Kabul’s new mayor is putting his UB degree to the test

Five years ago, Ahmad Zaki Sarfaraz returned to Kabul with aspirations to rebuild his war-torn city—and the urban planning tools to do it.

Photo of Ahmad Zaki standing outside in Delaware Park in Buffalo with trees and lake in the background.

Ahmad Zaki, pictured at UB in 2014, says UB's program prepared him to address the social landscape of urban planning and, ultimately, to guide change in Kabul. Photo by Douglas Levere

by Rachel Teaman

Published December 17, 2019

Within a year, the Master of Urban Planning graduate—who came to UB as a professor of architecture at Kabul University—had helped establish the country’s first urban planning program. By 2016 he was directorate of urban development for Afghanistan's Ministry of Urban Development and Housing.  

Today, 34-year-old Zaki is a year into his tenure as appointed mayor of Kabul, where he works to manage the effects of rapid urbanization, implement a 15-year planning framework and maintain order amid daily threats of violence from an escalating civil war.

“I’m trying to get it done,” says Zaki, acknowledging the tall order to a crowd of students, faculty and community members who gathered recently in UB’s Hayes Hall to hear the alumnus speak.

Indeed, Afghanistan’s capital city holds every problem an urban planner studies—in crisis proportions.

Kabul is bursting at the seams with a flood of returning refugees and displaced rural Afghans who have nearly tripled the city’s population from 1.5 million in 2001 to more than 4 million today. Over 70 percent of the city is informally developed, a disorganized system of streets and dwellings without access to basic services, from sanitation to electricity to transit. Newcomers scrape for jobs in an emerging economy where street vending is a major source of employment. Meanwhile, threats of bombings and attacks from a decades-long civil war hang over citizens every day.

At times, the day-to-day crises can overwhelm the city’s leadership. Still, Zaki, who visited Buffalo in October as UB’s 2019 Ibrahim and Viviane Jammal Fellow in International Planning, keeps his gaze fixed forward, convinced that sound urban planning ultimately will reinforce economic stability and restore the 3,500-year-old city once known for its tree-lined boulevards, grand gardens and elegant palaces.

First, Zaki will need to rein in 30 years of informal development tied to an era of violent insurgency, devastating civil war and a diaspora of historic proportions.

In present day Kabul, illegal settlements can emerge within days, swallowing farmland and scaling the Hindu Kush Mountains that surround the city. Dirt paths between fields turn into city streets, too narrow to access for services, prone to congestion, and easily flooded to levels that keep children home from school. Demand for housing has created an affordability crisis.

“From the mountains to open spaces to parks to agricultural land, this has been a totally new era of development,” Zaki says.

A plan for the future

Until recently, the city lacked a proper or actionable plan—and the leadership—to manage such rampant growth.

When he assumed office in February 2019, Zaki inherited a broken municipal government beset by corruption, eroded public trust and the absence of any urban planning capacity. Since then, Zaki has made what some would call brazen moves to rid the office of corruptive influences while building the largest ever planning staff in the city’s history. In addition to leadership positions in city planning and informal development management, Zaki has brought on 30 new staff in urban planning and design, many recent graduates of Kabul University’s new program.

Zaki also has a plan. The Kabul Urban Design Framework is a 15-year blueprint for the city’s development shepherded by President Ashraf Ghani and led by Zaki during his tenure as the director of urban development. It was endorsed in 2018, just a few months before Zaki took office as mayor.

Crafted in consultation with Boston-based design firm Sasaki Associates, the planning framework sets city-wide urban design guidelines and employs a corridor-based approach to development, positioning Kabul’s historic boulevards as loci for improvements to infrastructure, transit and housing, and economic development.

Zaki’s first order of business has been to operationalize a series of quick wins to restore trust in city government–digging roadside drainage ditches to manage flooding, greening the city through public space development and pocket parks, upgrading roundabouts to manage traffic, and constructing walking and biking trails. “The goal is to change the face of the city and get the trust of the community back,” he says.

At the same time he is laying the groundwork for sweeping structural change. The first buses of a city-wide rapid transit system will go online next year, part of a plan to put 75% of the population within a 10-minute walk to mass transit. Development regulations will create standards for safety and accessibility and encourage use of traditional Afghan architecture and local materials.

“The trauma of this way of living doesn’t give you the luxury to think about these things.”

To find space for transit and infrastructure development Zaki is exploring “flat-for-land” policies that would move citizens from informal settlements to high-density developments. A system of cable cars could make emerging mountainside settlements more accessible. “We have to consider how we will house the next two million,” says Zaki.

Cultural and ecological preservation are also key tenets of the plan. Kabul is next to last among developing cities for access to open space. An effort to plant thousands of trees is underway while the city is taking new steps to restore historic public gardens that date back to the 16th century. This year the city reopened the historic Darul Aman Palace after it was nearly destroyed in the war.

Zaki and his team are tending to the social fabric of Kabul with new investment in women’s centers, job training and literacy programs. Farmland protection along with support for neighborhood bazaars will reinforce access to healthy food.

A subtler challenge is getting the community involved. With a history of foreign occupation, Kabul residents aren’t accustomed to having agency in urban policy. And daily threats to security keep most from looking too far into the horizon.

“The trauma of this way of living doesn’t give you the luxury to think about these things,” says Zaki, adding that the impact of a recent explosion shattered the windows of his home and hurtled his young son out of his bed.

“But we are starting to think differently.”

A dream for change fulfilled

Zaki is thankful for his training at UB, which he says prepared him to address the social landscape of urban planning. “When I came to UB I found myself surrounded by subjects like social sciences, environmental issues, ecology. It widened my perspective and prepared me to look at things from different angles.”

His quest for knowledge continues. Zaki has traveled around the world, from Singapore to Ankara to Medellin, Columbia (a city nearly as mountainous as Kabul), in search of lessons to bring back to Kabul. He finds inspiration in the city’s legacy as the oldest in the world and a crossroads for Eastern Europe, South Asia and the Middle East. Such history has brought war but also great wealth and aspirations in city-building. Kabul’s first modern urban plan, developed by King Amanullah Khan in the 1920s, laid out the network of grand boulevards, parks and palaces that now frame the city’s present-day plan.

While in Buffalo, Zaki met with UB urban planning students to share his story and learn about the program's latest developments. He also made a trip to Buffalo's City Hall to meet with Mayor Byron Brown and his planning team and tour the city’s recycling plant for insights on waste management, a key challenge in Kabul. Of his return to UB and Buffalo—his first since graduating—Zaki says: “It recharges me, and gives me energy to go back and work hard.”

While he acknowledges the road ahead will be long, and already has involved a great deal of sacrifice, Zaki says he’s always been ready.

“I have always dreamed of change,” he says. “Nothing gives me more pleasure than to lead change and development for my city."