Friday, August 12

Addis Stories

Several readers have written to remind us that there have been other, actually operable, master plans for the development of Addis Ababa besides AABAMA that only a handful of folks have ever heard of. In this post there are links to a few quite good sites that cover the history of and varied plans for our first love amongst all cities. The usual insightful commentary and bits from the sites are mixed in below.


The Addis Ababa City Admnistration Offcial Website has a comprehensive historical view of the city's foundation and early growth. Menelik II established the capital of his then Kingdom of Shoa in the mountains to the north at Entoto in the latter 19th century. However, it was a 15th century monarch, Atse Dawit, who built the first capital there, that was later abandoned - a recurring national pattern.

When Menelik became Emperor of the whole country proto-Addis became the national capital. A previous attempt to establish an Imperial (as opposed to a regional 'Royal') capital at Gondar in a very real way helped to usher in the divisive 'Era of the Princes'. That founding put authority in one place where distant, habitually rebellious, rulers thus respected it less during an era after the Oromo migrations and conquest when centrifugal forces were strongest.

Gondar was one of the principal places, along with Shoa, were Oromo became first integrated into the Abyssinian political and social milieu. It is most accurate to state that it was interaction between Oromos and Abyssinians that created modern Ethiopia as we understand her. Other national capitals over the centuries have been in Mekele and Lalibella in addition to numerous regional capitals.

Addis started out as a military camp ranging in size up to 50,000, mainly soldiers and their families. Actually the establishment of Addis was a rare sign of confidence on the part of an Ethiopian monarch who fully intended to be Emperor one day. Usually, the capital went wherever the King was on his constant marches to put down rebellion or to team up with temporarily reformed rebels against foreign invaders ... and other rebels.

A constant state of war and rumours of war was a depressingly normal state of affairs. Addis was located at a strategic site and was the setting for Ethiopia's principal modernization efforts through to the next century.

Read the whole page, it is interesting.


Macalester College studies world urbanization and has an outstanding Addis Ababa web site. This is a truncated map of Addis Ababa (circa 1980s?) with a larger, magnifiable version to be found here.

The site discusses the geography of the city and has a detailed history of Ethiopian urbanization. As we discussed above, large cities are a new phenomenon in Ethiopia because constant warfare force a semi-nomadic lifestlyle, there was too much turnover in rulers to establish urban environments, foreign and domestic conflict based on religion and region made it all the more difficult.

Indeed, the earliest settlements, or ketemas (cities today) were military garrisons where people found security and which evolved into market centers. The point is made here that beyond the exigencies of war, it was also the exhaustion of local resources such as wood that necessitated frequent moves of authority. Those cities were hardly environmentally sound as we often imagine the past to have been. Indeed, they were like beasts who scoured and soiled the earth as they moved about.

The history of one of those urban markets that later evolved into one of the largest market places in Africa where today where just about anything under the sun is for sale can be found on the Merkato page. The Italians designated a European area that became the relatively upscale shopping district of Piazza after the 1930s.

From the original encampment in Entoto in 1881 expansion move south in 1891 because there was more room there for growth. One intriguing question that the authors answer is why Addis survived while so many other cities were transitory. One reason was the victory against the invading Italians at Adwa in 1896.

That created a period of stability free from foreign interference and attracted international attention that needed a place to go to. Foreigners invested heavily in Addis creating economic necessities to add to the political ones. Even more importantly, in our opinion, Addis was centrally located and fit Menelik's southern strategy of conquest with which to emerge first amongst the rivals for national power.

The authors list the railway from Djibouti among their reasons but we see it the other way. The railway did not make Addis important, the railway went there because Addis was already important. To deal with the deforestation issue that plagued previous cities of any size, Menelik imported the eucalyptus tree from Australia that created a veritable green belt around the city ... that the late 20th Century saw denuded by population pressures demanding energy and plain old poor or absent urban planning.

The details of the Italian occupation and transformation of Addis are fascinating. It was to be the capital of the Italian East African Empire , a new Roman Empire, that deservedly met its ignoble end during the Second World War that began with the invasion of Ethiopia. A notable feature of the Italian period was strict segregation by race along with the welcome development of infrastructure such as roads.

