Sun, Nov 26, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Struggling Ethiopian model town offers lessons for the future

By Tom Gardner  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BURANEST, Ethiopia

A group of shepherds amble slowly down the main thoroughfare of Buranest, a tiny village in a far-flung corner of northern Ethiopia.

The town square lies empty, as does the school, while sheep and cows graze peacefully in the overgrown grass.

Buranest is a model town, a “real-life experiment” that a team of Ethiopian and European urban planners hope can provide crucial lessons for the country’s future.

Founded in 2010 by Franz Oswald of Nestown Group and experts from Swiss university ETH Zurich, the nascent town is a paragon of sustainability.

It features self-built homes that harvest rainwater, workshops for light industry and craft, local eucalyptus trees to supply wood for building and irrigated fields for growing crops.

However, for seven years Buranest struggled.

Its model homes are still unoccupied, and local farmers remain suspicious.

“At the beginning, most locals did not like the idea,” Mestawet Libokemkem, project coordinator from the local government, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They feared their land would be taken away from them.”

Urbanization, and the task of bring jobs and infrastructure to the countryside, is central to the government’s future agenda.

Ethiopia’s urbanization rate is estimated to be between 4 percent and 6 percent per year, while the population of the capital, Addis Ababa, is expected to double to more than 8 million over the course of the next decade.

“When we started, we thought we could change the world with our plans, but the farmers are very suspicious, very skeptical,” said Fasil Giorghis, an architect based in Addis Ababa and a lead researcher on the Buranest project.

Buranest, in the northern Amhara Region, is now gradually coming alive. However, its past troubles have added significance as a new plan to build 8,000 new towns across the country gathers momentum.

Whether this dream can become reality depends on whether the kind of problems faced by Buranest can be successfully overcome.

Relentless growth is putting enormous pressure on Addis Ababa’s creaking infrastructure, with an estimated 500,000 homes needed to meet demand and as much as 80 percent of residents living in slums, according to the UN Human Settlements Programme, the UN’s agency in charge of sustainable urban development.

Efforts to expand Addis Ababa, which resulted in the displacement of farmers from its surrounding area, sparked anti-government protests in 2014, culminating in the imposition of a nine-month state of emergency last year.

Ethiopia’s government, which rose to power in 1991 after more than a decade of civil war, has long sought to manage such pressures by curbing the flow of people from the countryside to the capital.

For instance, state ownership of land makes it difficult to sell family plots and makes relocating to the city harder.

The plan to build 8,000 small towns is the latest manifestation of these efforts, reflecting a desire to keep people in the countryside “by bringing urbanization to them,” said Dirk Donath of the University of Weimar in Germany.

Donath is part of a team developing the project in partnership with the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development.

The project, known as “Rural-to-Urban Transformation,” is the brainchild of Tsedeke Woldu, a wealthy Ethiopian businessman and housing developer, and Bereket Simon, an influential Ethiopian politician and former policy adviser to the prime minister.

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