Araya Asfaw is a physics professor at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and a climate change activist who is working with the city of Addis Ababa to create a new municipal park system. Araya spearheaded the city’s 2,000-acre Gulele Botanic Garden, the first of its kind in Ethiopia, and founded the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Centre and Network. He also helped Addis Ababa join the 100 Resilient Cities network and was instrumental in establishing the Ethiopian Panel on Climate Change and the Ethiopia Climate Innovation Center.
On a recent visit to Seattle, Araya laid the groundwork for a partnership involving the University of Washington, the City of Seattle, Addis Ababa University, and Addis Ababa Metropolitan University to support resilience initiatives in both cities. Araya also met with Seattle Parks Foundation’s Thatcher Bailey. Here is an excerpt from their conversation.
Thatcher Bailey: You are leading the effort to create a park system in Addis Ababa, pretty much from scratch. How do you undertake a project like this for a city of 5 million people?
Araya Asfaw: It is a city of 5 million people now and will soon be a city of 10 million. And it is a city that has very little pubic green space. Rapid urbanization has brought with it enormous challenges, including growing numbers of slum dwellers, increased air pollution, inadequate basic services and infrastructure, and unplanned urban sprawl, which also make cities more vulnerable to disasters.
As outlined in the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, better urban planning and management are needed to make the world’s urban spaces more inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.
A complete park system in Addis Ababa will have multiple, critical benefits in addition to recreation. If managed properly, [the parks] will protect the watershed, which supplies fresh water for the growing population. They can prevent flooding, the number-one resilience challenge of the city. They will mitigate climate change by reducing CO2 emissions. They [will] provide employment opportunities for youth, reducing global migration.
TB: You make the case for parks as critical infrastructure that addresses some of the dire effects of urbanization, but I am still curious why the city was so receptive to your plans. You and your colleagues must be especially adept at politics and fundraising.
AA: We won the trust of the government and private donors through due diligence, good data, and professionalism. And a vision. Governments come and go, but they leave a legacy behind to remind us. We were able to convince officials at a high level to share and commit to our vision. Of course there were skeptics as well, who felt we were wasting valuable, scarce land that should have been used for development.
TB: I think to our readers you have taken on an inconceivable task. We sweat out building one park at a time here. How did you generate such momentum?
AA: In 2005, when I was the dean of science at Addis Ababa University, my colleagues and I managed to convince the mayor of Addis Ababa and the university president to establish a botanic garden for conservation, recreation, and education. This victory was the culmination of decades of advocacy on the part of many university colleagues. The city allocated nearly 2,000 acres of land along the watershed. Inspired by the commitment of the city and the university, the government of the Netherlands provided millions of dollars for the design and initial development of the garden.
This garden made a huge difference. It resulted in the chain of mountains surrounding the city being protected from development as green space. This created the momentum you ask about. It was so visible and popular that there is now great support for the city’s current commitment to develop 140 small, medium, and large parks, as well as a master plan to transform city riverbanks into green space.