Dreams of a better Kabul bring Afghan scholar to U.S. to study urban planning

Ahmad Zaki, a young man, standing in a park.

Ahmad Zaki in Delaware Park in Buffalo. Zaki is studying urban planning at UB, and says that a lack of green space is one of many planning problems plaguing Kabul, his home city. Credit: Douglas Levere

Ahmad Zaki is among professors at Kabul University who hope to start what they believe will be their country’s first program in the field

Release Date: January 27, 2014

“Everything in (Kabul) is, literally, asking for attention: the poor transportation system, degraded and seriously disturbed environmental systems, poor water supply and drainage systems, lack of parks, green and recreational areas.”
Ahmad Zaki, master's student in urban planning
University at Buffalo

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Ahmad Zaki, a young man standing in a park

Ahmad Zaki in Delaware Park in Buffalo. Zaki, an architect and professor at Kabul University, is studying urban planning at UB. He says that a lack of green space is one of many planning problems plaguing Kabul. Credit: Douglas Levere

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Ahmad Zaki is a professor of architecture at Kabul University. But in Upstate New York, thousands of miles from home, he is filling a different role: that of a student of urban planning.

Zaki, 28, is in his second and final year of his master of urban planning program at the University at Buffalo. His plan is to bring what he learns back to Afghanistan to help start what may be the nation’s first urban planning program for undergraduates.

“If you see a picture of Kabul City, you’ll realize that the city is badly in need of urban planning expertise,” says Zaki, a Fulbright Scholar and architect by training.

“There are traffic jams everywhere. And when it rains, due to lack of a drainage system in place, many parts of the city become unwalkable and many roads get flooded,” he says. “Lack of an effective recycling and waste collection system, and lack of rules concerning population concentration, have made Kabul city one of the dirtiest cities in the world.”

Zaki says an estimated 85 percent of Kabul’s population lives in unplanned areas.

Houses have cropped up on top of parks, wiping out the city’s green space. Builders often construct multi-story edifices in residential neighborhoods — a practice that has degraded the privacy of residential yards, which  is problematic in Afghanistan because many women feel uncomfortable using outdoor spaces when people can watch them from above, Zaki says.

“Everything in the city is, literally, asking for attention: the poor transportation system, degraded  and seriously disturbed environmental systems, poor water supply and drainage systems, lack of parks, green and recreational areas,” he says. “One really feels sympathy for the city.”

The chaos is perhaps no surprise, given that Kabul has endured decades of civil strife and foreign occupation. Many parts of the city were bombed and rebuilt. More recently, the city has seen a huge influx of residents, with the population rising, by some estimates, from 500,000 to 5 million following the American invasion as Afghans fled unstable provinces for the capital, which was viewed as more secure.

Challenges will only increase as Kabul expands to accommodate even more migrants in coming decades, Zaki says.

At UB, Zaki has been particularly interested in learning about sanitation systems, says Ernest Sternberg, chair of UB’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning. “The question of how to dispose of waste safely was one of the first great problems of modern urban planning, and it remains one of the most important questions in developing countries today,” Sternberg says.

Sternberg describes Zaki as driven but modest. “Many teachers and peers at UB don’t know he is a professor back home in Kabul.”

But Afghanistan is never far from Zaki’s mind.

“I hope, after going back, I will be given the chance to serve my country,” said Zaki, whose wife and young daughter are still in Kabul. “Many people with an education have left due to security conditions and a lack of opportunity to work in positions in their fields where they can make a difference. But if everyone goes, who will be there to change things? I grew up in Afghanistan, and feel I owe a lot to her.”

Jamshid Habib, Zaki’s colleague and deputy head of the architecture department at Kabul University, says the lack of urban planning expertise in Afghanistan “deteriorates urban planning and policy-making processes not only in Kabul but all over the country.”

To prepare for his return to Afghanistan, Zaki has been studying how UB’s urban planning program structures its curriculum. He has also devoted time to learning about the role of urban planners as mediators — professionals who listen to the concerns of different stakeholders and draft development proposals that meet many people’s needs. This collaborative approach may be effective in Kabul, a city full of competing interests.

Zaki grew up in Logar Province, south of Kabul, and moved to the capital city about 10 years ago to study at Kabul University. After graduating with a degree in architecture, he accepted an invitation to join the school’s faculty, he says.

Outside of academia, Zaki has designed dozens of structures in Afghanistan, he says, including standard models for schools that could be built in many parts of the country.

Seeing his drawings come to life has been rewarding, but a single building can only do so much to improve the aesthetics and functionality of a city. That’s one reason he and his colleagues felt it was important to begin training young Afghans in urban planning.

Given the country’s instability, Zaki is uncertain how much he will able to contribute to making it a better place to live. But for now, his plan is to take what he learned in Buffalo back to Kabul, and do what he can to shape the future of the city he calls home.

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