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
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
“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
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
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
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.