Somaliland’s cities are vibrant and full of life and growth; why are the streets so dangerous? What do we need to do to make sure that people can walk and drive without fear?

My grandmother fled the civil unrest between Somalia and Somaliland as a single mom, arrived in Canada as a refugee and finally saved enough money to move back to Somaliland to build a nice little house near the downtown core of Hargeisa a few years ago. Yet, she can’t walk over to her friends’ houses nearby or go to the small store at the end of her street by herself without being seriously afraid for her safety. She has to wait to have someone walk with her and drive her to her destination.

Hargeisa prides itself in being a city where one can walk and drive around freely without fear of being attacked by Al-Shabaab. The people of Somaliland deserve recognition for their commitment to peace and safety. However, Al-Shabaab is not the reason she’s afraid to leave her house alone. Any family in Burco, Hargeisa, Berbera, or any of the larger cities can tell you about an even more dire threat to people’s safety in Somaliland, a seemingly innocent part of daily life with which we’re all familiar: its roads.

As an urban planner who loves the vibrant city of Hargeisa and proudly calls Somaliland her ancestral home, the dangerously unregulated and poorly designed roads of Somaliland’s cities are of serious concern to me. We all know someone who’s barely escaped death on Somaliland’s roads, whether in a car crash, pedestrian accident, or the unnecessary crossing of the treacherous doox. Car-related deaths are an issue across the globe, but a vast majority of those occurring in Somaliland are so obviously preventable that it breaks my heart to know how many people we lose to these avoidable situations.

Somaliland Chronicle has already highlighted the dangers of Somaliland’s unregulated vehicles and road systems in their recent transportation-related series.  I’d like to take the conversation further and discuss the dangers of walking and driving on Somaliland’s streets, particularly those in Hargeisa, and provide some suggestions for solutions from an urban planner’s perspective. As is the case with all planning-related issues, the transportation problems facing Somaliland are all interconnected. A detailed plan to resolve these issues would require more than just one guest writer on Somaliland Chronicle, but I’d like to briefly discuss two related-issues that stand out to me – the lack of pedestrian infrastructure and the general inadequate planning of streets in Somaliland – and potential opportunity for working on Somaliland’s streets in the future.

It’s my belief that a significant amount of the issues faced by Somaliland and its cities can trace their roots back to the lack of planning and transparent governance. However, this article is by no means a push for the implementation of an active city planning department or zoning ordinances. Whether intentionally or not, outdated, Euclidean zoning ordinances have led to racial segregation, dependence on automobiles, weak civic environments, and environmental degradation in the United States and across the world. Somaliland needs to put some foundations in place and seriously consider participatory planning practices before it embarks on that journey.  

Lack of Pedestrian-Friendly Roads

One of the areas where the lack of planning and forethought in Somaliland’s roads by local governments manifest is the pedestrian infrastructure – or lack thereof. As far as I know, there are no sidewalks in Hargeisa that are accessible by all people, actually get people where they need to go, and have all the “amenities”, such as tactile warning strips, ramps, protection from vehicles and street furniture, that sidewalks should have.

Of course, the roads in Somaliland themselves are not in good shape for vehicle use and that is a regular topic of discussion. However, it seems that everyone agrees that improvements to our transportation system are desperately needed. Despite the road improvements we’ve seen in Hargeisa in recent years, they have, unfortunately, not been comprehensive upgrades. Improvements for cars and trucks must also come with considerations for pedestrians: sidewalks, crosswalks, and street furniture. The majority of Hargeisa’s residents rely on walking as their mode of everyday transportation and without this infrastructure in place, the roads will never be safe for people to walk on. Pedestrian infrastructure must also be accessible for children, the elderly, and the disabled; this means that we must have curb ramps for anyone using assistive devices like wheelchairs or pulling a wheeled bag or trolley.

Related image
Same road for everyone and everything.

So, what can we do? I’d like to see the people that witness unnecessary injury and death on our roads demand that accessible pedestrian infrastructure is included when new road construction is being announced. Demand that your streets are safe for all residents to access. Let your representatives know that you want sidewalks with curb ramps and smooth, flat surfaces so that our grandmothers don’t have to worry about tripping.  It’s my hope that one day we’ll have the requirements for accessible and safe pedestrian-friendly spaces included in local government ordinances, but until that day comes, we must advocate for ourselves.

