KIGALI Part 1: Africa’s most well-planned city?

Prof Ola Uduku is visiting Kigali in Rwanda as part of the Shared Heritage Project :

Indeed the city of a million hills, the views, wherever one looks show the hilly topography as 360 degree panorama all around. This is an efficient, exceptionally clean and organised African city, words that rarely roll off the tongue in relation to the continent.

For Kigali this however is happily true. Approaching this city of 3 million from its friendly and speedy immigration formalities at its small airport, one meets with Kigali’s symbolic moniker, the lit up Kigali Conference centre globe, set on one of the city’s highest hills, it acts as a waymarker into Kigali city. 

Unsurprising for a hilly city, poor drainage and standing water is not a problem, a usual feature in large urban areas of Africa. Kigali’s arteries are its well-designed and maintained, roads and its taxi and motorcycle public transport network. Yellow motorcycles, with red-helmeted drivers and their pillion passengers swarm the roads like bees, dodging in and out of traffic including the Yego taxicabs which are ubiquitous forms of transport for more well-off Kigalites. 

Meanwhile the roads are designed with both clearly marked out zebra crossings which drivers observe. This includes well-defined cycle lanes despite bicycles being rather rare, they have clearly been planned for. The central pedestrianised area also has had detailed attention to planting and urban infrastructure such as seating areas and shelters. This attention to city thoroughfares by Kigali’s planners gives the city its deserved moniker as Africa’s most well-planned city. 

A visit to the University of Rwanda also gave an interesting view of the different architectural and design influences to be found in Rwanda. The striking Rwanda School of Architecture displayed its vibrant colours and materiality in its external form, whilst the volumetric flexibility of these spaces internally was demonstrated as we held successful if slightly challenged acoustically, talks and workshops,  concluding with an informal review session in two of these spaces.

Central Kigali has a distinct historic colonial – mission informed central spine. A Catholic convent, a church, and a school complex delivering kindergarten and primary education feature on one axis. The characteristic use of locally made clay bricks and historical clay tiling give these buildings their historic identity.  Whilst the 20th century designed embassies of Belgium and France, with their national flags flying, dominate nearby.

Colonial Kigali then blends into an interesting newly repurposed space, courtesy of MASS design. The old Belgian school in downtown Kigali has now become home for the first Norskka startup campus. Classrooms have been recreated as meetings spaces, and the brand new central entrance meeting space doubles as free to walk into café certainly serving the best coffee this side of Africa.

The MASS Design-landscape team collaboration in design has resulted in a totally new and climatologically excellent marriage of landscape with environment. A successful contemporary case study on how this can be achieved for all working in sub-tropical environments such as Kigali. The third and final phase of this development is just going on site involving a local Architecture practice this has got to be a project to watch.

Downtown commercial Kigali, which formed the centre of the historic commercial town, comprises the usual mix of trading units, former mercantile company warehouses and post and telecommunications infrastructure. A pedestrian mall which features Kigali’s new post-modern banking office towers, connects to this downtown area.

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