Tuesday, July 31, 2012

trees, streets and empires

Sudan Street, Addis Ababa
The history of Addis Ababa is intricately linked to its trees. The city was given its name, which means “New Flower,” by the Empress Taitu in what may have been a reference to the area’s plentiful mimosa trees. Yet within a few years of Emperor Menelik II making the city his permanent capital around 1887, the sovereign considered relocating because of the deforestation caused by felling trees for construction materials and firewood. The introduction of Australian eucalyptus trees in 1905, probably by two French diplomats, saved the city. Eucalyptus grows quickly in the Ethiopian highlands, and will grow a new trunk from the stump of a cut tree. It made an ideal resource for construction and firewood – a role it still serves – and has naturalized throughout much of the country. When the Italians made Addis Ababa the capital of their African empire in 1936, they brought a new set of trees with them.

Churchill Street, Addis Ababa
The Italians were interested in a different role for trees in urban centers. Like buildings and roads, trees served a representational function. The species they introduced included the pines and cypresses that were so closely associated with Rome, with the pines planted along roads and the cypresses used around monuments and ruins. They also planted palm trees that were meant to convey a general sense of “African-ness,” even though they were as exotic to Addis as they were in Italy.

Via Cristoforo Colombo, from Rome to EUR
Much as they did on new avenues in Rome and the new towns built in the nearby Pontine marshes, Italian planners lined the major roads of Addis Ababa and other East African cities with medians and borders planted with trees. The Italians had laid out similar roads in Libya and Eritrea, where the doum (or dum) palms they planted may also have represented the agricultural riches they hoped their colonies would bring.

Kazanchis neighborhood, Addis Ababa
(from Casa I.N.C.I.S., housing for Italian
state employees built between 1936 and 1941)
Here in Addis, the tree-planted medians and sidewalks on the major roads remain one of the best legacies of Italian urban planning. Ethiopian planners have continued the practice as the city has expanded, providing a necessary counterpoint to the dense throngs of automobiles, trucks and busses. The trees soften the city and give it a more comfortable scale, and they create habitat for flocks of colorful – and vocal – birds.

Marshall Tito Street, Addis Ababa

No comments:

Post a Comment