May 27, 2012

Mogadishu's City Hall Leading the Way into the Future

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city hall, mogadishu, somalia, sutika sipus
The Historic City Hall of Mogadishu Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
The rebuilding of Mogadishu may be faced with a multitude of obstacles, but there is no doubt about about the power of its beauty.  I'm not referring to the exotic fascination many have over its ruins, but rather am pointing toward the poetic architecture and rich, vibrant street life.  It may not yet have all the amenities of wealthier cities, but it contains a brilliant charm magnified by the frenetic energy of all those returning to take part in the historic reconstruction of the city.  

The historic City Hall captures the essence of this beauty.  Presently it is occupied by displaced families, yet its stunning white facade adjacent to the ocean, beside a recently restored arc d'triumph, is evocative of all the opportunity that lay ahead for the city.  The architecture is grande and dignified, with broad sweeping archways referencing the influence of Italian colonialism and the cultural leanings of the Swahili Coast.  The building is long and flat, wrapping itself around a large central courtyard with a fountain in the middle.  Ringed by large trees and beneath the canopy of rippling clouds, the City Hall stood strong before a visage of destruction as if the quality of leadership was hewn into its stone foundation. 

Mogadishu, City Hall, Sutika Sipus 2012
City Hall, Mogadishu Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
Before the front of the city lay the ruins of the a cathedral, once the largest in all east Africa.  Waylaid by the war, the walls still stood strong, though they supported no roof.  Though looted and abused, the church gave testament to the days in which Italian architecture and influence reigned throughout the city.  It was not a sad place however.  Children laughed and played on the steps, and while standing where an alter once stood, I looked upward to see a flight from Turkish Airlines descending to land at the Mogadishu airport.  With flights three days a week, direct from Istanbul to Mogadishu, the service is fully booked for months with returning Somalis and business investors. Mogadishu is rapidly changing, and I was only moments from discovering just how much this was happening.

Mogadishu Market, Somalia, Sutika Sipus 2012
Bustling Market in Mogadishu, Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
When I walked around City Hall to the rear of the building, I found it already part of a flourishing community.  In the rear of the building a group of volunteers were providing vaccination services to those in need.  And just meters away, I walked into a flourishing market full of t-shirts, tomatoes, steel buckets, furnishings, and the most delicious lemon juice I have ever tasted.  The market wasn't reserved only to one street but seemed to go on forever, with side streets equally packed with goods and people.  Banks and money wiring services dotted the sides, crammed in between restaurants and vendors.  

Mogadishu Market, Somalia, Sutika Sipus 2012
Everywhere you look in Mogadishu, business is happening
(Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
From the periphery of City Hall, the streets did not merely point toward a better future for the city but resonated with the fruits of the present.  All through the city, businesses are popping up and people are returning to take advantage of this moment.  For 21 years Mogadishu was bombarded with the explosions of war and only in the dark corners could one hear the whisperings of hope. But today it is filled with the explosions of opportunity and light, electrified and optimistic, Mogadishu is tomorrow in the making.

May 24, 2012

Graffiti and Street Art in Kabul, Afghanistan

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Graffiti and Street Art in Kabul, Afghanistan (All Photos: Sutika Sipus 2012)
The other day I wrote a post about the use of images to reinforce governance, in particular within areas of instability.  But naturally the question came to mine, if formal imagery can improve governance and order within a place such as Afghanistan, what is the role of informal imagery?  By informal, I refer to graffiti, street art, and ad hoc signage.  I've had a particular interest in the role of graffiti within Kabul since I moved here, as it is a common sight throughout the city and takes on many different forms.


Advertising in Kabul
Within Kabul there are two dominate uses of Graffiti.  The most common form of graffiti in Kabul is to advertise businesses and entreprenurial startups.  Advertisements will range from translation services to printers, logistics, security, schools, and technical trainings. Its fast, efficient and can be identified throughout the city even by non-Dari by the string of numbers at the bottom of the text.

Graffiti as Political Expression
The lesser use is as as a form of political expression.  Within 24 hours of atrocities such as the Neruz bombing, anti-Pakistan and/or anti-Taliban messages suddenly adorned the walls of city.  As these messages typically appear overnight and within high-traffic areas, it is rumored that these messages are not the work of an angry population, but are created by government workers.

Kabul Street Art
The least common use is as a form of artistic expression.  Much has been written about the creation of street art by a few young women in the city, admittedly this is an extreme minority. The majority of  these images, such as the stencil of opium poppies at the right are are located in the younger, more hip, area of Taimani which features most of the bars and restaurants where westerns and young Afghans can mingle.

Over several months I've attempted to determine the production of graffiti within Kabul may serve as a cultural vernacular, representing the interests of ethnic groups or political agendas, yet find a large absence of this process.  There is far more interest it seems, to utilize ready-made images, such as posters of fallen mujahadeen, to express tribal allegiances.  It will of course take some time to determine how such images are distributed without the city, or to understand how they function within public space. 

May 23, 2012

Images in the City and the Illusion of Governance

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Marketing Campaign to Stop Opium Production in Afghanistan (All Photos: Sutika Sipus)

Every day on my way to work I pass by a large poster of Afghanistan President, Mohamed Karzai.  Holding a child, pasted high above the heads of pedestrian traffic and adjacent to the Ministry of Education, the leader of the country composes himself as the father of us all.  There are many images like this in Kabul, and while the image of the late mujahadeed Ahmed Shah Masood is far more prominent, the consistent personification of national leaders has had me thinking about what it means to govern.

