This article was originally published by The New Times. The views expressed in this article are of the writer and not attributable to SHLC.

This week, we woke up to big news that the long awaited ‘Imbuga City Walk’ project on Kigali’s car free zone, as we know it, has come to fruition. The street will be transformed into ‘a recreational and green space’, whose implementation is on the move and expected to be complete within three months.

The news further detailed the project components as: pedestrian and cycling friendly pavements; green corridor landscaping; kiosks for food court and other items; exhibition zone; and kids’ playground. Several support facilities will also be in place such as; street benches and free WiFi; city lounge and arcade; pedestrian-friendly street lamps and public toilets. What more can we ask?

On 15th September 2015, I started making opinion column contributions in this newspaper, having been inspired by the then active debate on the events and aspirations on the car free zone.

I recall celebrating the move the City of Kigali had made in setting precedent on the war against the ‘asphalt and concrete jungle’ that has been attacking cities from all ends in this era of rapid urbanization.

Kigali, Rwanda. A wide view looking down on the city centre with Pension Plaza in the foreground. Credit: Shutterstock, Jennifer Sophie.
Kigali, Rwanda. A wide view looking down on the city centre with Pension Plaza in the foreground. Credit: Shutterstock, Jennifer Sophie.

At the time, I was only beginning my doctoral studies, on the topic of public space, disturbed by the fact that many cities especially in the global south have shown only marginal expansions in their public open space, despite the overwhelming expansion of the built environment.

Kigali’s intention to host her first ever car free zone at that point in time was indeed a terrific inspiration, as it served as a living testimony that cities can, after all, pay attention to their quality of urban life in unique ways, opening up possibilities in which streets could become successful social spaces.

Many other streets in Kigali remain ubiquitous with car use and hence why the idea of a car free zone, with pedestrians deserving a higher priority that vehicles that have growingly dominated the space, becomes an exciting one.

Over the last five years, we have had several pieces written on the topic of Kigali’s car free zone, published in this paper or elsewhere, and most of them have been sharing the concern that the street remained dead over a longer period of time, than expected.

The opinions, based on the optimism of the zone, have been good and healthy, as they kept a constant reminder to the city urban planners to fast track the process but we may not be having a lot of pace now to complain and rant about the absence of life and vibrancy on the street. The city has finally moved forward to nail it and basically we have been given three months, while the city completes the project, to start planning our activities on the Imbuga City Walk, obviously in respect to existing health protocols.

Considering that for the last 12 months we have largely been spending time in our homes or neighbourhoods, with travel restrictions in place and calls for social distancing as a way to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, this news is both timely and relevant to us all.

But just what will make the Imbuga city walk work?

The first conversation is around the concern of empty street. To ensure that the street does not remain ‘dead’ as we have critiqued it to have been, it will need people and activities. You and I will need to make intentional decisions to show up and be present there.

Obviously before the new design that is being implemented now, it was still difficult for the street to attract people and activities. There was not so much to do there, the zone, although absent of vehicles, was still not comfortable as it was without basic support facilities and amenities.

Now that there is a purposeful design in place, that is aiming to transform the zone into recreational and green space, one would expect that the addition of support facilities, improved accessibility, better linkages, safety and comfort, would make it substantially attractive leading to a more active and vibrant public space.

The second is around the businesses along the street. There has been concerns shared on the survival of businesses along the street, whose presence is of paramount important to the survival of the Imbuga city walk, but whose survival ought to be also supported by the public space.

This dialectic relationship is important since the street business will be affected by the street design changes. Hopefully, the case of a participatory design process, in which the business owners were involved in the conversations during both the design and implementation of the car free zone is expected to introduce business-friendly design elements that support both the social life as well as the economic life of the street.

Obviously business serve customers on their feet, not in their cars and hence the project increment in users of the Imbuga City Walk may as well bring in more customers to the adjacent businesses. The business on this zone have also been offered working service lanes parallel to the KN4 street and if they have survived the last 5 years of an empty street, they can only expect to do much better now.

The third is around equitable access. It is expected that the city walk will attract many more people than it has been doing in the last five years. Visitors will be drawn from the different economic levels and so a consideration in ensuring efficient bus transit from the various neighbourhoods in Kigali and other bus terminus, with efficient bus stops on either sides of the zone, would be very useful to the many visitors, especially the low-income citizen who rely on buses.

Bicycle lanes are already incorporated in the zone and this is expected to boost the already arising trend in cycling in Kigali.

The newly designed public space will be a container of multiple human activities, making it better capable of catering for our functional, social, and recreational needs in a more successful manner. This way, the Imbuga City Walk is expected to increasingly and positively associate with economic growth, better physical health of people and a stronger sense of community.