in Cairo to assist the most vulnerable populations and facilitate capacity building.

A quick google search alone will show one the variety of NGOs that have been long established in Egypt.  Notable agencies include The Egyptian Center of Human Rights, the NGO Support Center, Caritas, and St. Andrews Refugee Services.  Egypt is likewise full of Universities training engineers, scholars, researchers, and technicians at places such as Cairo University, Ain Shams University, American University in Cairo, and the The Future School.   While there certainly tens of millions of Egyptians without adequate access to education or viable livelihood options, there are also millions of Egyptians who are talented, business savvy individuals who have sought opportunities for self advancement their whole lives.

I'm not going to pretend to know what will happen to Egypt - but the possibility is part of the excitement.  Whereas in the past extremist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood were the only viable alternative to Mubarak's government, there is now the means for many other players to enter the field.  In a country that restricted the movement and access to services of its own people, there is now the possibility that a new generation of Egyptians could engage ladders for social mobility.  In contrast to living beneath a 30 year suspended constitution on the grounds of a "State Emergency," the people may express their opinions in newspapers and media outlets - including the internet - without fear of the police taking them away in the middle of the night.  

In contrast to news reports, the people I personally know in Cairo right now explain that the protests have remained generally peaceful.  That many citizens have been actively removing trash from Tahir square and other parts of the city to show this is no longer the downtrodden Egypt of Mubarak. That the crowds are overwhelmingly shouting slogans of universalism to overcome perceived hostilities between Christians and Muslims or rich and poor.  

The struggle for Egypt will remain for sometime.  But I do not perceive this struggle to be frightening, rather it is simply an honest expression of its people, as founded by necessity.  And hopefully, soon, when the country is able to pass over the present precipice of tensions and protest, and move toward resolution in the form of a new government, there will be some recognition of an easily over-looked, yet pre-existing infrastructure.  An infrastructure of longstanding mosques, churches, business owners, academics and non-profits all equally committed to a better Egypt.  This commitment is not new, it has always been there, but  like a plant bursting through the soil to see the sun for the first time, this commitment has the space to live and grow.

Enroute to Kenya?

I had a phone interview the other night with a San Francisco non-profit, about working as their Project Officer within Kenya to oversee projects within Nairobi and the Dadaab Refugee Camps.   Although I was rather nervous at the outset - especially as there were complications getting skype to operate - within moments I found a comfortable relationship developing between us. 


I had discovered this agency while up late one night, reading about new technology developments on CNET. As much of my own research and work experience has consisted of technology, development, and refugee populations, I was immediately intrigued to learn of this company.  It is not an aid 
agency, but instead promotes innovative entrepreneurship within developed and developing nations.  By making it possible for anyone to outsource tasks via an iphone application, Samasource redirects these tasks to workers and refugees within developing nations who promptly accomplish the task and send it back.  These jobs might include data entry, analysis, research, programming, or tedious yet important processes of analysis.

New to working with refugees, it became clear within the conversation that my own background and expertise could be of tremendous value to the agency.  It would be my responsibility to oversee their projects within Nairobi and the Dadaab Refugee Camps where I had previously worked in 2007.  I've been thinking a great deal about the problems they have beenfacing within their program, and already I have an array of potentialsolutions in mind that would be socially-culturally consistent with Kenyan national and refugee workers, while also logistically feasible for thecompany.  It is clear that this could be an exciting and valuableoppurtunity for both of us. 

Unfortunately, although I can design and implement sustainable programming on their behalf, it is clear that the company does not quite have the resources to be as sustainable within my own life.  A little bit of negotiation needs to occur, as I simply don't want to go back to struggling to pay my bills, student loans, and fear getting sick for lack of health insurance.  That would feel like a personal step backward, and not something I really something I'm looking for.  It gets further complicated by the prospect of leaving my life in Cairo, where my girlfriend will continue to remain as she finishes her masters in Human Rights Law, and where I have grown many valuable friendships.

However, they seem willing to work this out with me.  I think they understand that the contribution I can make to their organization could ultimately save money by streamlining current operations, and improving  productivity while remaining consistent with their mission toward economic development and socio-cultural compatibility.   So they are looking at building a better offer, so that I'm not left floundering in Nairobi once the most urgent work is taken care of - after about 2 months out of a 6 month contract.

We are to talk again in a few days, and with luck, establish a more concrete agreement.

I'm really excited about this, to return to my favorite city in the world and to work on a project that has significant personal value.  Best of all, as soon as I get to Kenya - prospectively within a couple weeks- I'm going to feast on some roasted goat, mimi napende nyoma choma!

The Black Cloud of Cairo


October and November is not the best time in Cairo - although it should be.  The weather drops from deep fry to a mild simmer, the evenings are crisp and the mornings are lazy.  Yet thanks to impatient demands of poverty and the lack of government regulations (in addition to the lack of implementation), the Egypt's autumn is anything but pleasant.

Its dreadful.
Absolutely dreadful.
I can only compare it to drowning.