After all, how many despotic regimes forced their citizens to host images of their leaders above doorways, in offices, or in their homes?  Many of those governments eventually collapsed, yet others remain strong and persistent.  I'm thinking about the USSR, Cuba,  North Korea, and Libya... but I'm also thinking about the times I watched a movie in Thailand and had to stand for a commercial about the King or perhaps more subtly, all the times the national anthem is played before a baseball game in America. 


Poster of Ahmed Shah Masood in Kabul 
Be it a song, picture, or poster, these are the tools the reinforce the idea of governance.  Yet in places like Afghanistan, perhaps these images are more important.  How does a centralized government capital like Kabul maintain a connection to outer regions such as Khost or Helman?  Beyond a constant occupation of the city streets with police and military, how can a city government reinforced the idea of its power within the minds of the population? 

Governance is like any other product.  It has a market of consumers, that market has a threshold, and to expand its consumer base it needs to do two things: it needs to continually reinvent its appeal and it needs to advertise.

Advertising governance is simply a manner of reinforcing the terms of the social contract.  It is a direct way for an administration to say "we are doing what you have asked us to do, please continue to support us."  Though too often overlooked, the process of giving an image to the government is critical within areas of lower stability as there is generally a deficit of reliable information in the streets.  Rumors and conspiracies abound.  Journalism is frequently a fantasy and truth is subjective.  For a municipal, regional, or federal government to maintain control it needs to be visually present within the lives of the people. Yet government employees are expensive, it is a lot cheaper to simply put up a picture.

Opium Deterrence Campaign in Kabul Afghanistan
In recent months there has been an explosion of images within Kabul, as a variety of graphic campaigns have been launched to deter opium production, promote environmental responsibility, and increase continued enrollment in Afghan police and security forces.  Of course not all imagery is equal and many of the efforts will vary in success for obvious reasons.  For example, a campaign to discourage people from allowing their children to carry arms will likely suffer to succeed as the posters are written in Dari, the language spoken primarily by northern populations, while the bulk of the issue is located in the Pashto speaking south.  

However evocative imagery, such as found within the opium campaign may be sufficient enough to overcome language barriers.  The only problem however is that opium production is primarily a socio-economic issue while its consumption in urban areas is a socio-cultural concern.  Anti-drug campaigns have a history of mixed successes throughout the world, but it is unclear how large the current Kabul effort extends beyond catchy billboards.

Regardless of the Kabul examples, it is clear that order and governance require more than the simple provision of services, management, and security.  Successful governance entails the ability to communicate successes and ideology to the broader public, no matter how small the success or massive the audience.   Among challenged states it can establish the illusion of governance, and among those states and cities who truly are making strides, it can transform illusion into reality.

May 8, 2012

Kabul's Rigorous Allegiance to Master Plans

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Kabul Playground
Kabul Playground at Camp Julian (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
While preparing to return to Mogadishu in June to further reconstruction efforts, I also have a few planning related obligations in Kabul Afghanistan.  One of which it a weekly training session with members of the city administration in a USAID funded project for capacity building.  Although my colleagues work daily, I visit the program each week to provide teaching on urban planning and to develop a curriculum for guided problem solving activities.  The class participants are city engineers, district managers, and other mid-level administration.

Sutika Sipus Kabul
Kabul,  Afghanistan 2001 Formal and Informal Housing [green]
vs.  2006 Informal Housing [purple] (Map: Sutika Sipus 2012)
I had read previously in a dissertation on Kabul City Planning by Pietro Calgero that the Kabul municipality has historically maintained a strict adherence to a top-down rational planning model.  Yet only last night did I realize the rigidity of this truth.

In an attempt to overview various models of participatory planning, simply as a means to expose the trainees to planning methods in other countries and cultures for comparison, I found myself confronted resolute objections.  

In the words of one engineer in attendance "we know where to build the roads because they are in the master plan, then we go to the community and say we are building a road here, you will need to move. Then the problem is finished."  When I asked about policies regarding informal housing, the response was equally severe. The attitude was that people who live outside the terms of the master plan have to right to the land and therefore must leave if told to do so.  

In Kabul, informal housing is a pressing issue, and while strides have been made to recognize the claims of informal occupants, the top-town approach dominates.  I was surprised to discover the severe attitudes among many of the trainees, whose allegiance to the city Master Plan could not be shaken.  As a planner who has little faith in the utility of master plans among developing economies, I sought some degree of common ground between the trainees.  Not to mention, the city is again working on a NEW master plan! Like most master plans, it has taken years to assemble, and by the time it is ready for implementation, it will likely be out of date and irrelevant.  Perhaps not, but I'm skeptical.

By the end of the session, I found an opportunity when an architect in attendance noted that she frequently needs to negotiate with community members.  Negotiation isn't nearly equivalent to any community-based or decentralized planning models I'm familiar with, but it is a step in the right direction.  Over the next week the participants are to think of strategies in which these negotiation processes may take place.  I look forward to their ideas. Will they surprise me again? Probably.  

The Kabul Neighborhood of Karte Seh (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)