Urban public spaces need to be open places of enjoyment not cordoned off bastions of fear
The on-going redesign of Kololo Airstrip Ceremonial Grounds by Uganda Property Holding Ltd on behalf of State House appears set to reinforce the growing sense of alienation between Ugandans who are in things and those who are without things, the secure and the insecure, those who can access Kololo and those who cannot. The public space is becoming their thing and nothing to the rest.
Previously, you could jog around the grounds, have a picnic, kiss on the grass, or give your children a quick lesson in the political history of Uganda by visiting the mini-mausoleums of past-president Yusuf Lule and founding father of the nation, Ignatius Kangave Musaazi, who are buried there. The children could ask questions like; why are past-presidents Milton Obote and Edward Mutesa II not buried there, and you could explain.
Even when the grounds were barricaded off and started being watched over by menacing military men, one could still access them on national celebrations, watch the marchers, and listen to the speeches. The pavilion would be filled with those in power, but the rest of us could participate by standing on the raised grass-covered edges and surrounding roads. Those who dared it could climb the trees for a better view. Sometimes the sun would be scorching and at other times the rain would drench us. In both cases, the VIP would be comfortably ensconced in the canopied tents while umbrellas would pop out among the crowd in the commoner's side. We accepted everything.
That is changing. After the steel monsters going up now are completed and the fence is reinforced, the open space will become almost like any stadium you know. One will either be in or out, not in both as at present. It will be impossible to stand on the road and see, and be part of what is going on in the public space. It will be a pity.
This current design appears to be missing an opportunity to create a national public space which meets the present-day societal needs and aspirations while capturing and preserving Kololo airstrip's historical, cultural, and spiritual significance.
Although incomparable in size the Central Park in New York, the National Mall in Washington DC, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, or Trafalgar Square in London, Kololo Airstrip represents the same history, culture, hopes, and aspirations as these spaces. Any modifications should preserve that.
The danger with the current design is twofold; first, it focuses on the short-term expediency of the 50-year Jubilee celebrations and ensuring that oppositions groups to the regime can be effectively locked out of Kololo Airstrip. A peripheral concern connected with the two above could be the ever-present over-the- shoulder glance at the threat of terrorism.
Secondly, the design appears to be influenced by the now outmoded concept of keeping all urban space for commercial purposes and vehicles. It misses the point that well-designed public spaces should aim to increase enjoyment of city life, reduce crime, and reduce on the anomie of urban life and the anonymity of residents. Cities can be lonely places. The current design is killing an important function of a public places as a space for coincidental, accidental, and chance meetings for friends and strangers.
These mistakes can be remedied if the designers of public spaces like Kololo Airstrip, Centenary Park, and other mushrooming towns take a longer-term perspective. We need to go back to the public space concept of the Greek Agora or Roman Forum where leisure, culture and commerce flourished side-by-side with oratory and political speeches and debates. Remember the Lions and Rotary playgrounds of the 1970s? Every town in Uganda had them. What about the botanical gardens of Entebbe where one would roam free before they were privatised? The trend of modern cities is to have public parks with free-fully equipped gyms where families exercise.
But what will Kololo Airstrip's role be in the Kampala city of 100 years in the future? If the current trend persists, it will be a shopping mall, with an arcade of tiny, poorly lit 10x10 cubicles in which harried-looking traders hassle bargain-chasing buyers.
Kololo airstrip should be designed as a place of pilgrimage because of the mausoleums of the founders of Uganda's modern stage. As a social amenity in a concrete jungle, it should remain a green space that encourages a sense of communion among Ugandans. The National Mall in Washington receives about 30 million tourists every year. Similar numbers visit well designed public spaces of historical significance in every major city on the globe.
Kololo Airstrip might not be equally active but its design can emulate the concept. To achieve that, it should be redeveloped to enhance the urban experience of either living in or visiting Kampala. The national venue should be remodeled as a place filled with enjoyment rather than fear.
To understand how important this is, one needs to walk around the Constitution Square in the city centre today; with is metal barricades, anti-riot trucks, and military personnel, and compare it to years before; when loungers, lovers, and loafers would lie on the lawns, sharing gossip, food, and laughter. Public places in the city should be a place of public recreation and not private gain. The fences, gates, and military presence might give a false sense of safety, but as any public safety expert knows, they really offer no protection from danger. A great public space designer once observed that "it takes real work to create a lousy space". You can see that at work at Kololo Airstrip today.
Joseph Were is the managing editor of The Independent magazine.