Rwanda leading the way to sustainable urbanism

RECENTLY, The New Times published an article on sustainable urbanisation written by Ms. Noeleen Heyzer, the Under-Secretary-General of the UN(), who pointed out that by the end of this century, ten billion people will inhabit our planet, with 8.5 billion living in cities alone.
 Donna D. Rubinoff
Donna D. Rubinoff

RECENTLY, The New Times published an article on sustainable urbanisation written by Ms. Noeleen Heyzer, the Under-Secretary-General of the UN (Rapid urbanisation: Is it a threat to global development?), who pointed out that by the end of this century, ten billion people will inhabit our planet, with 8.5 billion living in cities alone.

This could be the stuff of nightmares but, with sufficient political will, vision, and creativity – along with some simple, practical policy changes – we may be able to create cities of dreams.” 

She argued that cities can be a boon to economic and social development, but that rapid urbanisation has a potential downside: “Cities are hubs of economic and social power. They drive national and global development by concentrating skills, ideas, and resources in a single location. But rapid urban development comes at a heavy cost.

As cities expand, they swallow up land that would otherwise be used for food production. They drain water supplies, account for almost 70 per cent of global energy use, and generate more than 70 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions.” 

Ms. Heyzer lists seven key prerequisites for the achievement of sustainable urbanism leading to growth without compromising the precious resource base: good urban design, energy efficient building design, sustainable transport systems, broad based energy efficiency, water resource management, solid waste management and recycling plus the coordination of all these elements.

Fortunately, Rwanda is well ahead of the curve on these recommendations: its early adoption and vision have positioned it arguably as the continental leader in Sustainable Urbanism (SU). The Government of Rwanda now recognises SU as a strategic economic development tool in the EDPRS II.

Together with partners GGGI and UN Habitat, it has initiated a national programme to support green growth via a matrix of secondary and tertiary cities that will complement Kigali as the primate city. 

A major national conference on urbanisation will be held in Kigali on March 20-21. It is sponsored by IGC and World Bank. The meeting will address the opportunities and solutions for sustainable urbanisation, infrastructure and neighborhood/housing development.

But Rwanda is no stranger to Sustainable Urbanism. The debates and guidance from these important stakeholders will build on solid experience already achieved by the City of Kigali, which established its leadership in SU almost ten years ago. 

With wise forethought as to the inevitability of urbanisation, leadership saw that the rural-to-urban transition would require careful planning to meet social, economic and environmental priorities. The results were not cookie-cutter solutions: they considered the unique Rwanda context to create nuanced appropriate and foundational urbanisation principles.

The Kigali master planning process, initiated in 2005 with the Kigali Conceptual Master Plan, has won every top international urban planning award for sustainability, including the American Planning Association Awards for Best Comprehensive Plan (2007) and Best International Planning Project (for the Sub Area Plans, 2011), and top awards from the American Institute of Architects and American Society of Landscape Architects.

The detailed Kigali Master Plan, completed in 2013, won the Singapore Institute of Planners award for Best Planning Project (2013).

Furthermore, in the last decade (and with a host of academic, donor and NGO partners), the City of Kigali has implemented a body of policies, programmes and projects that reflect EVERY SINGLE sustainability recommendation of Ms. Heyzer.

Coupled with its pioneering programmes for affordable housing, E-governance, and urban agriculture, they underscore Kigali’s wide and integrated sustainable urbanisation approach.

“First, we must change the way we design cities.” The Kigali Master Plan is predicated on the basic principles of sustainable urbanism: compact, mixed use and dense urban design that efficiently utilises the hilly landscape of Kigali; structured by greenway networks that provide healthy open space and quality of life for residents, protect its wetlands, and manage water runoff. 

Dense urban design permits integrated mass transit and walkability instead of demanding automobile usage that promotes greenhouse gas emissions.

“Second, we must rethink how we design and operate buildings so that they use less energy – or, better still, generate energy.”Urban construction will utilise an estimated 40 per cent of national energy consumption and it can be reduced by 20 per cent.

 ast week, the City of Kigali, the Ministry of Infrastructure and UNHABITAT sponsored a three-day Green Building Workshop that trained 130 participants on the simple, cost free principles of green building design and software that will help reduce building related energy consumption.

As part of a larger Energy Efficiency initiative, the workshop built on previous Green Building Code activities, and will pave the way for a comprehensive regulatory, support, and sensitisation agenda, also including alternative building materials supply chain.

This work fits into overarching management reforms of the Kigali One Stop Centre since 2010, including the groundbreaking online (and paper free) MIS Construction Permit system.

Urban plans and buildings are only part of the institutional infrastructure needed to address sustainable urbanisation complexities.

In Part II of this article (tomorrow) I will address five more examples of Kigali’s Sustainable Urbanism initiatives.

 Donna D. Rubinoff (PhD) is a Senior Advisor to the City of Kigali in Sustainable Urbanism


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