20 April 2017

Uganda: Kampala in 50 Years - Will Wider Roads Give Way to Bigger Dreams?

Photo: The Observer
Uganda capital city Kampala.
column

We can fill in some potholes, light some streets and clear the garbage, but in order to build a city that works sustainably, we have to re-imagine Greater Kampala as a project that requires economy-wide and sector-specific policies. What should Greater Kampala look like in 50 years?

On a recent visit your columnist drove through Kampala to see for himself some of the redevelopments, including the Fairway-Golf Course junction and the stretch of road between Kira Road Police Station and Kabira Country Club.

Both are massive improvements on what existed before but as with almost everything in Uganda today, opinion is sharply divided.

Kampala Capital City Authority, supporters say, is building a world-class city one junction and one garbage truck at a time. It is all borrowed money, critics shoot back, and too little done too slowly.

Both sides have a point. Many parts of the city are cleaner and the redeveloped junctions and expanded roads will help with the chronic traffic madness. But many Kampala roads remain heavily potholed and the slightest drizzle causes flooding and gridlock.

The truth--and a new way of imagining Kampala--lies somewhere in-between. At its heart, it depends on whether we want to measure success as an improvement from the recent ignominious Ssebaggala and Ssebaana mayorships, or as an aspiration for genuinely world-class cities.

On arrival in Nairobi, your columnist found a newly completed eight-kilometre ring road linking Westlands to Kileleshwa. It is paved, lit, has cycling and walking space but I have never heard any of my neighbours chest-thump over the road, despite it pushing up property values overnight.

May be it is because there are far bigger road projects in the city including the Thika Superhighway, but there is also, one suspects, a grounded sense of perspective; Nairobi residents compare their city to Johannesburg, Lagos, Cairo or Marrakesh, not to Dar es Salaam, Kampala or Kigali.

This is not to say that we should not pat ourselves on the back for a junction well done. Rather that we would not be in a hurry to give away the keys to the city every time a mayor opened a kilometre of new road if we kept an eye on what other cities are doing, with similar cash and in less time.

In fact, Kampala's biggest potholes are not in its streets but in the minds of its residents; it is not a failure to appreciate small steps but a failure to have frighteningly large dreams.

Cities are shared spaces. Individuals cede some personal space, be it on shared public transport, smaller houses or in the hustle and bustle of shared pavements, to benefit from the shared energy, opportunity and services, as well as the economies of scale that make their delivery cheaper.

We can fill in some potholes, light some streets and clear the garbage, but in order to build a city that works sustainably, we have to re-imagine Greater Kampala as a project that requires economy-wide and sector-specific policies.

What should Greater Kampala look like in 50 years? Should it be a production centre, as plans to set up an industrial park at Namanve, a new railway terminal and a lakeside port on its eastern outskirts suggest, or should the factories move away, towards Luweero and maybe even back to Jinja, and let it remain a financial, creative, retail and residential centre?

As the city expands how can zoning laws and property tax incentives be used to decongest the centre and create self-sufficient mini-cities, with schools, hospitals, office parks and higher-occupancy residential areas?

How will the Kampala of the future help firms and industries create jobs, raise productivity and increase the incomes of residents? What will the jobs of the future be and where will they come from? Who will lay the kilometres of sewer lines, fibre-optic cable, wide streets and power lines needed to open up bring planned development to the 50-kilometre zone around the city?

How do we improve the quality of life for residents? Do we have a plan for cycle lanes (and cycle parking), car-free zones, public swimming pools, public parks (for people, not matatus!) and open creative spaces?

And what should other towns--think Jinja, Gulu, Mbarara, Masaka, Mbale et al--do to move into new economic activities that match their comparative and competitive advantages, as well as current and future capabilities?

These and many more questions suggest that the future of Kampala (and other urban centres) is too important to be left to KCCA alone. The crisis of urban crime, congestion, density, poor services and low quality of life cannot be solved using the same level of intelligence that created them.

Redeveloping junctions and expanding roads is a good start, but we must urgently reimagine our urban future and expand our thinking. The excitement of rural-to-urban migration, which is easily mesmerised by flashing lights, is not a substitute for long-term strategic thinking and investment.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi.

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