Poor quality housing, informal settlement, Kigali, Rwanda. Credit: Ya Ping Wang, University of Glasgow.

No Slums and a ‘Vision City’: An Impression of Kigali’s Housing from my First Fieldtrip

In this blog Professor Ya Ping Wang, Director of SHLC, reflects on housing in Kigali’s different neighbourhoods.

At the beginning of this year I joined my colleagues from the University of Rwanda, and our other international partners, in Kigali for a week-long project meeting and fieldwork. As a specialist in urban studies and housing in Asia, I was keen to explore the differences, and sometimes surprising similarities, between neighbourhoods in Africa and the communities of Asia’s rapidly urbanising cities.

Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, has experienced sustained population growth and physical expansion after the devastating 1994 genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi. From less than half a million people, the city’s total population has expanded rapidly to reach 1.13 million, more than doubling in size in just over 20 years.

“It was very clear to me why Rwanda (and Kigali)’s fast economic growth and rapid urban transformation has led the country to be dubbed the ‘Singapore of Africa’.”

During a meeting at the Mayor’s office, Kigali’s urban planners told us that (as was plain to see) the city is urbanising rapidly and proactively planning for rapid growth. To accommodate the fast-growing population and economic activities, the city’s administrative territory has doubled from 314 km2 in 2000 to 730 km2 by2005. It was very clear to me why Rwanda (and Kigali)’s fast economic growth and rapid urban transformation has led the country to be dubbed the ‘Singapore of Africa’.

‘No Slums Here’ – Traditional, Unplanned and Informal Housing

Informal housing occupies a large proportion of land area in the city; but, as City Officials and our academic colleagues proudly attested, Kigali’s informal settlements are different from slums found in other developing countries.  As you can see in the pictures (1 and 2) from our neighbourhood visits, this unplanned settlement has traditional, high density housing, which is generally of poor quality and with limited modern infrastructure. Most roads and streets are not paved. Some areas show signs of mixed construction, with better and good quality structures among the poorer houses.

Traditional, Unplanned and Informal Housing. Kigali, Rwanda. Credit: Ya Ping Wang, University of Glasgow
(Picture 1 to 4, from left to right). Traditional, Unplanned and Informal Housing. Kigali, Rwanda. Credit: Ya Ping Wang, University of Glasgow

Local residents told us that land ownership in unplanned areas is private. Landlords could own several houses together, which they inherited through the traditional rural land and housing system. Landlords may live in one house and rent their other properties so rent becomes their main income. These are also the places where new migrants come and live. In recent years, the government has exercised very strong and strict controls on new buildings in these unplanned areas. No new building or additions are allowed. This policy may have prevented these areas from further declining into slums.

To improve living conditions, Kigali has focused on upgrading, rather than relocating, informal settlements.  In Agatare, for example (Picture 3), a World Bank supported informal settlement upgrading scheme, we saw construction and development focused on improving main roads and drainage as well as upgrading the electricity and water supply.

“It was clear these were good quality houses, but they simply remain too expensive for most of the families facing relocation.”

Upgrading, however, has also resulted in some families being relocated (Picture 4 shows an early relocation scheme). During relocation families are offered two choices: a) cash compensation, or b) moving to a new area, for example, Batsinda (Picture 4). The new ‘replacement’ houses all follow the same design, each costing about 4 million Rwanda Francs (about £5,000). It was clear these were good quality houses, but they simply remain too expensive for most of the families facing relocation. Instead, we were told, many took cash and moved to other places or some people did move here but then sold their houses to others. Although the area is still low income, many current residents are actually newcomers who are better off than the families originally targeted.

Planned and Privately Built New Housing and Neighbourhoods

We had the opportunity to explore many different types of new neighbourhoods across the city and it was clear to see that the expansion of ‘planned’ housing is occurring in many different forms. Most new neighbourhoods in the city fell into this category of privately built areas. Kigali is a hilly city, the ‘land of a thousand hills’, making it a very hilly city, and many of the newly planned areas spread upward on the gentle slopes toward the top of these hills.

Planned and Privately Built New Housing and Neighbourhoods, Kigali, Rwanda. Credit: Ya Ping Wang, University of Glasgow
(Picture 5 to 8 from left to right). Planned and Privately Built Housing, Kigali, Rwanda. Credit: Ya Ping Wang, University of Glasgow

Walking through these neighbourhoods we can see that the ‘plan’ divided the fresh land (originally banana plantations) into plots of more or less equal size between 400 to 700 m2. Plots bought earlier are larger and recent ones smaller, due to land price increases, which have seen initial costs of around 1000 US $ per plot at Kabuye a few years ago, grow to $6000-7000. The planned plots are accompanied by some very simple road and street drainage frameworks before being sold off. Once a plot is bought, families start organising construction of the house. The design must be approved by government officials and normally involves a professional engineer. The construction can take many different forms. Some families organise the building process directly, while others employ a builder. This arrangement resulted in very different styles and sizes of houses, some are huge and very luxurious, while others are more moderate and less fancy, but all shared the relatively poor road, power, and sewage infrastructure. (Picture 5-8).

The ‘Vision City’ – Commercially Developed Housing Estates

At the top of the housing ladder there are very modern and commercially developed housing estates at various slopes away from city centre, and multi-story flat blocks near the city centre. The best, and most talked about, example is the gated community called ‘Vision City’ which very much stands out in the cityscape and is clear to see from many viewpoints across the city. Developed by a Chinese company, the estate includes detached and semi-detached villas as well as luxury apartments with modern amenities. These commercially developed estates have a high social and economic status and units are more expensive in sale price; houses are beyond the affordability of most local ordinary residents. Foreigners, business people and senior government officials are the main residents.