In the immediate aftermath of the liberation, Haile Sellassie invited Italians, particularly those with technical skills to stay on. Many did stay on since at the time Italy was still under Mussolini and later directly under the Germans. One part of the 'invitation' for the Italians to stay that we have never heard addressed is what the other option was.

Certainly no one wanted to send tens of thousands of military age men back to fascist Italy where they would certainly end up fighting the Allies again and no one wanted to bother with prisoner camps for the then indefinite future. They were generally welcomed as guests by the generally forgiving and practical nature of Ethiopians, where as invaders they had been made to feel rather unwelcome.

In the post war era several periods of urbanization are identified. The first from the 1960s into the 1970s was disrupted by the 1974 Communist takeover, particularly the nationalization of all land (still in evidence today - with the same disastrous results only partially papered over by foreign aid) torpedoed the economy and socialist policies also brought chaos to city administration.

The second, from the 70s into the 80s saw less migration to the city because of government restrictions on movement. As the civil wars of that era came to their conclusion a period of mass migration into Addis began from 1988 that swelled the population and strained the infrastructure far beyond any possiblity of normality for years to come.

Actually, following the end of the Imperial era in 1974, the infrastructure of Addis and the country as a whole was totally ignored. Usually in favor of 'socialist' get rich quick schemes and billions of dollars worth of Soviet arms with which to force that particular brand of despotism on every Ethiopian soul.

There have always been ethnic tensions and ethnic cooperation in Ethiopia and in Addis but tensions came to a position of primacy following the tribally determined government policies from 1991 on. Addis is still a work in progress and money, originating largely from aid and Ethiopians abroad, has transformed some prosperous sectors of the city in the past years and the recent mayor got a lot of favorable press.

However, despite the good press, most of Addis remains desperately poor and poorly serviced with little chance of escape given current government, essentially socialist policies under a fig leaf of yearning for a market economy. In the recent 'election' season the city administration was overwhelmingly voted out of office and it is likely to be replaced by opposition politicians with very limited powers subject to constant sabotage by the vengeful and all powerful central government and the indistinguishable vanguard ruling party at its core.

Addis was swept by the opposition, largely because foreign observers where there - no seats were won by the government anywhere where such observers where present. In that uniquely democratic setting in an otherwhise staged election, the judgement of the people of every ethnic group must be particularly noted.

The Macalester site is particularly good and is worth a visit. We are sure we have not found most of its hidden gems.


ORAAMP - Official Office for the Revision of the Addis Ababa Master Plan shows that AABAMA is in a distant second place in Addis related acronyms - but far more to the point provides a fascinating history of the various plans that have evolved over time to develop Addis.
Addis Ababa, established in 1886 by Emperor Menelik and his wife Taitu, has experienced several planning changes that have influenced its physical and social growth. The city’s early development centred around three nodal points: the Menelik palace (political & administrative center), the Arada St. George church (social & religious center), and the Arada area (business & market center).

Until the arrival of the Italians in 1936, the city was developing spontaneously in all directions, with particular emphases toward the north, northwest, and south of the nodal points. It was the short-lived Italian occupation (1936-41) that established most features of the current structure of the city.
Le Courboisier, was a major French architect who was one of the originators of the international or modernist school of architecture and urban planning also known as Bahaus. The whole idea revolved around using modern materials such as stressed concrete to create often stark 'machines for living', a style that survives today in the dubious example of the UN HQ building in New York.

His vision ended up on a proposal for a 'radiant city' of monumental structures and grand boulevards that the Italians rejected for Addis Ababa. The Italians did go ahead to create most of the familiar divisions of the city with "a master plan that emphasized the “prestige of the colonizer”. Their proposal divided the city into two parts: “the European city” with two parallel axes and the ‘native city’ (Addis Ketema) with a gridiron street network located west side of the “European city”. Some of the effects of this plan are still evident today."

Every step of the evolution of the master plan thereafter reflected Ethiopia's foreign alliances and entaglements. A British plan after World War II by Sir Patrick Abercrombie (the planner of Greater London) upon invitation by Emperor Haile Selassie.
Abercrombie’s plan was completed in 1956, with neighborhood units as the basic city-organizing concept. The street network of the city was characterized by radial and ring roads intended to channel vehicular traffic outward from central areas.

