Geospatial Data for Better Urban Planning in Somalia

Geospatial Data for Better Urban Planning in Somalia

Somalia cities face an accelerated growth rate, and urbanization is a pressing and complex issue. As the most significant cities across the country provide more economic opportunities, relative security, and better living conditions, the country has witnessed several upheavals of rural-urban migration. Modest estimates of urbanization rates in the country suggest that the rural population is still higher than the urban population. However, the projected prospects of the urbanization rate are higher, and more than half of Somalis may be now living in cities.

Currently, we are facing various complex urban issues including:

  • Lack of or outdated infrastructures
  • Absence of proper urban planning
  • Inadequate housing and overcrowded living conditions
  • Poverty in slums and among Internally Displaced People (IDP)s, and
  • Inequality and unemployment.

With the absence of proper urban plans, new neighborhoods lack the necessary infrastructure. Furthermore, land conflicts bring another major hurdle that can renew violence and threaten progress towards stability and peace. Embedded into the spatial structure and urban form, clan segregation is not uncommon in many Somali cities. The so-called “Mogadishu Greenline” during the peak of the civil war is a vivid example of how conflicts historically shaped the urban form and clan hegemony in the city. The divided city of Galkayo is also another living example of segregation in Somalia cities.

Moreover, urban security is an integral part of the shaping of cities, especially in Mogadishu. Drawing lines between the known and unknown, Somali urban authorities, just like in other global cities, have recently enacted different security measures to cope with frequent terror attacks. Security, in the form of manned checkpoints, road closures, and Hesco barriers, is a daily reality that affects residents, and the securitization of the cities’ spatial dimensions and forms is taking place. The throttled streets of Mogadishu are vividly illustrated in this Somali adage, “Luuq-luuq maroow laasin laamigaas imaaaha,” which can roughly be translated into “The small path will lead you to a big road.”

Given the myriad complex urban issues we face today and the importance of urbanization for development, there is a need to devise proper urban planning mechanisms that fit the local context. Except for a few locations, most urban developments are unplanned. Mogadishu, for example, had initial Master plans during the colonial era, but due to its rapid urban growth in subsequent years, these plans have long been forgotten.

However, the absence of operational plans for the city does not mean that our cities are not being shaped through different mechanisms and processes. Central dynamics that run across the growth and unplanned expansion of large Somalia cities include the settlement of Internally Displaced People (IDPs), securitization, land grabbing, and other impacts of the civil war and protracted conflicts in some areas. Current urban developments and governance mechanisms create chaos and disorder for informal settlements that can prolong IDPs’ difficulties and exacerbate security challenges.

Somalia needs geospatial data for formal urban planning, which is the gateway to sustainable urban development. Without knowing where things are and the spatial pattern of settlements across space and time, Somalia’s public institutions cannot devise and guide urban environments.

Alternative Geospatial Data Sources

There is an increased awareness of the necessity of spatial data in understanding and devising solutions to the country’s complex urban issues. However, I often hear in conversations that we can use Google Maps and other platforms to solve our problems. Although Google has revolutionized the way we use maps and spatial data, the disparity of the data available in the world is vast. Countries like Somalia have only the minimum features available like roads, incomplete building footprints, and amenities.

After 30 years of protracted war, geospatial data in Somalia is scarce, incomplete, or at best not updated. Census data to carry out fundamental urban spatial analysis does not exist; there are also few other alternative data sources. The few datasets available are also in silos and can often not be accessed through international organizations or government agencies.

However, alternative geospatial data sources can be a good starting point for planning and an entry to healthy and sustainable future cities for the next generation. There are unprecedented high-resolution free data from earth observation satellites that can enable Somalia cities to gain insight and devise a data-driven approach to the pressing and complex urban issues.

 An aerial view of new buildings along the Afgooye road in Mogadishu – 2021An aerial view of new buildings along the Afgooye road in Mogadishu – 2021

Not only do we have earth observation data, but the widespread technological revolutions, including the cloud and artificial intelligence (AI), can help cities fill the gaps and create an alternative starting point for creating inexpensive geospatial data for their cities. Currently, we have estimated population datasets, automatic building footprints, and early warning systems for disasters through AI, machine learning, and earth observation data to help cities devise appropriate urban plans.

Another alternative that has worked well in less developed countries is crowdsourcing. OpenStreetMap is a leading platform that allows users to edit, create and modify features on a map. OpenStreetMap Dataset is entirely free to use for anyone and can be a catalyst to close the geospatial data gap in our urban centers.

Looking to the Future

Somali cities are experiencing exponential population growth and therefore require an innovative approach to deal with urban governance and development complexities. To devise a proper urban planning mechanism, we need to create alternative spatial data sources. Local governments and urban planning authorities should adopt Geospatial technologies and train their workforces in Geospatial analysis. Census data, for example, is a vast project and is very expensive. Alternative solutions include using earth observation data and artificial intelligence to understand spatial patterns, estimate the populations based on the urban footprint, manage slums effectively and devise a data-driven approach to our complex urban problems.

Abdishakur Hassan is an urban policy & service design fellow at Somali Public Agenda.
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