Debunking New Urbanism in Harare

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Harare is evidencing a new wave of urbanisation and urban development in the past five years, characterised as New Urbanism, but is it so?  If it is, how effective is its application in Harare?. The Herald of September 12 2011 featured an article New Urbanism the way to go which explained and justified the new pattern in development as a model of best practice. Relating to recent urban development as New Urbanism in its aspiration to become a world-class city by 2025, Harare faces challenges in designing and executing New Urbanism approach.

New Urbanism is an urban planning movement started in United States after the peaking of oil, which led to the choking of suburbanisation.  As a sustainable model for planning 21st century cities, the approach is adopted globally as best practice. New urbanism has ten principles that form the pillars of urban sustainability, shown in tab below:

Ten Principles of New Urbanism
Excepts of Principles from the CNU Charter

  1. Walkability Most services within 10 minute walk of home and work
  2. Connectivity Interconnected street grid network spreads traffic and eases walkin
  3. Mixed-use and Diversity A mix of shops, offices, apartments, and homes on-site, neighbourhoods and blocks Diversity of people – of ages, income levels, cultures, and races
  4. Mixed-use housing types, sizes and prices in closer proximity
  5. Quality of Architecture and Urban Design Emphasis on beauty, aesthetics, human comfort, and creating a sense of place
  6. Traditional Neighbourhood Structure Importance of quality public realm; public open space designed as civic art
  7. Increased Density More buildings, houses, shops, and services closer together for ease of walking
  8. Green Transportation A network of high-quality trains connecting places & pedestrian friendly designs
  9. Sustainability Eco-friendly technologies, respect for ecology and value of natural systems
  10. Quality of Life Taken together these add up to a high quality of life well worth living Source: CNU Charter, 2005

Fragmented Principles in Harare

New urbanism has been adopted in cities in a comprehensive approach. Its principles are interconnected and complementary in functionality. Fragmenting the principles can create more challenges than it solves. Critical to note are the four principles of walkability, mixed use, densification, and green transportation. For example, densification without mass transit worsens traffic congestion; walkable communities without mixed use planning will increase pedestrian travel distance while mass transport system without densification causes transport inefficiency. The new urbanism principles in Harare nevertheless is fragmented in its application. As Harare seeks to address the urbanisation challenges of inner city decay, traffic congestion and urban sprawl comprehensiveness is vital in designing urban renewal projects. The current approach has led to the following challenges in New Urbanism application.

Mixed-Use Development and the risk of Land-use Downraiding

In 2014, City of Harare enacted Statutory Instrument 216 that allows commercial land uses in residential zones. Behind this was an increasing demand for commercial uses outside the Central Business District (CBD) due to rise of small to medium enterprises and decay of the inner city. As some commercial activities left CBD for office parks, other encroached the nearby residential zones including Avondale, Milton Park, Belvedere, Eastlea, Newlands and Highlands. Thus, the City of Harare expanded the CBD boundary to accommodate the expanding demand for commercial uses. Nevertheless, this was potrayed as mixed-use development in keeping with modern urban development trends.

Given the importance of strong regulatory instruments in mixed use planning, the loose regulation has led to land-use ‘downraiding’, where high-value land-uses (commercial) displaces the low-value land-uses (residential) for the urban periphery. These displaced residents are moving to the suburban areas creating further sprawl to the already problematic sprawl in Harare. In the end the degree of mix in the expanded CBD if remain unchecked creates more problem that it initially seek to address. This is evident for example the long-time proposed mixed use in Inner city through Local Development Plan 22 that covered the northern region of the CBD. Combined with economic turmoil the area’s residential allocation was overtaken by commercial uses and the remaining residential uses are in dilapidation.

Mass Transport: Mind the Distance mind the mix

Harare faces remarkable periodic traffic congestion challenges within its inner-city. Centralisation of commercial activities and unsustainability of the current mode of transport, commuter omnibuses are main factors to congestion. City of Harare has been embarking on proposals to address the congestion challenge by reintroducing the mass transport system of the conventional buses. There have been negotiations with an Indian company, Passenger Utility Transport Company (PUTC) to supply 500 65-seater buses worth US$58 million for the A1 Metro bus system. As one of the fundamental pillars of new urbanism, mass transit needs complement of mixed use planning and densification for it to be effective.  Mixed use determines the travel patterns of the urban residents. Low mix of uses entail one-sided travel pattern as people travel to work and services all at once and conversely. Also a major cause of periodic congestion in Harare. Densification is also fundamental as density influences the efficiency of mass transport systems. Calibrated effectively, mixed-use planning and densification shortens or eliminate travel trip of urban residents.

The proposal for mass transit system in Harare is happening at the peaking of urban decay of the inner city. The inner-city has been characterised by commercial uses leaving for the nearby residential suburbs a process explained earlier and interpreted as new urbanism but rather not. Some of the vacuum left by these commercial uses have been replaced by the retail sector, informal trading. In adopting mass transit system, demographic analysis is key to map out the travel behaviour and likely patterns. On the current state of the inner-city, adopting mass transit in isolation of other principles entail providing mass transit to the informal economy and the retail sector. This demography has different travel patterns compared to the formal and business sector’s travel behaviour which inner city mass transit is designed on by default.  Contextualisation of the mass transit system is fundamental for green transportation projects to be effective especially in a volatile economic environment.

The Challenges Densification faces

Several initiatives and plans to densify Harare have not materialised the way they have been planned. Particularly attributed to the economic challenges for densification to be financially viable, the construction industry has been hit hard. Example is the redevelopment of the Kopje area. Efforts to densify the area led to the success of two high-rise buildings including Kopje Plaza and surrounded by dilapidated buildings as well as informal practices.  As new urbanism is being used to revitalise the city, incentives are necessary to promoted densification as well as regulatory adjustment to facilitate densification.

New Urbanism and Participatory Planning

One of the objectives of New Urbanism to concretise the sense of community in urban neighbourhood. Citizen participation plays pivotal role in determining the concerns of the urban community. Looking at Harare, the participation side requires a shift. The earlier featured article illustrated how concerns and objections of urban residents were disregarded as the City of Harare paved way for the commercial uses in residential areas in the name of modern trends. Given that the objections that were raised indicated an imbalance in mix of uses, urban planners proceed to follow market forces and jeopardise the sense of community in these zones.

Which way forward?

As the city of Harare proceeds in the initiatives to accommodate the increasing urban demands, comprehensiveness in design of its plans is pivotal. Blueprinting best practice models requires contextualisation and New Urbanism is about context. The four principles if adopted in fragmentation can set the city on a retrogressive path as it urbanises. Thus, participatory planning and external shock proofing of the development plans plays a pivotal role in determining the success of the urban development interventions. It is pivotal to remember that while New Urbanism and Smart growth (twins separated at birth) are for the same outcome, new urbanism is conceived as private sector and market driven. Smart growth is government policy oriented in enactment of regulatory frameworks. Harare should determine its priorities and set its comprehensive approach.

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzendahttps://archimuzenda.com
Archimedes Muzenda is an urbanist who researches on urban development and land use planning in Sub Saharan Africa. His thematic areas of research include new towns development, urban redevelopment, urban transport and regional integration. He is a Senior Research Associate at the African Urban Institute.

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