Sustainable City Life

Sustainable City Life: The Need for Integrating Aesthetic Values in Urban Settings

A city’s aesthetics refers to the extent to which it is visually pleasing – especially with regard to the unity of its natural and man-made elements as well as harmony in the way buildings and infrastructure are developed. This is especially important for developing countries, many of which are undergoing rapid urbanisation through construction and infrastructure development. Aesthetics are also central to establishing creative industries – especially architecture and design – and can be influential in engendering profitable artistic industries. But is enough being done to consider visual elements in Ethiopia’s urban development? EBR’s adjunct staff writer Meseret Mamo spoke with industry insiders to learn what’s missing from the country’s urban landscape.

In recent years urbanisation has grown at unprecedented levels in Addis Ababa, a city that has served as Ethiopia’s capital for more than a century. This is due largely to the urban renewal programme – which involves massive infrastructural developments such as highway roads, buildings and railway projects – in addition to the city being the centre of economic, political and cultural life. The urbanisation process, however, has been criticised for giving less consideration to the aesthetic value of the city.
A chaotic combination of building designs and colours with little visual appeal except their glass windows, the limited availability of green areas, unguided use of advertisements on roads, the faded colours of old buildings, and roundabouts that are used as ad space all reveal that visual satisfaction is not a concern for the city.
According to Contemporary Aesthetics, an art and design publication, it is “essential to take aesthetic engagement into account in urban development…[one] that favours a spectacular vision of the city.” This entails the harmonisation of the natural, urban environment with the physical, man-made environment. This integration can “increase the value of the environment and provides an opportunity to talk about it and about oneself….constitut[ing] a recognition of oneself in the environment.”
Yet, the city is becoming a place where residents typically find visually satisfying environments based on their economic capacity, as the few spaces that successfully integrate natural and man-made aesthetics tend to be closed off to the public. Experts stress that this situation creates social tension and hurts the sustainability of the development of the city by creating people who don’t feel a sense of belongingness or ownership within an urban setting.
Tibebu Assefa (PhD), Dean of the Urban Design Department at Addis Ababa University’s Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development, says that a city should be developed considering the needs of all residents –the poor, the middle class and the rich – and attractiveness is part of this. “One should think of the impression a construction or any installations can bring on people in terms of aesthetics and functionality. A city must be a place where people enjoy its every feature and element,” he told EBR. “Ignoring this component will create dissatisfied residents that are less enthusiastic to take part in any development project.”
To be sure, a pleasing environment centres on the extent to which it satisfies people. According to the aforementioned article, “[the] practice constitutes the heart of a vital process that we can term environmentali[s]ation, that is to say, the creation of environments proper to the human being.” To that end, striking a balance between the natural environment (green spaces, public parks, ) and the man-made environment (buildings, architectural harmony) is a process that should be considered when developing an urban area. In order to achieve this, “[g]iving the urban setting its full meaning, this aesthetic engagement brings into play a learning experience, narratives, visions, landscapes, and panoramas.”
Although visual satisfaction is thought to be a subjective matter, Tibebu says that there are objective elements that can be created, measured and considered as a science. “This can be expressed through the law of similarity and law of sameness in urban design to have a harmonised and aesthetically pleasing city,” he says. “This is why every construction and installation should be done in scale of distance and scale of masses.”
According to him, any construction in the city should be considered in terms of its view from different angles. Unfortunately, Tibebu notes according to the science of urban design, currently Addis Ababa is becoming a place of chaos in which a certain installations struggle to dominate the rest, engendering disunity.
For instance, the construction of buildings, which is one of the major components of urbanisation and the aesthetic value of a city, is one element that disrupts the beauty of the city because it fails to meet the standards, which in turn hinder them to maintain harmonisation with the surrounding.
Government officials say this is because there is no mechanism that forces designs to fulfil standards. “A building code, which dictates urban building design, is under revision and hopefully it will solve the problem when it is put to work,” Seyfu Gebregziabher, a senior advisor at the Ministry of Urban Development and Construction, told EBR.
The 2012 strategy of the then Ministry of Urban Development and Construction that governs climate change resilient green development of cities reveals that there is knowledge and awareness about the need for creating aesthetic values in the cities by the government. It states that cities need to have visually pleasing elements, including well-designed roads built with features like quality drainage systems, appropriate places for advertisements, good fences that separate cars from pedestrians, the right monuments and sculptures and suitable street lights.
The Ministry also established Urban Planning, Sanitation and Beatification Bureau under it in 2011. However, Rukya Seid, Deputy Manager of the Urban Planning, Sanitation, and Beautification Bureau at the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, told EBR that visual satisfaction is not a metric by which urban development is being pursued in cities like Addis Ababa: “There is no structural set up to consider aesthetic values of cities in the Bureau. It is only left with the name.”
The Addis Ababa City Administration also established an agency with the responsibility of beautifying the city a decade ago, although insiders say not much has been achieved. “For instance, the focus was given to planting grasses and certain types of trees instead of selecting the appropriate plant for each landscape and its surrounding,” argues Tibebu. “Trimming and making them beautiful is also another task that is missing to create visual harmony. Plants are left to grow alongside trees and this adds to the random and irregular scene of the city. Hard landscapes such as land and soft landscapes, which are water and plants, should be used in creative manner to give aesthetic value to the city.”
Developing a visually pleasing urban environment does more than satisfy an individual – it may also benefit cities economically. According to a study published in the Global Journal of Science Frontier Research: Environment and Earth Science, cities that plan their development around architectural and aesthetic factors do well economically because they are a “precursor to emotional attraction to goods and services from the exterior envelope of buildings to the interior that accommodate them, both tangible and intangible commodity.”
This is especially pertinent for developing countries that are trying to establish robust economies centred on manufacturing and consumption since “architecture creates a friendly environment that attracts and appeals to sensory emotional instinct” that people appreciate. “In the process, economic generating activities ensues which impact on the overall well being” of the economy.
The study, entitled “Architecture as Stimulus for Growth and Economic Development in Nigeria”, found that cities that take aesthetics into consideration also develop profitable creative industries centred on architecture and design. The emergence of these industries helps to develop the economy, especially locally produced goods, because “market value of products is increasingly determined by a product’s uniqueness, performance, and aesthetic appeal, making creativity a critical competitive advantage to a wide array of industries.”
To that end, researchers extrapolate these findings to other sectors that centre on creating a pleasurable experience for people, like tourism, infrastructure development, food and beverage outlets and hospitality.
Officials say with the new management of Addis Ababa City Beatification, Park and Cemetery Development and Administration Agency, creating and maintaining aesthetic value to the city is now getting attention. “Maintaining and giving pleasing values to the city has been denied by its very own institution but that is now coming to the end,” says Almaz Mekonen, Manager of the Agency.
She says the proposal to establish a working core process concerning aesthetic value of the city under the Agency is awaiting approval by the city cabinet. “When it is established, there will be different personnel from different professions who work to advancing the aesthetic values of the city,” she said.
Yet Almaz doesn’t deny that there will be huge challenges to advance the idea of aesthetic values among different stakeholders, the management, the civil servants, the private sector and the general public. “This is something that should be done in cooperation with stockholders,” she notes. EBR


4th Year • July 16 2016 – August 15 2016 • No. 41

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