As a privileged middle-class kid growing up in New York City, I used to play a lot of video games. Most video games are obnoxious wastes of space, time and money, but some of them could be educational.
One such game, ranking amongst my life-long favorites, was a game called Sim City. I liked this game because it let you play God, and you could make whatever your dreams summoned, building terrains, towns, small villages or bustling cities. My favorite was bustling cities.
The game was all calculation. You started with a certain amount of money and had to use it carefully to build roads, hospitals, schools, residential, business and industrial zones, and public parks. All facilities and infrastructure influenced each other.
If an industrial zone did not have enough roads or a railroad, industry growth would be slow. If a residential zone was too far from a hospital or school, it tended to be a poor neighborhood, bringing in little revenue to the city.
And, of course, if police stations were too few and far between, crime would skyrocket, land value would plummet, and investment would cease to a halt.
The entirety of the game rested squarely on one objective and one amalgam; using the different features of a city, how could you make your city “great?”
How great of a status—an entity’s reputation and relative importance based on what it has done for itself—could your city attain?
Kigali is a Sim City, embryonic in its modernity and utterly amorphous in its future design.
The richest banks and insurance companies continue to build towards the sky in today’s centre ville, even though last year’s investment conference promised a new, geographically shifted urban centre within 50 years.
The plans are revolutionary, and not necessarily set in stone, and in the next fifty years, while we wait for our Sim City to develop, there are things we could do now, that would cost virtually nothing, to greatly raise the status of the city.
Let’s begin with an example of something that’s already been done. Last week Rwanda celebrated the naming of a new group of young gorillas in Kinigi.
To commemorate this year’s naming, Kigali City erected a gorilla statue at the roundabout between BCDI and the Ministry of Commerce and Finance. A critic would call the statue kitsch, but I call it long overdue.
A simple thing enough of thing that greatly changes the ‘attitude’ of the street and roundabout. What existed there before was nothing but a large empty bowl, maybe once a fountain, long run dry a long time ago.
When a city invests in itself, be it the public park near the Ministry of Defence, or the gorilla statue at the roundabout, when it builds beauty for the sake of beauty, it raises the value, reputation and thus status of the city. There are many other things that could be done, costing very little, and having enormous returns in terms of status.
As I have mentioned in articles before, it really does pay and make sense for the Kigali City government to sanction one piece of property from Ubumwe Cell, in lower Kiyovu amongst the group of ramshackle homes sentenced to destruction, and retain it and preserve it as a community museum and/or cultural centre.
Is it necessary? No. Will the other homes still be demolished and the former residents moved to Batsinda? Yes. Will preserving one home bring in significant revenue for the city? No. Then why do it?
Because it’s what a good government would do. It would raise the value of the area, it would attract attention (and tourists) to the area.
All these things put trust in a government, and infinitely reinforces the integrity of its sovereignty and legitimacy of its rule; by looking not only outwards towards international investment and “getting rich” but making its capital a better place for its own.
The pieces of artwork put up on Boulevard de L’oua along the entrance to centre ville marking Kigali’s centennial celebrations are nice. In fact, when they first went up, they were beautiful, a pinpoint of something long overdue; artistic beautification of Kigali.
It is still nice—though one of the pieces has since been brought down for more work—but if you drive past the art during rush hour, when the traffic is slow and you have time to study the designs, they are rather unspectacular.
More importantly, they are not so “authentic”- printed onto a type of plastic screen. The smaller, more real versions of the artwork, prominently on sale throughout the city and adorned in hundreds of homes across the city, are made of wood, and use real paint.
When you drive past the large ones on the avenue, you realize they are nothing more than intrepid but poor replications. How much would it cost the city to buy real paint, real wood, and hire real artists to make real art? A fair amount for an individual, but for a city? Next to nothing.
Likewise, how much would it ultimately costs to have local artists paint the red slab walls that line almost every major street?
How much would it cost to build strong wooden park benches that could line the long strips of sidewalks that link that different hills of Kigali, from KBC to Kimihurura, from the Ministry of Justice to Chez Lando?
I’ll tell you, approximately Frw20,000 per bench. How much would it be worth to citizens sitting on the benches, reading a newspaper or enjoying the gorgeous views of Kigali’s valleys? Priceless.
There is more. Would it be impossible to create meter-wide dirt bicycle paths ringing the hills and valleys of the city, where the (many) cyclists or runners could enjoy exercise without the danger of automobiles?
How much better would Kigali be for that? And how much better would it look to tourists, and future investors, to see that on a fine summer day, one could go for leisurely strolls under the shade of tall trees and banana plants?
Sim City is not perfect, but its works in that it allows users—the virtual mayor—to understand the virtue of how city’s get ‘better,’ and how seemingly unnecessary projects can raise status, and thus investment, and thus importance. We should be playing that game here.