Rethinking the KN4 Street as a public space for Kigali

By closing part of the KN4 street from cars to exclusive pedestrian use, the City of Kigali is setting precedent on the war against the ‘asphalt and concrete jungle’ that’s attacking cities from all ends in this era of rapid urbanisation.

By closing part of the KN4 street from cars to exclusive pedestrian use, the City of Kigali is setting precedent on the war against the ‘asphalt and concrete jungle’ that’s attacking cities from all ends in this era of rapid urbanisation.

Cities show only marginal expansions in their public open spaces despite the overwhelming expansion of the built environment. Kigali is opening up possibility for this part of the street to be a ‘social space’where the pedestrian is the priority.

Streets world over are very important symbols of the public realm since they constitute a significant part of open public space.

Since they contain human activities, when streets are able to cater for the functional, social, and recreational needs of people, they are increasingly and positively associated with economic growth, physical health of people, and a sense of community.

As a consequence, scholars increasingly suggest (re) thinking of the street as a social space rather than just a channel for movement.

The ongoing study is an empirical examination of the behavioral responses, perceptions, and attitudes of people to the physical characteristics and the social elements of the new car free zone on KN4 Street in Kigali whose implementation started last month.

By and large, the biggest competitive advantage of such a street lies in its ability to attract and support social interaction, in line with Jane Jacob’s famous quote “Think of a city and what comes to mind?

If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull”.

Since the implementation of the car-free zone policy, compared to the previous situation, there has not been lots of activity and the current question in many people’s minds is ‘how to attract people to this street’?

It is, therefore, important for the city to establish what micro-scale elements are able to attract, catalyse and support social cohesion on this newly formed car free zone.

An in-depth understanding of how and why outdoor activities happen can be a good starting point. Danish architect Jan Gehl divides outdoor activities in public space into three categories; necessary, optional and social activities.

Necessary activities – occur under all conditions - Refer to those compulsory activities in which people who are involved are required to participate. Because these activities are essential, physical environment can only have a slight influence over their occurrences.

It means that they can happen throughout a year in nearly any conditions since people do not necessarily have the options to choose the external conditions. For instance, a student at Mt. Kenya University (MKU) has to go for classes whether it’s a rainy, sunny day or not.

Optional activities – occur only under favourable exterior conditions- Refer to those undertaken if there is a wish to do so and if time, place and exterior conditions are favourable.

They only occur under suitable outer conditions, which, in turn, attract people to hang around even longer. Such activities include taking a leisurely walk, standing and enjoying the surrounding views, meditating or sitting and basking in the sun.

Social activities are those undertaken subject to presence of other people in the public space. Their occurrence depends on the participation of others in public space.

Examples of social activities include children at play, conversations, social games such as ‘igisoro’, public speech – watching and listening to other people and communal activities such as ‘umuganura’.

Optional and social activities definitely rely on appropriate planning and design of public space because their occurrence particularly relies on outer physical conditions.

Pedestrian priority as one of the strategies to creating pleasing and vibrant public space has already been implemented on Kigali’s new ‘car free zone’. So, what next?

Besides the car free street and the primary and currently most visual activity of acquiring goods and services, people go to the city to meet and spend time with their friends, to look around, window-shop, watch other people, walk around, relax etc.

It is important to investigate what physical and social elements will attract people to this new ‘public space’ making it a social space that can play multiple roles and offer social contact and interaction that enhance social cohesion.

From an ongoing fieldwork, I have been mapping outdoor activities on this new ‘car-free zone’ and the preliminary findings include:

  • People prefer settings that have shops/restaurants that serve as gathering places, for instance, the Camelia Coffee Shop.
  • A variety of shops and supermarkets attract more people than the banks.
  • Physical elements at human scale such as Tigo or MTN umbrellas, shop-windows, personalised entrances such as Simba Supermarket offer distinctive character and ambience that attracts people.
  • Shade, shelter and buildings with permeable and articulated street facades providing sheltered small-scale spaces attract a lot of people.

The observations above indicate that people in Kigali are indeed concerned with both the physical and social aspects of the street, and their enhancement will significantly boost its potential as a true public space.

In addition to the pedestrian priority, free accessibility, mixing uses and activities, human scale elements and cultural artifacts are among other considerations in enhancing the creation of vibrant public space.

The writer is a lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the University of Rwanda. She is an architect and urban designer with a keen interest on the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.


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