September 16, 2011

Urban Planning in Kabul - Convention vs Demand; #Kabul, #Afghanistan, #engineering, #transportation

Urban Planning is more than an attempt to solve existing problems.  Urban Planning is about directly shaping the future and I would argue that a sense of vision is the greatest skill needed by Planners.   Yet somehow there is a common disconnect within the discipline, where graduate programs encourage rich brainstorming and imaginative concepts, or individual architectural studios pursue elaborate renderings of the future - but in the end, the final projects are unimpressively droll.  

Frequently this disconnect is due to the over-reliance upon trends, conventions and buzzwords.  In the last 10 years, thousands of Planners have pursued their work within the confines of new urbanism, transit-oriented development, and sustainability.  The danger of course is that Planners can and do make decisions that dehabilitate future development in the name of social advancement, or they fail to account for pre-existing variables because those variables do not fall within the confines of the trend.  An obvious example is the manner in which NYC planner Robert Moses frequently advocated the needs of automobiles over local communities - yet Moses was merely working within the conventions of the era.  In his mind, automobiles and transportation were the most critical asset to urban health and it was impossible for him to assess the negative repercussions.  How many planners today make the same poor decisions as Moses, but in the name of sustainability or economic growth?  

In Kabul, urban planning and development is subject to the same conceptual limitations although the city contains an seemingly more complex array of variables.  I would argue however that the variables are no different than any other metropolis, but rather the organizational methods and logistics  for implementation contain more obstacles.  Regardless, various discipline-centric examples can be found for planning the future of Kabul.  For example, within the proposed project, City of Light, great emphasis is placed upon developing a skyline to accentuate the mountainous horizon lines following the city.  Other proposals focus on typical urban planning strategies such as sector-based zoning, green corridors, centralized business and historic districts and residential living.

Yet why?  Why should Kabul develop according to these guidelines?  In fact, the city has remained in place for thousands of years, and while never emulating the mountains in its skyline, has managed to capture many hearts with its beauty.   Likewise, while I appreciate the sense of vision, I also wonder why the planners simply ignored the most common and visible feature of Kabul - the hillside residential sprawl.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the most obvious characteristic of Kabul is the verticality of its organization.  The hillsides are covered with formally and informally constructed housing, stretching far up the mountains and on all sides.  There are no paved roads up the mountains, rather residents must walk along narrow pathways and hand carved staircases.  Running water is inconsistently distributed but many of the houses have electricity.   To my understanding, the houses along the mountainsides are fairly new, all constructed sometime in the last 10 years.  I was told that majority of these houses are the result of mass displacement in outlying provinces, as millions of people have sought safety and economic opportunities within Kabul.  Unable to secure housing in the central valley, housing has been informally constructed from the bottom upward.  This also implies that the communities are composed of mixed ethnic groups, potentially with a collection of diverse languages and cultural practices.  In addition to localized sociocultural identities, they may also contain localized economic traits, and each community is the foundation for new identity constructions, in particular among the youth who must balance imported identity constructs with local Kabuli characteristics.  

The upward residential sprawl also reflects a spatial settlement structure consistent with an earlier time in western countries.  The wealthy classes live in the middle of the town and the poor live in the difficult to access outskirts.  As Kabul continues to stabilize and develop, this settlement pattern will change.  In many ways, it already has begun to change.  Just as large-scale housing and condominium developments have been constructed along the outskirts of Kabul, near the airport, attracting large segments of the population, the settlement structure between the mountains and the downtown neighborhoods will likely invert.  When improved transportation and utility infrastructures are installed, the mountains will become a site for high-end housing.  Some of the high quality housing will be a consequence of incremental consolidation among existing structures, where  families will continue to expand and upgrade their own housing.  Yet much new housing will also be constructed and as many of the existing legal structures lack a legal claim to the property, inevitable conflicts will emerge when wealthy developers acquire legal titles to property then raise existing settlements in the name  of progress.

Although seemingly separate, one must also recognize that one day a tunnel will be constructed through the mountains, most likely within the next 40 years.  At this time, all transportation is bottlenecked as the city remains bisected by the mountains (illustrated in blue).  Once a tunnel is constructed, the future urban morphology of Kabul will make a dramatic shift, reformulating itself according to new traffic patterns.  New centers of business growth will take root while existing locations will deteriorate.  

If the city can become more integrated with regional developments, such as improved logistical pathways to China and Pakistan, perhaps there will be limited negative repercussions, otherwise one must assume that this aggressive and inevitable demand by the transportation infrastructure will harbor large-scale economic impact.  It also suggests that most urban development plans will be rendered arbitrary, perhaps even harmful.

So what does this all mean?  It means that the most visionary planning will become impotent if the microstructures, points of existing demand, and regional connections are ignored.  It means that the entire functionality of a city can change with a single project when that project is in aggressive demand.  I would argue that within areas of conflict, that these singular interventions can provide the greatest degree of impact, and therefore large-scale planning is fairly limited in its applicability.

Kabul's historic legacy is rooted in its location.  It has always served as the point of intersection between India, China, Central Asia, and Western Europe.  Ultimately, the success of the city has always been founded in its ability to connect disparate points of activity, serving as a critical intersection.  While vision is essential to lead Kabul into the future, this vision cannot exist in a vacuum, and any feasible planning must build upon Kabul's geographic centrality.    Today, urban growth patterns generated by conflict have resulted in a bifurcated city.  In many ways, this division undermines its prospects for stability as the dehabilitated infrastructure supports systems of chaos and undermines the logistics of social order.  Notably, solutions exist - the construction of a single mountain tunnel (high cost, but difficult to sabotage unlike rail transit, and short-term construction time unaffected by seasons) can redirect the entire urban assemblage.  The upfront high-cost becomes proportionately low-cost given the generated value of financial revenue and increased stability.