Ahmad Zaki did not come from Kabul to Buffalo for his urban planning studies because of the cities’ resemblance to each other. There isn’t really any.
The capital of Afghanistan is thousands of years old, more than a mile above sea level and straddles a mountain range. Buffalo has yet to celebrate its 200th birthday as a city, is comfortably flat and overlooks one of the world’s great fresh water lakes.
And then there are those other differences.
“So, Buffalo was burned to the ground perhaps one time,” Zaki said, referring to the British attack during the War of 1812. It has had 200 years to recover. “Kabul has been in war for almost three decades.”
The civil war in the 1990s killed more than tens of thousands of city residents and mujahedeen fighters nearly demolished Kabul, leaving a badly battered infrastructure that was ill-prepared for the exponential expansion of its population that came next. Kabul became an oasis of relative safety after NATO troops took war against al Qaida into the Afghan countryside. Estimates are that, in the last 10 years, Kabul grew from a city of about 500,000 people to one of 5 million people, many of them refugees.
No one planned for that, but that is the Kabul that Zaki, 28, will return to in the spring when he concludes his two years as a Fulbright Scholar at the University at Buffalo. In UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, he has been studying the coursework, and also how a university urban planning department functions.
He’ll use that knowledge to get an undergraduate program in urban planning started at Kabul University, where he already is a professor of architecture.
The Fulbright opportunity was important enough to the young scholar that he came to the United States with barely a day’s notice. He was not expecting such a quick turnaround, and assumes the urgency had something to do with security precautions.
“This was the hardest problem I ever had,” Zaki said during an interview in a student lounge at UB. “They called me just one day beforehand for the predeparture orientation, and at the end of that I was told I was leaving the next day … It was ‘Here’s the tickets,’ and I had a job, a wife …”.
It was now or never – if he didn’t go, he would lose the Fulbright. So, in spring of 2012, he came to the United States.
The decision to come here could seem incomprehensible to people in comfortable circumstances, but for Zaki, there was not really a choice.
“A person is responsible to more than just family,” he said. “There is his community – and his country.”
At home, in Afghanistan, people are tiring of being what he calls “victims of the political process.”
“You will see, even in young boys, they want to do something for their country,” he said. “It is not just me. I am one of millions who want to do something. Everyone wants a peaceful life.”
It is a markedly different attitude from what he sees around him here.
“In the United States, students think of their own lives and futures. For my students, it is about their country. They know if they don’t solve these problems, there is nothing. It is a strong factor to giving them hope.”
The world view
Kabul is not the only city in Asia facing rapid, ungoverned growth, which is one reason Ernest Sternberg, chairman of UB’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, believes the program here is a good fit for Zaki.
“We have the most international of any university planning program in the country,” Sternberg said. The degree program attracts students from China, India, Japan, Iran – all countries with urban areas seeing a massive influx of population, with its attendant problems of pollution, overwhelmed transportation systems and infrastructure inadequacies.
“None of our faculty are experts in Afghanistan, but we have an appreciation of that area and Asia generally,” Sternberg said. “What a real, good program should teach is solving complex planning problems under various political conditions, and that’s what I think we’re doing here.”
Asked to theorize what Kabul, and its planners, will be encountering in the next few years, Sternberg said, “I expect that Professor Zaki will likely face serious squatter problems, and those could be compounded by conflicts with tribal groups that have a presence in the city now.”
Some issues will be difficult, if not impossible, to address any time soon, but he said, “There are enormous things to be accomplished. The positive is, with Ahmad’s leadership – he’s one of a group of five or six studying this – they can start their own planning program in Kabul.”
Back home, a colleague of Zaki’s at Kabul University, is hopeful that by training more students, they will have more success in the city. Jamshid Habib, deputy head of the school’s architecture department, told UB that the current lack of training in Afghanistan “deteriorates urban planning and policy-making processes not only in Kabul but all over the country.”
Zaki agrees. Although Kabul has, when possible, been working from a master plan devised in the early 1900s, years of conflict and changing times have overrun its usefulness.
