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News Overview 2015

New Paths in Urban Development: "Citizens Must Be Asked"

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities – a figure that is increasing all the time. Housing shortages, environmental pollution, and getting citizens involved are just some of the challenges that we will face in the future. Urban developers from North Africa and Germany met in Berlin to discuss the cities of tomorrow. The conference was part of the Baladiya – New Approaches to Urban Development program. The Robert Bosch Stiftung uses the program to help Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian urban development executives hone their management skills and find solutions to the challenges currently faced by their home cities.

One participant, Meriem Chabou from Algiers, tells us about urban planning that focuses on people’s needs and explains what Germans and Algerians can learn from each other.
  • How did you come to apply for the Baladiya program?

Chabou: The college got in touch with me, as it was so hard to find participants from Algeria. Unlike with France, there is no tradition of cooperation between Algeria and Germany. That’s why there’s no contact person in the interior ministry who can be approached with research exchange programs. I was keen on Baladiya right away, as I am interested in civic involvement and urban development strategies.

  • Why is it so important to come to grips with the way cities are developing?

In 2030, more people will live in cities than in the countryside. As this development is taking place at such great speed, it’s important to keep up with it.

  • What are the challenges facing Algiers?

Algiers is currently facing many challenges. The population is growing at a tremendous rate and it’s important to reflect this development in terms of urban planning. There is currently a great deal of construction work going on, such as the grand mosque, parks, and sports centers. The airport is being expanded, as are the subway and road networks, with environmental concerns gradually coming more to the fore. The city’s wastewater is pumped into the Oued El Harrach river, which flows through Algiers. The river used to be black from all the pollution, but work has begun to clean it up. In fact, you’ll soon be able to go canoeing on the river, with parks, sports fields, and swimming pools set to line its banks.

Nevertheless, environmental pollution remains a big problem. Although there is no shortage of environmental legislation, there is ambiguity about how to apply it. Oil and gas refineries are sometimes located in the middle of cities, which increases the risk of fire. In fact, there have already been several accidents. And as tectonic plates meet in the Mediterranean, earthquakes are becoming more common in Algiers. Even though all buildings have to be built to withstand earthquakes, construction regulations are all too often ignored.

And then there are the long-term questions: How will we be able to live with a different set of resources in 20 years’ time? Algeria’s economy is based on oil. Whenever prices fall, a crisis ensues. As a result, many construction projects are left unfinished. That’s why we have to find other resources in time.

  • Is there an overall long-term vision for Algiers?

Yes, there is. While all construction projects are part of an overarching strategic blueprint, the planning sometimes has little to do with reality. Some projects make little impact at a local level because they have not been adapted to local conditions. Sometimes, I also wonder whether the money spent on luxury riverside real estate could be put to better use elsewhere. Many of the poor people in Algiers, for example, don’t even have a roof over their head.

Alongside the master plan, there is also a strategic plan, but this is being put into practice far too quickly. The land-use plans – in other words, the intermediate steps essential to any process of this kind – are missing. You can’t just jump from the strategic plan to the construction phase.

  • What would you like to change in Algiers?

I would like to improve the quality of the apartments and, as a result, enhance quality of life. It’s important to build new housing, as the population is growing so quickly. It’s no less vital, however, to preserve what we already have. Algiers has some magnificent buildings, some of which date back to the colonial era. We are talking about extensive houses with courtyards – houses that are ideal for large Algerian families in which the grandparents traditionally live under the same roof. Many of the new buildings, however, are built in a European style, making them far too small. I wish that new buildings would reflect the family circumstances found in Algeria. There is a dire shortage of housing in the country, which is why two million apartments are scheduled to be built by 2029 or 2030. As it all has to happen at breakneck speed, many of the apartments will be of poor quality. They will be built on agricultural land outside the cities, which is bad news for both farming and the environment. In a few years, Algeria’s housing problem could become a real acid test for the country.

  • To what extent are citizens involved in urban planning?

In Algeria, local authorities don’t get a chance to have their say. In particular, this is a problem when you have well-meaning construction projects that are neither wanted nor needed in the community concerned. We have to change this – the citizens must be asked. And I am committed to making this happen. In Germany, I want to learn how civic involvement can be enabled at an institutional level. After all, trusting communities means trusting the people themselves. Also, there are many bottom-up initiatives here that should be supported. When the local authorities, for example, fail to clean an area on a regular basis, the residents do it themselves. They also plant gardens. Sometimes, we’re talking about small-scale projects. If people were supported and given a greater say, they would assume greater responsibility for their own city. And they could even dream of a day when all decisions are made jointly.

  • What can urban planners in Germany learn from their Algerian counterparts?

Germany is a highly developed country, which is why we can learn a great deal from German urban planners. What I like in Algiers is the effective way in which modern and traditional architectural styles are combined. German urban planners could also learn something from the way Algerians live. Public spaces are used a lot more and the social life is much richer.

  • What will you take away from Berlin?

I already lived for a long period in Germany and I know it well. Nevertheless, the project enables me to encounter a whole new reality in the country. Previously, I never had the opportunity to see a city hall from the inside and talk to the architects. I was also never really aware of the degree of decentralization in Germany. I am always impressed by Berlin. I would even go as far as to say that it’s my second-favorite city – after Algiers. I love this city. I discover something new every time I visit. Back home in Algiers they even say I’m German, because I’m always talking about Germany and Berlin.

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Meriem Chabou (48) grew up in Algiers, where she now lectures at the Polytechnic School of Architecture and Urbanism. She completed her doctorate from 1998 to 2003 at the TU Berlin. “Algiers, c’est ma ville. It’s my city – my mother, my son, my family. Even though I have lived elsewhere, I will always return to Algiers.”

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