The two competing city models

The United Nations has already named April 7 as the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Rwanda Genocide, which marks the beginning of the 100-day memorial period.

This week, Rwanda and friends of Rwanda, world over came together to commemorate the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Between April 7 and 14, flags countrywide flew at half-mast in honour of the victims of the Genocide.

People have been flocking Genocide memorials for remembrance and learning. Several sensitization meetings were held throughout the week in neighbourhoods, during the afternoons.

As an urban designer, I have tried to think deeper on what other benefits come out of a people meeting to remember the events of the Genocide and plan ahead strategies to avoid a repeat in the future, at both the individual and urban scales

A people accepting to put a pause to ordinary business in the interest of the social dimension of lif. A people making that conscious decision that it is not just enough to just make money, but it is more worthwhile to reach out to a neighbour, a colleague and share with them the remembrance of their long gone relatives and friends…. Congratulations, Rwanda.

Listening to the liveable cities’ expert Michael Douglass, there are two main competing models of cities, which also coincide with the two main theories of economics: one focused on economic growth and the other on meeting basic needs within the context of limited natural resources.

According to Douglass, one model is based on consumption, whereby people use advertising to choose an array of products that will bring them personal and individual pleasure.

They work hard to afford those purchases, and in being able to buy the goods that are constantly promoted, they believe they will experience happiness, which at a national level is measured albeit rather indirectly through economic growth.

The other model is based on social networks, wherein people’s links to community, interactions with family, neighbours and friends and brings a lasting contentment and happiness.

In the one, moments of pleasure and joy can be purchased; in the other, they are freely available in daily encounters on social gatherings, on the streets, in parks and in other social spaces.

In the first model (consumption), we can say that possessions represent the highest pursuit of happiness, with a never-ending race to buy more and more in order to capture moments of pleasure, and with selfishness considered a virtue; in the other, happiness comes from interactions, from relationships, from people.

At the urban level, a city entangled in this model and vision will only promote development of luxury apartments, state of the art shopping malls, complex highways, and gated communities. 

Through this lens of a ‘modern’ (read greedy) city, considerations of social life and interaction are viewed as a waste of time and developments of urban open spaces, pedestrian streets, parks and other social areas are viewed as a waste of space that could be utilised for economic purposes in support of the ever-increasing consumption.

The commemoration week in Rwanda is a fantastic example of a nation that dares to put first value in people’s life; that believes in the power of socialisation, social interaction, human health and well being.

Through this and many other occasional social events, Rwanda has displayed an understanding of community and the human connection that she wants to uphold even in the sad moments of Genocide commemoration, in order to point towards sustainable happiness and prosperity from the national to local level.

Rwanda understands that people are social beings; they require interaction way beyond the scale of family. This has encouraged Rwandans to be eager to learn about others, share their feelings and aspirations and find ways to obtain a reassurance for a better future.

Being around others indeed reminds people of the “other” side of life. Life itself is multifaceted, with many sides and dimensions. What we had yesterday, have today and will have in the future is not static, be it good or bad.

In this perspective, other people become a ‘mirror’ or a ‘window’ in which we see our own reflections or through which we see another side of our lives and gain new insights.

Beyond our businesses, beyond the roads and vehicles, beyond our houses and buildings, beyond all our assets, lies the importance of people, our fellow colleagues, our neighbours, and therefore need to look out for each other which is undeniably cross cutting among us all regardless our social and economic status in society.

This is a sustainable path to the model of ‘happy city.’

In this model, even at the urban scale, HAPPY we remain because it affects nearly every aspect of our lives and our choices and decisions on urban life and the designing and planning of our cities.

The focus is therefore not on making every corner of the city accessible by automobile, providing only high-end products and stores, expensive restaurants, luxury shops and hotels for the economically able to patronise them.

Instead, the focus becomes working to sustain and strengthen existing neighbourhoods and communities, to ensure that small and medium businesses have a place in the city and that people of all ages and incomes have attractive places to gather, outdoors, in the public realm, so as to sustain livelihoods and promote the socialising that is the fabric of our society and the greatest hope for our happiness and prosperity.

Ms. Malonza, a lecturer at the School of Architecture, University of Rwanda, is an architect and urban designer with keen interest on the dialectical relations between architecture and society.

josemwongeli@yahoo.com