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The Importance of Public Spaces in Mogadishu

 By Degan Omar

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A tourist boat on Lido Beach, Mogadishu - Degan Omar

Public spaces have played a key role in urban development over the centuries and have always represented the essence of every city. The ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians knew it well, and their cities made it the symbol of their empires. In ancient Rome, for example, wealthy patricians and young people from the humblest classes mingled in public spaces - such as the famous Roman baths - which offered everyone, without distinction of sex, race or economic status, places of entertainment and relaxation free of charge. Even today, the main role of the public space is precisely this: reduce the barriers created by deep socio-economic inequalities and to offer community services even to the most disadvantaged social groups. A well-designed public space increases the sense of belonging and equality of citizens, fostering social cohesion and mixité and thus contributing to combating city segregation. Today we often hear about "fragile cities", that is an urban environment in which the strong urbanisation, often unregulated, increases its vulnerability to risk factors such as poverty, marginalisation, crime, and violence. This phenomenon, although global, is more likely to occur in cities located in politically unstable countries or affected by wars and civil conflicts in which the social contract between authorities and citizens is compromised and fueled by the lack of basic services. About a third of all cities with a high level of fragility is in similarly fragile states. Many of the realities that have experienced situations of conflict and who have experienced ethnic, religious and cultural violence, have to deal with delicate and complex processes of peace and reconciliation. In these contexts, considering physical spaces as means of cohesion and reconciliation is fundamental because it is there that people live their life every day, meeting and interacting with each other, and there is where the divisions and contrasts that led to the conflict can be solved. Public spaces can play a key role in breaking down barriers and social differences.

Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, continues to hold headlines due to its turbulent past and repeated terrorist attacks. Thinking about Mogadishu and its public spaces thus evokes disturbing images: a destroyed city, bent by years of violence and completely deprive (or almost) of the gardens, the beautiful tree-lined avenues and the  squares that gave to the city the title of "White pearl of the Indian Ocean" before the outbreak of the civil war.

Somalia, once a peaceful and prosperous state ( called once "the Switzerland of Africa") is recovering after more than 25 years of political instability that began in 1991.

Today, Somalia has made huge improvements since the 1990s, despite this, the situation still remains a complicated reality. The conflict has brought with it years of discrimination which have increased the level of marginalisation and social inequality, further compromising the dynamics of peaceful interaction between different groups. With a population of over two million people, a population growth of around 7 per cent, and the return of part of the Somali diaspora to their homeland, Mogadishu is particularly vulnerable. Between the chaos and insecurity of the Somali capital, however, there are places - often ignored by the media and the dominant narrative - that characterise the urban fabric of the city and that will represent the relationship between the improvement of life in urban centers and the mitigation of violence: Lido Beach and the Beerta Nabada (the Peace Garden). Lido Beach is one of those fantastic natural resources that Somalia has, and today is undoubted, one of the most experienced places in the city, for the whole community. On Fridays, in particular, the beach is filled with people playing football, swimming, strolling or just chatting under the sun's rays that embracing Somalia. After years of internal conflict, this beach represents a place of normality and refuge from everyday problems and worries, a place where everyone, regardless of social class, gender or age, finds serenity and peace. The use of the beach is in some ways also encouraged by the hotels and restaurants that make this space usable even at night.

Beerta Nabadda (Peace Park), Mogadishu - Degan Omar

It is important to consider the fact that the beach is not protected by anti-terrorism barriers or checkpoints, which might seem an anomaly in a context in which the attacks are still frequent. However, this does not diminish the perception of security by those who use this space. On the contrary, the absence of protections has exactly the opposite effect: being in a walk on it, you completely lose the perception of being in a "risk" zone within a city already considered by the narrative one of the most dangerous in the world. There, the sporadic presence of law enforcement on foot or sometimes on armed vehicles does not transmit the sense of insecurity that is felt in other areas of the city like at the exit from the Mogadishu airport, where you are surrounded by barriers and checkpoints by the African Union forces on armoured vehicles. For the perception of security that it offers, Lido Beach is therefore positioned in strong contrast with what often occurs in Mogadishu, this beach creates a dimension of serenity and tranquillity accessible to all the citizenship. As in the case of Lido Beach, Beerta Nabadda is also one of the most visited places in the capital. It represents a green oasis devoid of the debris and rubble that instead characterise the urban center, an oasis of peace within an architecturally broke city, the garden has become a symbol of peace and resurgence, a ritual passage for new graduate students, young couples and hundreds of families who daily walk and drink tea in the shade of the palm trees.

Unlike Lido Beach, however, the Beerta Nabadda cannot be considered a public space since it can be used upon payment of a small amount of money. Furthermore, before access to the garden, the security forces check you at the entrance - which necessarily creates a clear separation between the "inside" and the "outside". The fact that the Beerta Nabadda is still one of the most experienced places in the city well exemplifies the vital importance that this kind of places has for the population: in Mogadishu, as well as in the whole of Somalia, the public spaces certainly represent places not only for  physical interaction  but also for social  coexistence as demonstrated by the two cases considered. However, neglecting the contextual aspects and the factors that underlie a conflict risks compromising - in total or in part - the potential that these places have, to reconcile the society. The gates of Beerta Nabada, for example, certainly do not favour social inclusion and contribute at least in part to a greater perception of insecurity where being outside of this oasis of peace, is considered more dangerous than stay inside of it. Mogadishu was once characterised by wide green and organised spaces, spaces that have been lost during the many years of internal instability, these spaces, as well as encouraging (as already mentioned) the natural social interactions play a key role in the process of sustainable development, and  against the climate changes that all African cities are facing. A more sensible urban development policy focused on the inclusion of different social classes and groups with different identities could - and should - make the most of the natural capacity that public spaces can offer to overcome inequalities, especially in contexts, such as post-conflict ones, in which the population in addition to the need for security, also requires spaces of serene daily life and cohabitation. And parks, gardens and squares play a key role in this process.

About the author: 
Omar Degan is the Founder and Principal of Degan Omar Architecture and Design.
He holds a bachelors degree in Architecture and an MSc Hons in Architecture for Sustainability
Specialization in Habitat and cooperation (Emergency Architecture)


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