Farmers, town planners and architects jointly build a town. A real life learning experience

July 03, 2013 | bit-wartung | SDC Experiences |


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Manuel FluryThe model town BuraNEST in Ethiopia is a learning project involving inhabitants, local masons, carpenters, female soil workers, and the planners and architects from Addis Ababa and Zurich. The blog post from Manuel Flury demonstrates that learning happens “on the job” “while doing” and that joint reflection and celebrating are important rituals in learning.

By Manuel Flury, SDC

Bura is an agricultural community and the center of one of more than 3000 municipalties (“kebele”) of the Amhara Region in the Western Highlands of Ethiopia. In Bura, Ethiopian and Swiss town planners and architects developed a model for a rural town.

What is now called Bura New Energy Self-Sufficient Town (BuraNEST) grew out of a model for rural towns (NESTown) that combines resource saving agriculture with high-density housing. The Vice President of the Region, HE Ato Ahmed Abtew, and the Director of the Amhara Rural and Urban Planning Institute, Wro Genet Egziabher, would like to develop Bura into a town providing basic services to its farmers. Together with Franz Oswald, Peter Schenker and Fasil Giorghis, Zegeye Cherenet – the Swiss and Ethiopian architects -, “they conceived the town to be a ‘workshop’ where its future inhabitants learn to build and develop their own town” as one of the initiator formulated.

                                                                                                                               BuraNEST Town Model  

A real life laboratory

Mid February 2013, during a one day workshop in Bahir Dar, at the shore of Lake Tana and the source of the mighty river Nile, the pioneers of the rural town project looked back on their experiences of initiating “their” project in Bura. They talked about “town factory”, “co-operative societies”, “earth, stone, wood, metal and waste”, “capacity building”, “savings and loans”, “urbanization as a process of societal transformation”.

Over the last five years, Bura has developed into a real life laboratory. Local masons, carpenters and mostly female soil workers developed and built, together with the architects, two storey model houses, from local materials, on-the-job. They did cutting-edge research on most appropriate constructions with the materials available in the vicinity. They tested the strengths of the buildings and formulated the standards to be applied by the future inhabitants that will build their houses themselves, organized in housing co-operatives.

A learning process

Learning how to plan and how to build a “kebele” centre was in the heads of the pioneers. That was their basic intention when in 2010 the foundation stone was laid. However, some few days after the festivities, the young and most enthusiastic Swiss architect that was supposed to run the work with the local people found the white painted foundation stone and the nicely inscribed marble plate on top of it demolished!
 This was a clear sign of discontent of the people. In his desperation, the young architect contacted the local orthodox priest. Through months long discussions the inhabitants finally decided to go ahead and they did so, unanimously, during a further, their own ceremony! BuraNEST became their vision and the young architect became one of them.

“BuraNEST as a model to learn from, a school to transfer knowledge and skills, a subject to test established rules and practices” – Zegaye Cherenet (EiABC)

Learning from the model town

The replication of this model was hotly debated in Bahir Dar. Contrary to previous intentions of a broad replication among the thousands of “kebeles” in Amhara, participants and pioneers agreed on the “model” character of BuraNEST. Interested people need to learn from this model coming to Bura and applying it to their own context and abilities back home. This reflects a major change of perception. Rapid and broad replication is liked by the Ethiopian administrators and leaders, transformation needs to happen instantly. The change in attitude reflects an understanding of learning going beyond purely applying technical standards but constituting a social process in a particular context.

What does the Bura story tell us?

• Change can be stimulated and facilitated by outsiders, but it cannot be managed other than by the concerned themselves. No organizational change can be prescribed unless the concerned subscribe to it and make it a project of their own. Business management talks about “acceptance creation” as a first phase of any change processes.
• Joint reflection and celebrating it are important rituals in learning. As social beings, humans need social gatherings to facilitate understanding and, most importantly, build trust.
• Learning does not take place in classrooms, it happens “on the job”, “while doing”. Internships, shadowing, twinning and job sharing arrangements are good approaches.
• Research is not an exclusive affair of scientific laboratories. Life itself is a laboratory, research can be placed in real life situations. “Recherche – action” has proven to be most valid in many development endeavours.
• Trust is key to any learning, first in the own abilities and skills, second in the strengths of the social group and third in the institution and organization within which we are active. -> Learning in times of organisational change

More about the BuraNEST project:

Architectural plans of BuraNEST 



Comments to“Farmers, town planners and architects jointly build a town. A real life learning experience”

  1. Thank you! An inspiring story! – One suggestion, if you are not doing it already: try to document this story well, especially in pictures. Hiring a local photograph might create the needed visuals that will support this story in the future.

    I liked the fact that one can see the model of the future settlement!

    (p.s. and then the Sharewebs should have “like” buttons. How else do you want to monitor reactions from your audience!)

  2. Nadia von Holzen says:

    Dear Manuel, I love your conclusion: “Joint reflection and celebrating it are important rituals in learning.” And you are a great storyteller!
    Thanks for sharing, Nadia

  3. Nadia von Holzen says:

    Hynek, we prefer comments above “like buttons”. A blog is conversation, so let’s comment; see our Briefing for Bloggers:
    You walk the talk already. Thanks for this!

  4. Manuel Flury says:

    Dear Hynek,
    I sympathise with your suggestion. However, would I had to involve a professional photographer I might not have written the post. The post was not planned in advance, the idea emerged while following the workshop and, later, reflecting on it. I was glad to find some photos to illustrate but, of course, this is not a “photo story”. But again, your suggestion is well taken!
    Dear Nadia, celebrating learning steps is imporant, more important than I thought previously! Now, I experience this ritual it myself!
    Best regards, Manuel


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