Town planning in Harare needs to be thought through carefully with the last three decades, and especially the arrival of the internet, giving rise to opportunities, pressures, potentially conflicting needs, and the requirement for a great deal of thought on just what sort of city we all want.
There are no simple solutions, as the recent virtual seminar on the possibility of converting some high rise blocks in the city centre into residential accommodation shows, at the same time when a string of ad hoc decisions have already seen a majority of houses along the city’s main arterial roads through the suburbs now converted into offices, at least for the first 10km.
Almost all local area plans are now historical documents, the last one for the old city bounded by Kenneth Kaunda and Josiah Tongogara Avenues for example done in the 1980s, and bearing little relationship to what is on the ground and what could be there.
Even the master plan for the whole metropolitan area, a huge undertaking that took several years at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s to put together, has little bearing on reality.
For example those huge new, often illegal, housing estates in the south of the city were slated for light industry and supply companies needing to be close to Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, rather than for houses of people who will one day complain of aircraft noise, along with a major greenbelt along the Manyame River separating Harare and Chitungiza.
The position at independence was the result of a particular town planning philosophy of total separation of residential, commercial and industrial zones, coloured by historical development from a small town to a giant city in a few decades and by the complications of a highly racial ruling elite that wanted as much total race separation as possible.
The commercial area was kept as tight as possible, but still divided into two: a pure white section in the north east abutting onto the white housing areas to the north and east, and a more mixed area, where “others”, mainly of Asian and mixed descent since blacks were limited to the high density suburbs at least for residential areas and theoretically for many business purposes, to the west and south.
But that area also included a lot of residential use, from blocks of flats, usually with shops on the ground floor, to quite palatial living single family dwellings on the upper stories of commercial premises.
But even the old “white” section had once seen a lot of mixed commercial and residential use before the major development of high rise buildings in the 1950s. Industry was confined to the industrial sites and the residential suburbs, both those designated for whites and those for blacks, were only allowed to have modest shopping centres for immediate needs, with people expected to travel into “town” for proper shopping and business.
Even the doctors were supposed to crowd into a few blocks in the upper western Avenues. Lawyers, by High Court rules, had to be in the city centre.
Independence saw a vast expansion in business opportunities, the need for a lot more business space, and, of course, the end of racial zoning. This saw the old commercial centre oozing over its rigid boundaries, against quite a lot of opposition from planners, and a Government policy decision that people could work from home in the sort of businesses that did not create large crowds to spoil residential peace or involve people hitting things with hammers.
The 1980s inner city local plan tried to control these pressures, with Herbert Chitepo Avenue to act as a wall against further expansion, while the city council did its level best to stop whole houses in the suburbs becoming business premises. The city centre was the business hub, and was to remain the hub.
Well, it did not work. From the 1990s came the explosion of office parks in a swathe across the northern suburbs, followed the conversion of whole streets of houses into business premises.
The late Mr Sam Levy overturned the concept of the city centre being the sole shopping hub. Industry, admittedly, was more confined, but with more space allocated, but that was largely due to public pressure from people who did not want the industrial noise next door.
The arrival of the internet, and then the cabling of large swathes of the suburbs, meant that business people did not have to be next door to each other to operate, and the total collapse of the parking system in the city centre, coupled with car theft and control by touts, plus the collapse of the old Zupco bus network, simply accelerated the huge dispersal of commerce.
And this is where we are now. The parking problems, the tout problem and even the car theft problem have all been solved, although with parking at $70 an hour there is still no way business employees can park on the streets.
Even the return of Zupco, and the end of kombis chewing up huge chunks of western streets, a processes accelerated by lockdown bans, came 20 years too late. All those solutions came after the dispersal. It is a given fact on the ground. The city centre is still easily the largest shopping hub, but for people who generally use public transport.
Many of the larger high rise buildings, especially those built before the 1990s, have little on-site parking so either have to be used by firms who have a majority of staff busing in or be left half empty. While the city council does have two parkades, and two car parks, all developed before independence that offer cheaper contract parking, there is not much room left.
It is understandable that major property owners, especially those with older high rises on their books, are thinking about conversion to multi-uses. Since shops can always be rented, presumably it is the office floors that would become apartments, but even then few tenants would find it easy to own a car unless they had the sort of job where they could drive out before 8am and return after 5pm, and be working on Saturday mornings.
Suggestions for student accommodation have been made to combat that limitation. This sort of innovation must now be considered. We cannot reverse the changes of 30 years.
New big businesses will probably want office space with adequate on-site parking, so are unlikely to consider the city centre. The reluctance of the town planners is understandable, but rather than try and keep tight colonial separation of use zones, they need to start thinking about the sort of planning regulations that are needed to deal with the new reality.
The city centre will remain, with its transport links, the major shopping area. So multi-use will see ground floor, and even first floor, shops. New development might well copy the vision of the late Mahomed Mussa, who studied the new markets very carefully and redeveloped several city blocks along a road that linked the major bus terminuses and so made it easy for his customers to drop in.
Planning cannot put us back into little boxes, but it can make the organic change and growth liveable.