Trucks, Pedestrians, Cars and Donkeys All on the Same Street?

The lack of pedestrian infrastructure is just part of the overall absence of planning done in Somaliland. Another one of the more visible manifestations of this inadequacy that is immediately obvious to anyone travelling on Hargeisa’s streets, whether in a car or on foot, is the merging of large delivery trucks, personal vehicles, the biyoole delivering water with their donkey, and people on their way to school, work or the market all on the same, badly-planned street.

What sidewalks?

Another one of the more visible manifestations of this inadequacy that is immediately obvious to anyone travelling on Hargeisa’s streets, whether in a car or on foot, is the merging of large delivery trucks, personal vehicles, the biyoole delivering water with their donkey, and people on their way to school, work or the market all on the same, badly-planned street.

While this might come as a surprise for most people, from a modern transportation-planning POV, this mix of modes of transportation is wonderful and is crucial to sustainable urban development. However, if the parts of the street dedicated to each mode aren’t properly planned and safety provisions like barriers and traffic management aren’t incorporated, people will have to risk their lives on a daily basis, regardless of which mode they use.

Complete Streets for Hargeisa

So, how can we solve these problems and create safer, dynamic and welcoming streets? I’m advocating for the implementation of complete streets in Hargeisa and across Somaliland.

The United States Department of Transportation defines complete streets as “streets designed and operated to enable safe use and support mobility for all users. Those include people of all ages and abilities, regardless of whether they are travelling as drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, or public transportation riders.” (https://www.transportation.gov/mission/health/complete-streets)

Courtesy of Bikemore.net

In many other countries, the United States included, streets are designed to accommodate certain modes of transportation (for example, highways are designed for motor vehicles only; pedestrians and bicyclists are strictly forbidden, and understandably so). However, in Somaliland it’s a different story. The now-outdated zoning and transportation requirements that traditionally separated land uses and modes of transportation in the 1950’s and 60’s in the United States haven’t materialized in Somaliland. This kind of strict separation has led to sprawl and unsustainable energy consumption in the United States today; many municipalities are now working to remedy the mistakes of the past by incorporating complete streets and mixed-use zoning. I’m grateful that this is not a planning practice Somaliland has adopted, and I have hope that we can use the natural mix of transportation modes we have on our streets today as an advantage.

Some of the benefits of complete streets include:

  • Increase in pedestrian safety (by incorporating high visibility crosswalks, raised medians, and barriers between pedestrians on sidewalks and higher velocity modes of transportation,
  • Encouragement of bicycling and walking, helping people maintain more active lifestyles,
  • Promote social health through the transformation of sidewalks and storefront areas into accessible public spaces, and
  • Increase in economic vitality of storefronts on complete streets through the encouragement of safe, pedestrian activity on the street.

Potential for Somaliland’s Streets

Clearly, Somaliland needs comprehensive transportation planning. It also lacks the legally binding urban design and planning regulations needed to ensure safe, equitable design of its cities and streets. The issue seems daunting, but I am hopeful that with people demanding comprehensive street improvements that provide equal accessibility for all road users, our streets will become hubs for sustainable transportation that is welcoming to all people, regardless of age, disability or mode of transportation.

My ayeeyo survived being a single mom in Somalia in the 1970’s and 80s, genocidal attempts and resettlement in a foreign country. Hargeisa’s streets are now her biggest fear, and it’s heartbreaking to see how many older and disabled people’s lives are negatively affected by our lack of awareness and unwillingness to implement something as simple as pedestrian infrastructure in our largest city. Establishing complete streets to remedy the unsafe conditions, for both vehicles and pedestrians, on our streets is one way Somaliland can move forward.

About the Author Nasibah Elmi is a graduate student in an urban and regional planning masters program, specializing in environmental and land-use planning. She currently works on organic waste management and recycling programs for New York State. She has a B.A. in Globalization Studies and Spanish and is passionate about urban planning issues in the developing world. Her research interests include zoning reform, sustainable materials management, participatory politics, informal urban settlements, and environmental law and planning. In her free time, she enjoys reading historical fiction novels, hiking, baking, upcycling old materials into new décor and dabbling in hand embroidery. She can be reached at nasibah.elmi[at]gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints of Somaliland Chronicle and it’s staff. 

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