Can Addis Abeba Lead the Way in Emergent Urbanism?

Dec 9 , 2023
By Shewangezaw Seyoum

The new city development strategy for Addis Abeba will be a complex but necessary endeavour, demanding a comprehensive and multifaceted approach that addresses the city's economic, social, and environmental challenges. By embracing innovative planning methods, promoting inclusivity and sustainability, leveraging technology, and ensuring strong governance, Addis Ababa can chart a path towards a more prosperous and resilient urban future, writes Shewangezaw Seyoum (

As Addis Abeba stands on the cusp of initiating a new City Development Strategy (CDS), the task ahead is monumental as it will be fraught with uncertainty. The city, already challenged by a host of socio-economic and infrastructural limitations, finds itself at a crucial juncture where the demand for a comprehensive and effective urban development plan has become more pressing than ever.

The city administration has begun staffing a project office dedicated to developing the CDS. The office is charged with drafting the strategy, organising stakeholder engagements, conducting research and analysis, and ultimately presenting the final draft to relevant authorities and stakeholders. The timing of this initiative is critical, as city residents continue to face increasing difficulties in various spheres of their lives.

One of the most pressing issues facing Addis Abeba is the soaring cost of living. In recent years, the city has witnessed a significant increase in the prices of essential groceries, exacerbating the already prevalent problems of housing shortages and high rent costs. A high rate of youth unemployment, leading to increased dependency within families and contributing to a general sense of economic instability, has compounded the economic pressures.

The transportation sector has also been a source of collective frustration. Residents face long queues waiting for taxis, encounter ever-increasing fares, and frequent interruptions in power supply, adding to the daily struggles of navigating the city. These issues stress the broader infrastructural constraints that have long plagued Addis Abeba, including inadequate housing, poor urban infrastructure and services quality, and weak governance in secondary cities.

Efforts to address these challenges to date have been insufficient. Measures such as subsidies and expanding alternative market outlets for consumer goods have failed to reduce prices significantly. Despite the operation of a metro and the introduction of taxis and buses from neighbouring states, improvements in mobility fell short of meeting the expectations of city dwellers.

These issues raise questions about the effectiveness of traditional urban planning strategies in addressing the complex and interlinked challenges Addis Abeba faces. The city's problems are not solely of its own making but are also a result of national urban dynamics. The dominance of Addis Abeba in Ethiopia's urban system, coupled with inadequate infrastructure, housing, and governance in other towns and cities, has led to a disproportionate concentration of population and economic activities in the capital.

The disparity has, in turn, fueled further migration to Addis Abeba, exacerbating the city's crises.

Launching a new development strategy for Addis Abeba presents an opportunity to rethink urban planning and development approaches. Traditional planning concepts may no longer be sufficient to address the city's multifaceted and interconnected issues. Instead, there is a need to embrace principles that acknowledge the complexities and uncertainties inherent in urban development. This approach involves recognising the potential for vulnerability, risk, and failure and seeing opportunities for resilience, sustainability, and positive change.

The CDS process also confronts the absence of public engagement. A history of plans that drift from their intended outcomes has led to public scepticism, making implementing new strategies more demanding. The city administration must consider alternative planning approaches beyond the traditional master planning mindset. Emergent, integrated, and collaborative planning approaches can provide more dynamic and responsive frameworks for addressing the city's needs.

The role of cities as hubs of decision-making, entrepreneurship, and citizenry cannot be understated. Neither should Addis Abeba's potential for urban scale and diversity to optimise the synergistic effects of human interaction be underestimated. This requires the participation of all stakeholders in creating a city that functions effectively and promotes economic development, environmental sustainability, social cohesion, democratic governance, and cultural expression.

However, the challenge lies in recognising that cities, like individuals, are unique with their own distinct natural, cultural, and socio-political configurations. Therefore, any urban strategy for Addis Ababa must be tailored to its specific context, considering its historical, cultural, and socio-political dimensions. This demands innovative approaches, such as emergent urbanism, that can adapt to each city's unique challenges and opportunities.

As Addis Abeba embarks on its new development strategy, it is imperative to recognise the magnitude of the task.

The strategy must be qualified to respond to the diverse and pressing needs of the city's residents and the country. This can only be achieved through new ways of engaging stakeholders and adopting planning approaches that are flexible, inclusive, and responsive to the evolving urban landscape. The success of Addis Abeba's development strategy will depend on its ability to navigate these complexities and forge a path toward a more sustainable and equitable urban future.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 09,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1232]

Shewangezaw Seyoum is a senior consultant at the Ethiopian Management Institute. Views expressed here do not reflect that of the institution. He can be reached at

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