Rwanda is fast on its way to becoming the smart city hub of Africa, with its capital Kigali positioning itself as the continent’s most innovative city, from apps to hail motorcycles to car-free zones. If any one designer sits at the center of that movement, it’s Christian Benimana, the Rwanda Programs Director for MASS Design Group, a non-profit architecture firm that won a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2017.
As a practicing architect, he has worked on designs and plans for hospitals and health clinics in Rwanda, Malawai, and Gabon. As an educator, he teaches at the former Kigali Institute of Science and Technology’s architecture school and chairs the education board of both the Rwanda Institute of Architects and the East African Institute of Architects. As an advocate, he directs the African Design Center, a field-based apprenticeship to grow the ranks of African designers that has been hailed as the Bauhaus of Africa.
ITDP: The theme of MOBILIZE is Making Space for Mobility in Booming Cities. What is your city doing to address mobility in the face of rapid urbanization? What are the challenges in accelerating these solutions?
Christian Benimana: There is a lot going on in Kigali. We are investing in improvements to the road network not only to serve cars but also sidewalks for pedestrians. The city now has a few car-free zones, although those are more for public space than mobility.
There are plans to streamline transportation services by regulating companies within the transportation industry and integrating payment technology with service platforms. For example, Kigali introduced pre-paid cards to pay for bus fares.
The private sector is also innovating. There are now two companies trying to do something that looks like Uber for motorcycles, a form of transportation used a lot in the city. Their goal is twofold. One, to make it easier to source a motorcycle with a safe, trained driver wherever you are. Two, to regulate prices so that you don’t have to negotiate with the driver.
Unfortunately these solutions are not coming fast enough to keep up with population growth and demand. There is a natural way of resisting change as well — most people like to keep the same things the same way. But I have confidence that as more people pick up these practices, we’re going to turn the trends pretty quickly. I see an opportunity with this younger generation seeking a change, a new generation who depends on mobility much more than their parents did. That trend demands a lot of creativity in solutions. It’s a challenge that could easily turn into an opportunity.
What impact would you like to have in your role in the coming years to address the issue of mobility and rapid urbanization?
CB: I want to get invested in accessibility. Too often, we focus on the word’s narrow definition: how do we build mobility solutions compliant with accessibility requirements for people who are in wheelchair or are blind? We reduce our design thinking to complying with those terms, but we never question whether the design is inclusive of those people. It does not answer how those people interact with and feel about those spaces. What if we build a ramp into a train station but the experience of the train station is miserable? That’s a missed opportunity to question whether the design solutions we come up with are really working for everyone.
What city projects, anywhere in the world, are most interesting to you right now?
CB: It’s an old example, but Curitiba in Brazil still inspires me for their ability to use a transportation initiative as a way to create public space. In the Netherlands, especially Rotterdam, I am impressed at efforts to formalize cycling. It was a common practice in the city first, and then city leaders came around to providing infrastructure for it. Finally, the new Addis Ababa light rail shows how sub-Saharan Africa can invest in energy-efficient infrastructure, like the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
What are you most excited about seeing or learning at MOBILIZE?
CB: I’m most excited to meet with mayors, governors, and city managers. So many ideas that are obvious to designers encounter political hurdles. I’d like to understand what those hurdles are so that designers can see their ideas implemented in the real world.
How can high quality urban design be mainstreamed in the face of rapid urbanization?
CB: I don’t know for sure, but I have an opinion. We’ve seen on the one hand that top-down approaches backfire. On the other hand, we’ve seen that bottom-up approaches are inadequate. But I think the sharing economy offers us some lessons on how to bridge that gap. Government must make the rules and regulations, then allow others to flourish to provide services. It’s a cliche of every urban planning conference, but I think it’s true.
What are some approaches you’ve encountered or worked on that make for a great inclusive and equitable environment?
CB: MASS Design Group entered the architecture competition to redesign Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world’s only university for deaf and hard of hearing students. We designed to enhance the other senses, like smell and sight, that the students have, and that approach ends up working well for all users.
This interview is the part of the MOBILIZE Dar es Salaam Speaker Series. In this series, we will feature interviews with speakers and researchers from VREF’s Future Urban Transport where they will discuss their work in sustainable transport and reflect on MOBILIZE Dar es Salaam’s theme: Making Space for Mobility in Booming Cities.
To learn more about MOBILIZE Dar es Salaam visit mobilizesummit.org.