Five cities, four weeks

During the spring of 2007 I taught at both Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic. Both at these universities and in the municipality, students and planners alike are trying to envision the future path of urban development for Kabul and all of Afghanistan’s cities. During my inter-semester break I am visiting several cities to gather images and examples of various paths of urban development. These pages are addressed to Afghan planners and designers.

Istanbul | Sarajevo | Napoli | Venezia | London

How should Kabul develop now? How should it be built into a symbol of Afghan national pride? What will be the shape of sophisticated Afghan culture and the Afghan expression of modernity?

A critical issue for Afghans is to envision Kabul’s future development. More than half the built-up area of Kabul has been created since 1978, and most of it is informal: dense, small lots, irregular street patterns, almost no infrastructure. The Ministry of Urban Development wants to retain most of this informal development and upgrade it over time. But for many Afghans, this informal development is a reminder of Kabul’s “de-modernization” by thirty years of warfare. It represents a loss of urban culture, a ‘ruralization’ of the capital. The images of modernity for many Afghans are south Asian cities: particularly urban India as shown in films, music videos, and television series. And the ideal is Dubai: most expatriate Afghans fly through Dubai on their way into and out of Afghanistan, and many poorer Afghans are guest-workers in Dubai. So both upper- and working-class Afghans have first-hand experience of this hyper-new city; and recent construction in Kabul seems to be influenced by Dubai-as-visual-ideal.

There are several problems with using Dubai as a development model for Kabul. First of all, Dubai has an enormous amount of available wealth. Some of that comes from stable government, which is why Dubai is the regional trade and transit center. For Afghans the linkage of stable government and economic development is a valuable model. However Afghans seem to be following a very different path of contentious democratic politics as part of their national development, so the benevolent dictatorship model of the Dubai Emirate does not apply. Also, much of Dubai’s wealth comes from oil, and Afghans probably will never have that kind of windfall of wealth. Furthermore, the Emirate of Dubai is guiding new development out into desert land which it converts directly into urban land.

In contrast to Dubai, Kabul’s main challenge is to convert existing informal developments and adjacent agricultural land into an Afghan version of modernity. There seem to be three options:
A. Demolish the informal settlements and rebuild as a modern city, with wide streets in a regular grid pattern.
B. Upgrade the informal settlements over time into a modern city.
C. Avoid the problem altogether by building new urban development in the desert areas just outside of the existing city.

OPTION A: The staff in Kabul Municipality want to pursue the first option in a sophisticated way: take a 400-hectare area of informal development and demolish-rebuild in 40-hectare increments. Residents of the informal housing can be temporarily re-housed on-site until new, modern, higher-density housing is built. This scheme could work if there were a strong government in place with a commitment to urban housing, as there was under Daoud and Dr. Najib. But there does not seem to be a feasible market-based method of implementing this plan. Most Kabulis prefer single-family houses with gardens, so they would not choose to buy apartments. The microrayan apartments are desirable mostly because they have piped water, steam heat, and flush toilets, not because they are apartments. Urban infrastructure is extremely desirable for Afghans, but it can be developed for many urban building types.

OPTION C: Many Afghan planners want to develop new satellite cities (shahraks) in open areas adjacent to Kabul. In particular, the Ministry of Urban Development and President Karzai want to develop the arid plain north of Kabul into what is now officially called New Kabul. If this scheme works, it will be good for the future growth of the city. I expect that it will eventually work, if because Kabul is likely to grow tremendously over the next forty years; it will need all that new land as well as the existing city to fit perhaps ten million residents in another generation.

OPTION B? What about the existing city? Most of Kabul is informal development with no infrastructure. Is it such a messy problem that it cannot be ‘fixed’? Building new satellite cities is fine, and it is easier. But I am interested in what will happen to the huge areas of existing informal development. Can they be upgraded (behsazi) as the Ministry staff (and most Western aid-workers) recommend, and yield a capital that Afghans can be proud of?

It is likely that all three options will be pursued in Kabul, in various combinations. But I think that Afghans are the most uncomfortable with the future results of upgrading. Partly because of lack of examples. What do upgraded cities look like? This is why I am posting pictures of cities in the midst of upgrading: Istanbul, Sarajevo, Napoli, Venezia, and London. All of these cities are modern, and very different, and in the process of upgrading their infrastructure. They are also very attractive cities, defined by patterns of ‘informal’ (pre-modern) settlement and development. Hopefully these images and commentary will be useful to Afghans in developing a vision for the future development of the existing city of Kabul.

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