His proposal included the introduction of satellite settlements in all directions around the core city. In 1959, another British consultany office by the name of Bolton, Hennessy & Partners was commissioned to refine Abercrombie’s master plan. Part of the proposed street network and the satellite towns were implemented in accordance with their proposal.
Next up was a French plan by
A consulting team of the French Missions for Urban Studies and Habitat led by L. De Marien prepared a new plan for the city that emphasized formalistic expression in 1965.

The general form of the plan was developed with Arada as the head (core) of the overall figure. The plan was prepared during the city’s construction boom period, and thus a considerable part of it was implemented.
Following Ethiopia's deadly and involuntary embrace of Communism following the military coup d'etat of 1974
C.K. Polony, a Hungarian planner, who designed “Revolution Square” [Meskel Square today and before 1974]. This was one of the most important spatial transformations implemented during the socialist regime.

The second work by Polony was the Megalopolis of Addis Ababa which proposed to connect Addis Ababa with Nazareth (a town 100 km east of Addis Ababa). The aim of the plan was to make the city self-sufficient with agricultural products. The towns found between Addis Ababa and Nazareth were regarded as development poles.
This last bit sounds really familiar doesn't it? The emphasis of AABAMA had nothing to do with agriculture but seemed concerned with wholly urban issues of growth and resource management. If we can forgive Polony for the soul shrinking totalitarian monstrosity that is Meskel Square today, we can agree that there is something rather naturally organic about a planned urban / suburban development corridor through central Shoa.

ORAAMP was developed to deal with the inadequacies of the Polony plan for extant Addis and also the Ethio-Italian revisions of the 1980s. This page is well worth looking at for a sense of the maps and grids laid out in the plans - although this otherwise excellent site suffers from a lack of adequately sized historical images and a dearth of modern maps.


The Cycle of Waste in Addis Ababa is a fascinating paper whose subject matter is far more interesting than it might appear at first. It points out that
Unlike the other African cities of colonised countries, Addis Ababa is characterised by its spontaneous growth as an indigenous city with very little impact of external forces. The city began to develop as a political, economic and cultural centre in subsequent years.

Services such as piped water, electric light and other facilities attracted migrant population from other parts of the country. In addition to this rate of rural-urban migration drained rural labour force from agricultural production created problems of unemployment, congestion and strains on existing inadequate social services in Addis Ababa..
What this means is that Addis kind of just happened unlike many other planned cities. It also points out one almost unique factor of life in Addis that singles it out amongst international cities
A characteristic feature of Addis Ababa is that rich and poor live together without segregation. Slums are found in well-to-do areas, while wealthy residences and high buildings are standing in the midst of slum areas.
The paper has much information on the city’s population and infrastructure. For example the estimate in 1997 was 2.3 million and today estimates are upward of 4 million in some circles ... however the sewage system was designed for only 200,000. It goes on to discuss the geograpy, population breakdown by age, ethnicity and religion before moving on to the subject of waste management.

Later pages addresses the vital issue of collectors including scrap dealers familiarly known by the
term qorale is short for "Korkoro yaleh, or, in English, "Have you gotten any scrap metal?" which is what the young boys shout when going round for collection. In fact, they collect all sorts of old re-usable articles, not only scrap metal. The trend probably started with collecting scrap metals, which was the first material available until plastic and other materials were introduced.

The qorales are an important body of the urban society in conserving the environment from pollution. Even if their main objective is making money and living by it, they are indirectly involved in conserving the environment. They also provide the society with affordable used articles at a lower price and thereby show the public that some of the used articles should not be discarded instead recycled and reused.
Social organizations important to waste management are discussed along with Informal Recycling in Merkato, and house hold waste management.

The whole paper is worth taking a look at.

So there is about as detailed a series of Addis stories as we are ever going to post to give even the partial attention deserved to the home of unknown millions who struggle to survive, who sometimes prosper, who suffer and live and together create the future against the great odds of despotism. Cities are to us, living things of great fragility and beauty - the very natural setting for modern man, his works and his failures.

That is why Addis shows us the best and worst of Ethiopia all at once. It is an interesting tale and obviously one that is ongoing. Addis has long ago outgrown its infrastructure which despite the best efforts of thousands of dedicated city workers and the foreign aid that keeps it all going it will never live up to its potential as things stand.

That is ... until revolutionary democracy and the tribalism at its core are exorcised.

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