“Every structure was damaged in the 1990s; everyone had fled,” Zaki said. “Most of the buildings were burned; all documentation (about utilities and infrastructure) was lost.”
“While the rest of the world was speeding forward, we were going back 100 years.”
Regaining what was lost will take planning and money, and even when they have the first, the last will be hard to come by.
“In our country, people still are not paying taxes for the government,” Zaki said. “The funding comes from other agencies, international sources, the U.S., but it does not find its way to the people so easily.”
So, in addition to plotting water lines, transportation routes and treatment systems, planners have a possibly insurmountable PR job ahead of them.
“We will have to get people to buy into the idea of contributing to the common good,” Zaki said.
That is one of the greatest challenges facing those in authority, he said, but, “We have to do it.”
The alternative? That is what they have now. In an article published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies, Zaki’s colleague Habib wrote that “alien intervention and weak government are today leading Kabul to culturally and socially hostile and unsustainable urban life.”
The article describes a city fractured by differences in ethnicity and religion, and in divisions of income and lifestyle, with the rich considering the poor a burden, and the poor at times resorting to crime to survive. It is, he writes, “an unfriendly, uncooperative and perhaps a treacherous environment.”
What he, Zaki and others will be faced with is integrating Kabul’s many factions, to create from sprawling slums and the guarded enclaves of the rich a livable city that considers its differences to be its strength, not a cause for anarchy.
“If I didn’t have faith I could change things, I wouldn’t be here,” is how Zaki puts it.
Even small improvements would be welcome as the list of Kabul’s problems grows ever longer. Makeshift homes pop up on any vacant spot, taking over parkland and green spaces, and with no utilities, contributing smoke from wood fires to the permanent brown cloud of dust and pollution that hangs over the city. Water lines and sewage systems are nonexistent in many areas, and insufficient in others. Roads are underpaved and overused, and choked with traffic.
“Ninety to 95 percent of the city is new, and there is no planning,” Zaki said. “High rise apartments are built overlooking private homes, styles brought from the Mideast and neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, don’t work in Kabul, which is freezing in the winter.
“It’s an urban zoo.”
Looking at Buffalo
Though focused on his home and country, as an architect Zaki can’t help noticing aspects of his host city that also could benefit from planning adjustments.
“There is a lot of potential in the city,” Zaki says of Buffalo. “But things are too hard to do.”
While Kabul has little or no regulation, the opposite seems to be true here, he said.
“There are too many permits and too many obstacles. The process here seems to take forever, compared with other cities I have seen in this country.”
As a UB student, he echoes an observation made by others before him, that the North Campus can feel isolated from the urban core, and he believes the entire community could have a wider view toward the future.
“There aren’t the facilities, the necessary things to appeal to the younger generation, to attract them and to keep the students here,” he said.
Still, he says, he has made a lot of friends, and “I feel strongly tied to this place. I am beginning to understand Buffalo.”
The work ahead
Heading into his final semester, Zaki is excited about putting what he has learned to work back home.
“We are a good team,” he said of himself and the other planners, some of them also Fulbright recipients.
They will face challenges from the population and from the authorities who hold the power and the purse strings over what has a chance of getting done.
“They don’t hear. They don’t hear each other,” Zaki said of the disparate factions. “And even if you have the ideas, it is all top down. You don’t have the authority.”
And there are other considerations.
People working to improve the city are not always understood, Zaki said. Any perception of outside influence, no matter how inaccurate, can get a person labeled.
It is something he will face when he gets back home. “People know where I am and what I am doing.”
For now, he is focused on learning as much as he can from his professors and fellow students, and seeing as much of the country as possible. Winter break plans included a road trip to New York and Washington, D.C., which Zaki was interested in because, like Buffalo, it is one of the very few planned cities still following its original design.
This will inspire him, he said, when he and his colleagues try to create “a harmony of use” in their own capital, where the air is cleaner, the roads lead to somewhere and the people work together.
In the end, he said, “I hope, when I look back, I will feel I have done a good job.”