Ahantu rusange: Discovering the Rwandan concept of the public space

The United Nations has designated the first Monday of October of every year as World Habitat Day, a day to reflect on the state of our towns and cities, the basic right of all to adequate shelter and to remind the world that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns.

The United Nations has designated the first Monday of October of every year as World Habitat Day, a day to reflect on the state of our towns and cities, the basic right of all to adequate shelter and to remind the world that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns.

UN Habitat has had a growing focus on public spaces in rapidly urbanising global south. To this effect, this year’s World Habitat Day will be celebrated on 5th October 2015 under the theme Public Spaces for All. Public space is a topic with long history. In ancient times, public life thrived around the Agora -the ‘place for gathering’. It was a place where everyone belonged to and it itself belonged to the people. To date public space is seen as a social space that is generally open and accessible to people.

The production and consumption of urban space is a passion that inspires my keen interest in the dialectical relations between architecture and society. Taking the people-city relation as a give-take relationship means that the presence of people and their contribution to the creation of urban spaces ought to be more valued.

People take lots of support and comfort from masses; it means that the appearance by others is crucial for human beings to keep their psychological balance. In this sense public space becomes a very important tool for enhancing the kinship of a city.

Taking UN’s intervention as global and top-down, it is important to complement it with local, bottom-up inputs that call for contextual and in depth examination of the meaning and people’s expectations with respect to public space.

When we take Rwanda as a context, to place her in the global frame, an important start point will be to comprehend the place for ‘public space’ in our Rwandan cities; to understand what the meaning of public space for Rwandans is, what their expectations are and what specific benefits public space offers to them. This examination can help us constitute a recipe for effective public space … for Rwandans.

The school of architecture in the college of science and technology at the university of Rwanda has taken the lead role in the research of public space in Kigali and other cities in Rwanda. Since our students are potentially the link between the school and society, I sought their views on this theme and sampled two different yet complementing views from Symhorien Gasana and Victor Iyakaremye, who are both final year architecture students.

Symhorien has crafted an analogy of public space as ‘lungs’ for the city. He argues that public spaces are responsible for the major part of recreation (physical and mental) of individuals and society as a whole. Believe Symphorien or not, just like lungs allow creatures to live, public spaces are very critical in the provision life, its sustainability and vigor in the city; they filter out the fatigue from people, provide areas for social gathering, refresh the city’s social and ecological systems and offer opportunities for a liberate and improved society.

Through this lens, “When people move through the network of public spaces, they inject into the city new life, social cohesion, social understanding and interaction, hence influencing the livability and functionality of the city as a whole”.

Victor starts from a very basic yet paramount component of public space, which is its local name. Victor has talked to many Rwandans and came up with two Kinyarwanda names for public space, namely ‘Ahantu rusange’ or ‘imbuga rusange’.

He unveiled that one of the major determinants towards such a comprehension is the culture and character of the Rwandan population. He sees it is a population where daily life is mainly taken in the interior courtyard- starting from the smallest unit inzu- then transcends scale upwards into urugo then igikari.

He believes that even though traditionally Rwandans are said to be introverted in nature, the increased urbanisation has offered them a growing exposure and reason to increasingly welcome the concept of ‘imyanya rusange’ or open public spaces.

Be it ‘city lungs’ or ‘Ahantu rusange’, in any city, there is growing awareness and need for public space, therefore an in-depth comprehension of how it attracts people, improves quality of life, reflects the community’s character and involvement, provides a sense of comfort and safety, creates a sense of community and fosters social cohesion among a diverse cross section of the public, are among considerations helpful in constituting a recipe for effective public space.

The two intuitive reflections from young Rwandans, when framed within this year’s World Habitat Day theme of ‘Public Spaces for All’ can only encourage Rwandan authorities to increasingly invest in 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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