Toponomic Urbanism |  Bumbogo, Designing A Uniquely Rwandan Urban Morphology

Guest contribution by Leah Libsekal

The global South and particularly the African continent, is facing an incredible challenge in the form of urban growth.  As much as this presents its own slew of challenges, therein also lies opportunity for design innovation and the development of an urban morphology that no doubt should be practical, but vitally embraces cultural and context sensitivity.

Rwanda, like much of the developing world faces the reality that its growing populace requires adequate housing, infrastructure, services and employment opportunities.  Unique among these nations, it is densely populated without being highly urbanised. However, the demographic pressure of growing urbanisation is a source of justifiable concern for all levels of Rwandan government.

From 1991 to 2002, the urban population tripled despite the impact of the gruesome 1994 genocide. Forecasts suggest that by 2020, 30% of Rwanda’s population is expected to be living in urban areas.  With this staggering realisation the Rwandan government embarked on Vision 2020,  a plan to set its course and vision for long-term development. Markedly, this has opened up important dialogue allowing for ideation looking to address the issues facing a nation transitioning to greater urbanity.

diagram | click to enlarge  


The Rwanda-based design firm George Pericles are part of the emerging next generation of thinkers and designers working to shape the urban form and future of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and beyond.  Indeed, with rapid urbanisation the need for innovative ideas rooted in Rwandan culture, traditions and context provides opportunity for practical and locally appropriate solutions in the quest for infrastructure development. Particularly in such a critical moment as this, with the rise in new developments and neighbourhoods in cities such as Kigali that are built with little to no consideration of Rwandan context, George Pericles has raised the critique that these solutions fail to meet the local populace’s everyday needs but will also give rise to more problems in the future. Rather than applying a tabula rasa, they are looking to blend culture and advanced technologies to create a progressive urban fabric importing rural cultural values where applicable.

In their latest project  Bumbogo Rwanda : Toponymic Urbanism design office George Pericles have taken up this challenge. They propose an innovative if not ambitious project designed to produce an adaptable future matrix that responds to both economic and cultural factors beginning with Kigali.

Bumbogo decries the superimposition of a master plan or vision from elsewhere, a cardinal tenet. As such the urban matrix uses building blocks that blend regional culture with advanced technologies to produce a vision for an up-to-date urban fabric.  To this end, the “Umurenge” or smallest administrative subdivision in Rwandan governance plays an integral role to provide basic services such as water, education, health care and markets. From there George Pericles envision a notion they term ‘Fair-Urbanism.’ Essentially a joint public and private cooperative structure employed to built urban infrastructure such as roads, water and waste collection systems. In the case of Addis Ababa, such local initiatives have been in operation where residents of a given neighbourhood would cooperate to pave local ‘secondary’ roads. With ideas such as this, Guilliame Sardin, lead designer behind the project affirms his point stating that


Africa needs to develop its own urbanity, based on each component of its culture; one that is turned towards the future and responds to people’s needs without denying its African roots – Guilliame Sardin


Toponomy, one of the project’s keystones is also a revelatory tool providing cues and descriptors to consider a given location’s character and cultural significance.  Rwanda itself means ‘the infinite land ’to which its topography bears witness. With a landscape constructed of successive hills, this topographical character is said to provide a sense of familiarity, closeness, belonging and place for every Rwandan, irrespective of location.  Kigali means ‘a wide view’ and from its vantage at Mt. Kigali, provides vistas of the surrounding environ.

Building on the rhizomatic nature of the hill topography surrounding and forming Kigali known as “Umusozi”,  Bumbogo uses an “archipelago form” for the city.  Reflecting the clustered nature of the rhizome, the emerging concept for the urban and built form is not a uni-centered city, but one that creates a sense of belonging of all the inhabitants of Rwanda. This foundational matrix takes its shape from the umusozi and the importance of the viewscapes generated.

Bumbogo, the name from which this project was titled,  a hill in the Gasabo district of Kigali is expected to absorb the new urban populace. George Pericles propose their approach for this locale, beginning with the central plaza concept. Identified as the Juru or Sky Plaza, this space is located at the highest point on the hill, and connects to the surround hills, creating vistas and connections to the larger metropolis of Kigali.

The Bumbogo prototype includes a housing form that is scalable and evolutionary. Referencing the notion that the built form must respond to current needs such as  affordable housing, and must also be relevant for a wealthier and more developed future.  To address current needs, the built form accommodates multiple tenants, however with time the same form can be adapted into a single family home.

Bumbogo maybe more conceptual than actionable. Nevertheless, it stands as a unique and inspired development on how to begin to address urban development in Rwanda but similarly for many other regions in the continent that face similar challenges such as Addis Ababa. Bumbogo even hints to fractal self-organisation theory present throughout much of  traditional African design, and if it indeed employs such theory may ultimately imbue the new urban fabric with qualities authentically African. It  has the potential to impact urban morphology across many cultures as it highlights the importance of locally sensitive approaches to urban design and form. This is not a new idea; for example recent architecture in the community of Whistler, BC (Canada) has payed homage to the indigenous inhabitants of the area,  the people of the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations. Designed in the forms of a Squamish Longhouse and Lil’wat Istken (earthen dwelling with fire pit), the the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler was created by the Squamish and Lil’wat people to share their living cultures with the world.  In similar fashion, George Pericles’ approach creates a process than can be used to produce urban spaces reflective of the cultural context in which they are situated, and that is inspiring.

Bumbogo, Agricultural park view.


Rwanda | Doing our part to combat immappancy


Written by Leah Libsekal.



Guilliame Sardin and Anaïs LeGrandis make up the award winning design team of  George Pericles. A think tank run by multi-disciplinary designers based in Paris, Kigali and Shanghai.The Bumbogo Project was awarded 2nd Prize at the Ideas competition “Experimental Urban Area for Africa” sponsored by the Fondazione Banco di Sicilia.

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All images courtesy of George Pericles.


Guest Contributor

Leah Libsekal is a professional planner focused on transportation and other infrastructure elements of the urban environment. In addition she chairs a design panel which reviews development proposals for a First Nation community in Vancouver, BC.


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