Commercially Developed Housing Estates, Kigali, Rwanda. Ya Ping Wang, University of Glasgow
Commercially Developed Housing Estates, Kigali, Rwanda. Ya Ping Wang, University of Glasgow

There are also new social housing areas under construction in the city, like ‘Phase II Batsinda’ (Picture 9, top left). But considering over 80% of residents live in unplanned or privately built houses, it is questionable who is going to live here in the new social housing, especially when plans follow the ‘Vision City’ development model.

Kigali has moved a long way since the 1994 genocide, there has been huge amount progress for which the country should be celebrated, and housing conditions have improved substantially for parts of the population. Rapid urbanisation and housing development show some distinctive features that I have not seen in other cities. For large parts of the city, urbanisation essentially means to bringing traditional rural communities together by building houses close to each other and replacing rural income with urban employment and business opportunities. In this way urbanisation has enabled people to maintain some of their traditional way of life in cities. Vision City, however, creates a very different type of urbanisation, still small in scale, but similar to urbanisation we are familiar with in East Asia, which is, unfortunately, extending the already wide gap between the rich and the poor.

Khulna, Central Business District. Credit: Irfan Shakil, Khulna University

Studying Cities from the Inside Out: Why Partnership and Interdisciplinarity Matters

With over half of the population living in urban areas and the numbers increasing daily, cities are facing unprecedented demographic, environmental, economic, social and spatial challenges. 31 October marks World Cities Day, which will provide a particular focus on these issues – but they are issues which should command attention every day of the year.

That is a call to which the GCRF Centre for Sustainable Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC) is already responding.

Our international team of experts studying urban transformations in both large and small cities in the following countries: South Africa – Cape Town and Johannesburg; Tanzania – Dar es Salaam and Ifakara; Rwanda – Kigali and Huye; India – Delhi and Madurai; Bangladesh – Dhaka and Khulna; China – Chongqing and Datong; Philippines – Manila and Batangas.

Films like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Favela Rising” have brought to the public eye images of the slums of big, developing world cities. But what of other communities? They may be slightly less poor but they still have their own problems, lacking services and the other ingredients of a productive urban life.

At SHLC we are working to fill this gap through capacity strengthening activities and comparative studies of different neighbourhoods across 14 African and Asian cities.

Khulna, Central Business District. Credit: Irfan Shakil, Khulna University
Khulna, Central Business District. Credit: Irfan Shakil, Khulna University

Our project is looking specifically at fast-growing cities across Africa and Asia as it is here that urban populations have undergone the fastest change – and over the next 10-20 years it is here that we will see the greatest urban growth.

The speed and scale of this increase has created a lot of opportunities – but also many problems. Rapid urban sprawl, migration and population growth have led to a shortage of housing, inadequate water supply and pollution: migrants moving into cities often find themselves living in poor neighbourhoods and the inequality in living standards we see in these neighbourhoods is a major challenge.

Why neighbourhood matters

If you just look at a city as a whole, you will miss the full picture. So, instead, we are focusing on the neighbourhoods inside cities to explore how cities are changing bit by bit. We are not only looking at poorer neighbourhoods, we are looking at all different types of neighbourhoods across the whole city – from slums to gated communities and everything in between.

Where do the poor people live, where do the rich people live, and what about the people in between? And, most crucially, how do they live?

Studying cities “from the inside out” using neighbourhood level analysis is a new approach when it comes to researching cities in developing countries.

Colorful hillside homes in Kigali, Rwanda
Colorful hillside homes in Kigali, Rwanda


Another important element of our work is its collaborative nature. In the past, international collaboration tended to mean that experts from the developed world telling developing countries how to build cities using the ‘Global North’ experience.

This approach is not suitable. Cities in developing country have grown under very different economic, political and social conditions. Many cities, like Delhi, Cape Town and Manila, have very distinctive and unique features which older industrial cities in the West do not share.

By bringing developing country researchers together we are not just sharing knowledge between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’, we are focussing on knowledge transfer and sharing learning experiences between developing countries.

For example, our case study cities in China, India and South Africa – the so-called ‘BRICS’ countries and emerging economies – have developed quite differently and at different rates. But their neighbourhoods show some similar features. Relatively poorer developing countries, like the Philippines, Bangladesh, Tanzania and Rwanda, have a different level of economic development, so their cities are facing slightly different challenges. By comparing similarities and differences between all of our case study cities we will gain greater understanding and insight into how cities work and how we can make the city work better for all.

Interdisciplinary research

Urbanisation is a human activity. The city is a place for production, a place for living and a place for education and place for politics. It is a complicated human system and process. If we were only to do our neighbourhood research from one aspect, we would always face limitations.

In the past, a lot of ‘sustainable’ cities research has focused very much on environmental costs like pollution. Our research goes further and pays more attention to the social and economic sustainability of communities from a variety of different disciplines.

We know that for a city to be ‘sustainable’ it tends to be healthy: healthy people tend to learn better, and to be healthy and educated you need a sustainable environment to live in. So to examine these complicated neighbourhoods and cities from a combined multi-disciplinary approach is much better than just looking at the city from an urban planning perspective.

For example, high-rise and high-density neighbourhoods have been constructed to accommodate a rapidly expanding population. But who is going to live there? Do they bring cars, or not? How will this affect congestion and pollution? Will there be learning opportunities nearby? How will living in high-density buildings impact well-being? Is the neighbourhood close to employment opportunities? These are just a few of the questions that will be under discussion today as experts across examine global urbanisation.