Or at least how I imagine drowning.  You find yourself disoriented, everything is familiar but different.  You know that the most important thing to do is keep you mouth closed but your lungs crave oxygen, forcing your eyes to burn and water and swell up inside your head... eventually your body forces you to open your mouth and its over, everything comes rushing in.

The black cloud.

Your lungs ache, your throat itches. The afternoon sun cakes your body in a combination of soot and sweat.

I now experience sporadic afflictions of dermatitis once or twice a day, and I really just want to stay inside, but of course this isn't feasible. Anyway, air is air, and being inside the house or out on the street is only a marginal difference.

So what's the deal?

The deal is that Cairo is suffering from the annual Black Cloud, generated every fall by the combination of industrial pollutants, car exhaust, and most notably, the burning of agricultural waste after the harvest.  The amazing thing about the Nile Delta is that this stretch of land is astoundingly fertile; planting and harvesting seasons are simply put on a year round production schedule.  Strawberries in January, prickly pears in June, vegetables year round... its incredible.  Egypt is also one of the largest producers of rice within the world, producing around 4.5 Million Tons of rice every year.

According to the rice farmers, the problem is that after the harvest, they are left with mountains of agricultural waste, obstructing their land and making it unusable for the next planting.  Although I have my doubts, I read some stories on the internet that some troublesome kids in 1999 had set fire to a giant pile of such waste, and after farmers noticed that the fire never spread, but only sat smoldering and coughing up a black pillar of smoke, burning has become the common solution to their problem.

It has been stated by the Egyptian government in the past that the issue will be taken care of, that regulations will be created and enforced, and that the black cloud will stop showing up every fall.  As you can see from the photo taken this afternoon from my bedroom window, its clear that these changes haven't happened.

The Power of Ideas


I just came across an article about a boy in Malawi who has changed the future of his entire village after finding two physics textbooks found within a rural library and thereafter taught himself to construct windmills.  Initially hoping to generation enough power to illuminate a singe lightbulb in his home so that he could read at night, his work has since provided enough electricity for the entire village in addition to an array of other benefits.  I highly recommend reading it.  There is also a brief youtube video.

You can find it Here.



New Blog Debut!!!

I decided recently to start another blog, a "serious" blog that concerns the issues I am generally thinking about, writing about, researching and working on.  These issues concern the stabilization and reconstruction of conflicted territories, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo etc.

For now the entries are somewhat general, but each entry is created using a basic structure:
  • Each entry is concerned with a particular conflict 
  • Each entry synthesizes information from a variety of online journalistic and academic sources
  • Each entry attempts to look at a particular problem or asset for each conflict
  • The overall goal is to address untapped strengths and resources with the reconstruction process
I intend to update the blog on a biweekly basis. At the moment it contains 2 posts, one concerning Somalia, and one concerning Afghanistan.  Feel free to write constructive comments on posts.
Dialogue is encouraged.  Enjoy!



The Big Initiative

I had my interview at a local ngo few hours ago.  It was... interesting.  The agency was founded about 3 years ago with the interest of facilitating UN development goals.  However the agency seems to be a little unorganized.  They have a nice office, a few a handful of staff, and have been working primarily on two projects for the last three years.

The primary project is banking and finance oriented, with the intent of further educating the general public of various nations about the value of Islamic banking, and working to establish these institutions.  While I only have marginal experience with Islamic banking, limited only to money exchange, I believe it has been mostly untouched by the global banking crisis of the last 2 years.  Although such banks exist in America, they are not very well known or understood by the public and yet there might be significant value to further diversify American banking systems by investing in these institutions.

The other major project consists of working to facilitate secular cross cultural dialogues, so that people may better overcome their popular East/West misconceptions.  This is process is very much the product of institutional networking, lectures, workshops etc.

Well I considered these projects all quite fine and good, although I will admit, only of marginal interest.  Nonetheless, a part time job that pays a little money is better than no job and no income, so I was interested in going along with things anyway.

I was then introduced to the founder of the organization, and our discussion brought about a different direction altogether.  Apparently his interest in hiring me is founded on my experience of working with African populations, most notably Sudanese and Somalis.  It turns out that the government of Somalia has contacted his organization on multiple occasions, asking for project assistance to work with vulnerable youth and economic development.  Supposedly there is UN funding available for this projects, I received the impression that he has been simply uncertain how to go about doing this.

Fortunately, these sort of problems are perfectly consistent with my own expertise.  So over the next few days I'm going to sketch out a rough outline of what this  organization could do.  If it is of interest to them, then I guess I can go about designing projects from the ground up.  As for getting them implemented, well that will have to fall onto the shoulders of someone else.   This NGO does not appear to have any of the resources that one would have working for the US gov, the UN, or major agencies like Care or NRC.  This is of course rather unfortunate, as designing programing and not overseeing its implementation greatly retards the feasibility of the project and relegates the process to little more than an academic exercise.   Of course, I could show up next week with a slew of ideas, none of which would be of interest to this agency.

So the final question is, did I get the job? Yeah, it looks that way.  But do I want it? Well... we'll see.  If anything, its something to do for a few weeks or months while I continue to apply for something more embracing.