By Jackie Asasira
In May, the Government announced, to a rousing applause, the elevation of nine municipalities around the country to city status, over the next four years. But Uganda’s professional engineers and architects are warning that short of proper and professional design, planning and execution, the new cities run a risk of becoming just another set of new urban sprawls.
According to Tom Butime, the minister for Local Government, the nine cities have been proposed both for strategic reasons and regional balance. The strategic cities are Fort Portal (a tourism hub), Hoima (oil and gas), Jinja (an industrial/manufacturing hub)and Entebbe (the main international air getaway to the country).The regional cities include: Mbale, Arua, Gulu, Masaka, Mbarara and Lira.
This is the very first time, since independence from Britain in 1962, that Uganda creates another city outside the current 5 million populated capital, Kampala. It will be the first time that the country ventures into the new global craze for city development going on around the world.
Over the last couple of decades, so many cities have sprung up in different countries especially in Asia and Africa- in such a short time. The cities have been developed to serve different purposes some as new political centres (for example Nigeria’s Abuja), others as logistics hubs (e.g. Colombo in Sri Lanka), others as centres of trade (Chinese cities), and yet others as centres of technology, innovation and finance. In this sense, these cities are intended to become new engines of economic growth.
Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Nigeria, Kenya have invested in creating new cities- in many instances brand new cities. China is perhaps the world leader in development of cities. It is estimated that silence 1949, China has built over 600 new cities. Malaysia is currently building 27 new cities.
In recent years, development of cities has become a strategy for socio-economic development, with countries building cities as engines of growth based on specific strategic reasons and advantage, but also as expressions of the use of science for the future in solving some of the world’s challenges.
Take the example of Malaysia’s Forest city it is conceived and modelled on futuristic liveability, as an eco-city for addressing the global challenge of climate change. Built from scratch, the Government of Malaysia is investing US$100 billion to build a modern, eco-city that is designed and laid out in such a way that its mode of transport is by walking, not carbon fuel run automobiles.
Expected to be ready in 2035, the Forest City is designed by Italian architect Stefano Boeri Archetti (who also designed China’s Forest City). When complete, the city will absorb 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from its plant covered buildings, and will generate 900 tonnes of oxygen. Although built on four artificial islands reclaimed from the sea, the eco-city dubbed the city of the future is indeed futuristic in plan, outlook and design. The high-rise residential and office towers, shopping malls and hotels are put together in such a manner that they are easy to manoeuvre by foot. The Forest City is dubbed as Malaysia’s Singapore.
Other modern cities built with specific purpose, concept and design in mind include South Korea’s Songdo, also an eco-city; US’s Belmont city which Microsoft billionaire, Bill Gates wants to develop as an epitome of a technologically run city. Belmont is designed for liveability and use of technology, as its core. The city is designed to use self-driven cars, smart traffic lights, and such artificial intelligence technological advances.
If this is anything to go by, it means that modern cities around the world, at least in recent times, are no longer left to grow by themselves, over time, from commercial hamlets to towns, eventually maturing to municipalities and cities on their own. Rather, modern cities are purposely, specifically and deliberately designed to achieve some very precise development objectives.
These objectives in recent times have tended to be: To address climate change (limit carbon emissions), to apply new technological advances, act as technology or manufacturing hubs, or as mechanisms of directing economies away from dependency on natural resource such as oil. This latter has especially been the case in the Arab world- good examples being United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, among others that have built brand new cities from scratch as new centres of alternative economic activity.
And that’s where Ugandan engineers and architects may be right. Although government announced the creation of the new cities, there was no elaboration on how strategically they will be built. That’s why some people are arguing that there are no prices for guessing- the government plan –it is the old model of city development; where conurbations grow into towns (municipalities) and gradually grow into cities, haphazardly, at their own time and space. This has been the way the current towns around the country have developed starting from small administrative and commercial centres, slowly and haphazardly growing themselves into bigger towns. All the country’s existing urban centres- Mbale, Tororo, Mbarara, Fort Portal, Arua, Gulu, to name just some, have all grown this way.
As a result of this, Kampala city and other towns around the country are chocking on traffic jams, pollution, garbage, slums and suffering from flooding, inadequate infrastructure like roads, water, and housing.
Speaking at the beginning of June, at a conference organised by the Uganda Institute of Professional Engineers (UIPE), on the theme “the future of technology, engineering and innovation in a digital society,” Dr. Michael Odongo,) said if Government doesn’t employ and involve professional and accredited engineers, the new cities will grow into new slums.
Dr. Odongo is the chairperson of the Engineers Registration Board, a body that certifies and registers practicing engineers in the country.
In August last year, the Uganda Society of Architects sounded the same warning saying that Kampala’s current state exposes its residents to pollution and health risks. Andrew Amara, the president of the architects society recommended a holistic development of eco-systems safe for human liveability.
Butime said Uganda’s new cities will help decongest Kampala in terms of population and economic activity. Currently, Kampala and surrounding areas contribute over 70 per cent of the country’s GDP. Creation of other cities will stimulate activity in those areas hence reducing, if not stopping influx into Kampala, as other cities will create new opportunities that will equally attract populations.
Besides, the new cities will create other power centres- political centres of influence of political power- which will remove Kampala’s monopoly on the country’s political verve. The new cities will also improve economic activity in the other regions as government investment and budget will attract better infrastructure which in turn will attract investment and industry.
According to a statement issued by the government Media Centre, the first five that will become operational in July 2020 are: Hoima, Gulu, Arua, Jinja, Fort Portal and Mbarara. Mbale and Hoima will become effective in July 2021, while in 2022, Lira and Entebbe will become operational.
Uganda’s urban population is projected to grow from 20 per cent in 2018 to 40 per cent in 2040, while the UN estimates that the global population living in urban areas was 55.3 per cent in 2018, but expected to grow to 60 per cent by 2030.
Many countries are investing deliberately in building new, modern and smart cities from scratch to assimilate their growing middle class as urban centres of commerce, industry, technology and politics. Will Uganda’s new cities dawn a new model of urbanisation? Only time will tell.