New Country, New Capital, New Problems

South Sudan's initial plans for a capital city are cause for concern

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Southern Sudanese ride a bus in Juba as they chant slogans in support of southern independence. (REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya)

The city of Juba has long been South Sudan’s cultural and political center, so it was seen as the obvious choice to play capital when South Sudan became the world’s newest independent country in July. But the hectic, crowded, and disordered urban form of Juba caused the new country's leadership to look beyond its borders for a better functioning capital city. They couldn't find one, so they're building one from scratch.

Located near the geographic center of the country, an area known as Ramciel has been chosen as the site of the new capital. Currently inhabited by pastoralist crop cultivators, the site is essentially undeveloped. The decision was formally approved at a Sept. 2 meeting of the new government’s Council of Ministers. Leaders of the former rebel group that has since assumed power in the country have had their eyes on Ramciel since 2005. Locals there and the Lakes state government have offered the land for the construction of the new capital. The government has enlisted the state developer of South Korea to help plan and build the new capital, to be known as Ramciel Union.

Building a new capital means leaving behind the old, which many in the government are highly anticipating. Seen as limited by its infrastructure and crippled by a disordered development pattern, Juba’s population has been growing quickly. Between 2005 and 2010 alone, the city’s population doubled to more than 500,000. But amid that growth, the city’s jurisdiction has been limited to a small area that has struggled to accommodate the rising population. The Government of South Sudan has been unable to come to an agreement with the Central Equatoria state authority over the city and its surrounding areas, now controlled by the Bari ethnic group. The group fears that allowing the city to spread will mean the continued disintegration of their specific cultural lifestyle as new groups and communities move into their traditional homeland. The city of Juba, they feel, has spread far enough into their territory.

The government didn’t want to deal with the legal headache of acquiring land, removing people from their property and relocating them, so ditching Juba offered an easier solution. A report on the prospect of moving the capital also highlights the fact that re-planning and re-building Juba would be far more expensive than starting from scratch.

The new capital of South Sudan represents the promise of this new nation, but its early designs also recall the mistakes of the recent past of citymaking. With broad streets and far-scattered blocks of development, a model of the proposed design has a not-so-subtle Washington D.C. feel to it, but its sprawling low density more closely resembles an office park in suburban Houston. And maybe that's the point. While this design isn't final, it has a decidedly Western flavor. The only trouble is that it's one that's long been out of favor in the West.

Officials from the Government of South Sudan recently released a report calling for "the creation of a modern City planned for 200 years with absolute flexibility to observe any population growth and technological advancements." But building cities from scratch is a problematic endeavor with long-term impacts, from suburban America to Brasilia to the overnight megacities of China. The spread-out, modern-seeming, car-oriented city plan Southern Sudan officials are currently pushing forward is exactly the sort of city that planners around the world are now looking at as an example not to follow.

And this sort of planning isn't just evident in the proposed capital. There are also plans for brand new city developments in South Sudan that will have street grids in the shape of rhinos, giraffes, and even a pineapple.

It's a unique situation to be creating a brand new country's brand new capital from dirt and bricks. There’s great potential for this new city to work in ways much better than Juba or Khartoum or any of the other cities in long-troubled Sudan. But there's also a great danger that the way it all comes together could create an urban mess even worse than Juba.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.