Harare is swamped, and struggling – ‘Densification’ planned for Zim capital

By Lenin Ndebele

BULAWAYO– HARARE, Zimbabwe’s capital, is the only destination for locals seeking fame and fortune but this has over the years created an urban sprawl, which the local authority is finding hard to deal with.

To the south, Bulawayo used to be the country’s industrial hub but the mills and production lines have gone quiet. Some of the companies relocated to Harare.

The lean economic spell has also turned Mutare, to the east -whose timber provided newsprint for the country’s newspapers – into a ghost town.

The lack of job and business opportunities in the smaller cities and towns has driven hundreds of thousands of people to Harare – all hoping for a slice of the city’s flickering economic promise.

The resultant urban sprawl, and its cousins – overcrowding, uncontrolled street vending, chaotic transport system, slums, pressure on water supply and sewerage management have all combined to give Harare its lowest ranking yet on the international destination of choice survey.

The Economist Intelligence Unit report, which ranks the best and worst cities to live in the world, ranked the opposition-run city eighth on the top 10 list of worst cities to live.

Harare has an estimated population of 2.1 million people, according to the last census conducted in 2012.

Economist Stephen Dlamini attributes the city’s urban sprawl to poor planning.

“The population is huge. Haphazard and unplanned growth of the urban area as well as a desperate lack of infrastructure are the main causes of Harare’s problems,” he said.

Some cities across Africa have been described as “marvels of dysfunction”, luckily Harare is not yet there and moves to expand the city to accommodate the multitudes have hit a brick wall because areas surrounding the city under rural district councils do not want to be swallowed.

But it is a matter of time before they are reluctantly assimilated into the capital city. For now, it’s government policy that no city should expand before 2018.

President Robert Mugabe told Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere that while he welcomed plans to build self-contained new towns around the major cities, care must be exercised on the size of the land given to individuals.

Mugabe said: “I am reliably informed that plans are afoot to pilot the concept at Chishawasha B in Harare, Nyatsime area in Manyame Rural District Council, Knock Mallock in Norton and Umvutsha in Bulawayo.

These schemes indeed require bulk off-site infrastructure, which presents investment opportunities, in addition to onsite infrastructure and actual housing construction.

“The government is also making efforts to identify and acquire additional land for urban expansion. Since land is a finite resource, it is crucial for us to explore attendant ways of curbing urban sprawl, by adopting high rise buildings which accommodate greater population densities.”

While waiting for the green light to push out its boundaries, Harare is taking up Mugabe’s counsel.

“Right now we’re working on a densification model to absorb the growing population,” said the city’s chief planner, Samuel Nyabeze.

The densification Nyabeze is talking about will see high rise residential and commercial buildings dominate the Harare skyline.

“It’s short-sighted for any modern city to think in the long run it can sustain anything more than compact lifestyles,” says Durban-based architect, Mhelo Sibindi.

Compact lifestyles, though, do not always mean high rise buildings.

Tokyo in Japan, which is home to over 13 million people, is an example of positive densification with a small proportion of high rise construction.

New Jersey is the densest state in the United States and it is entirely suburban.

“Dense doesn’t mean higher, it means being better organised,” says Jonathan D Solomon, Assistant Professor of Architecture at Hong Kong University. “When you fill in vacant lots around the city with low rise buildings, you increase density and also link broken communities together. In doing so you increase both environmental and social sustainability. We have the ability to build all these different structures.”

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