Meet Israeli Architect Yigal Tzamir: Uganda's New National Planner

After winning a World Bank tender, the Haifa-based professor will be heading up an effort to address urban chaos, transportation inefficiency and the need to find a balance between nature and industry.

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Gulu, a city located north of Uganda's capital, in 2015.
Gulu, north of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. “The cities have been built like helter-skelter patchwork and there are wars over territory,” says Tzamir.Credit: James Akena/Reuters
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Just days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off for his trip to Africa last week, Haifa-based architect Yigal Tzamir learned that he had won the World Bank tender to draw up a national master plan for Uganda.

Tzamir has already had experience with big plans: He has drawn up blueprints for the Haifa Bay area as well as a master plan for northern Israel, and recently he came up with a plan for Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Now he will be drafting a plan for the entire east African country, which has a population of more than 37 million, in cooperation with both local and Israeli teams of planners.

Tzamir is just one of many Israeli architects who are currently working, or have worked in the past, in Africa. According to him, the goal now is to draw up a comprehensive plan on the basis of a collection of surveys that have been carried out in Uganda, which define the country’s needs and the challenges facing it. The teams are charged with planning cities and infrastructure including new road systems, and they will demarcate areas that will be used for establishing industry.

According to Tzamir, a professor who has taught at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Uganda has set itself the goal of achieving a GDP of $9,500 within 20 years (Israel’s GDP today is $35,000), while simultaneously decreasing its birth rate during that period, thus reducing the population from a projected 80 million at the current rate to 60 million.

“They have a lot of oil that they have discovered, and also phosphates. And the oil is close to huge nature reserves,” he relates. “Our plan has to strike a balance between nature and industrial development. We are looking for solutions that will determine the extent to which the industry will be limited – these are among the things we have to draw up.”

One of the challenges facing Africa as a whole today is urbanization. Many former village-dwellers have been settling on the outskirts of cities in huge slum areas. Because of this situation, in Uganda, explains Tzamir, “it has been decided to build five new cities. There will be one based on trade, say, or on high-tech. We will establish a countrywide system with locales of different degrees of [economic] importance. In addition, the existing cities will be enlarged considerably in the coming years and we want the new, added parts not to be created in a random fashion.”

Not like Hong Kong

Roughly speaking, urban areas in the West fall into two categories: crowded historical cities which feature public transportation and a lot of pedestrian traffic, and suburban cities that are based on private car use. In Israel, Tel Aviv is in the first category and Modi’in, for example, is in the second. In response to the question of which type of cities they are planning for Uganda, Tzamir replies that the planners will have to combine the principles of Western cities with “the local chaos,” as he calls it.

“In the past, they lived in all kinds of shacks and we are proposing three- or four-story buildings. The construction has to be dense and there will also be complexes with inner courtyards and a network of green areas that will allow for a sort of 'inner life,' because this is a communal society that lives in the streets a lot.

"The intention isn’t to build a city like Hong Kong – it’s not suited to Africa. If we design an overly-planned dense grid like in cities in the United States, it won’t work. It’s necessary to design a general network of streets within which there will be additional, freer systems, which suits the way of life in Africa.”

Moreover, explains Tzamir, there are major problems of mobility in a country such as Uganda where the inhabitants are poor: “Transportation is a critical problem, because there is no vehicle ownership there – and an incredible number of motorbikes. Therefore, we are planning cities based on pedestrian traffic. For example, the residential areas will be at most two kilometers away from the commercial center. We are also planning light-rail and rapid transit bus systems [like in Haifa]."

Haifa-based architect Tzamir. “I don’t see anything negative in newness,” he says.Credit: Courtesy

Isn’t it sort of amusing that Israel, where nothing gets built according to the original plan, is teaching others how to plan towns, infrastructure and public transportation?

Tzamir: “If you take, for example, the planning reports by Prof. Moshe Hirsch, who designed the light rail-project in Jerusalem, you can turn them into a textbook and use them as a basis for teaching at Harvard or MIT. The problem is that Israel messes around with its reports and people trip each other up and there are administrative problems too. In Uganda things are simpler.”

In essence, in Israel, he says, professional knowledge is not translated into reality on the ground.

“Here,” he explains, “there is a volume of plans unequalled anywhere, plan upon plan upon plan. You need to stick a needle three meters long through the pile of paper. And as time goes by, the needle gets longer. For Uganda, I am drawing up a single plan. Thus, when they get to page 17 – they will see what has to be done and will not need to check things elsewhere.”

Does Uganda really need new cities or expansion of existing ones, as is accepted now around the world?

“A city needs to be designed so that it can grow. When you look at a city in Uganda, it’s hard to understand its structure, because the cities there have been built up like helter-skelter patchwork and there are wars over territory. Huge parts of them are residential areas that look like primitive build-your-own-home neighborhoods, and in order to change this is it is necessary to change the whole system.

"What we’re doing is to create roads leading into the city that will make it possible to build on the outskirts, because inside there’s a huge mess. We are adding to the cities something that is modern, an influence that will gradually work its way inward.

“In addition to the satellite towns we will, as I said, build new cities, for example in a new area where oil has been found. I don’t see anything negative in newness.”

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