Gaborone – Growing from hard learned lessons
by Kibo Ngowi
Locals like to think of Gaborone as a small town posing as a big city – Certainly, this metropolis is dwarfed in comparison to many other cities in the region, the likes of Pretoria and Johannesburg. However, it may come as a surprise to many of the residents that this seemingly undersized town has exceeded all initial expectations of its growth potential. In 1964, when the first development plan for the city was drafted, the assumption was that its population would never exceed 15, 000 people. Within six years, the population had mushroomed to 75, ooo and today, it stands at around 300, 000. This seems to be the source of many of Gaborone’s development problems – The city’s potential for growth was underestimated from the outset and subsequent development plans failed to readjust this point of view.
The architect and director of a private urban design consultancy, Leta Mosienyane, is the author of Gaborone’s current development plan, a plan scheduled to run from 2009 to 2021, so he understands the problem at hand all too well. “In reality, the inefficiencies of Gaborone are close to those of a well-run village! The cause of this is that the past development plans allowed the area to sprawl with individual houses on large plots, rather than concentrating growth into specific areas. Ours is the first development plan that tries to depart from that approach and attempts to create centres of efficient distribution,” says Mosienyane as he weighs in on the infrastructural inadequacies of Botswana’s capital.
Although the city’s development plan runs for 24 years at a time, the law provides for that plan to be reviewed every five years and the last review of the current plan was made in 2009. “Following the last review, the spirit of the current development plan is that, in the next ten years, the city will become more compact and more traversable,” says Lester Sebuso, a physical planner at the Gaborone City Council. “The impetus is to create a situation in which we can accommodate more people and facilitate the operation of more businesses closer to the centre of the city, rather than being scattered as they seem to be now.” Sebuso speaks at length about how this alteration will facilitate the growth of the industrial sector and improve convenience for residents.
Nevertheless, one fundamental problem seems to be a lack of understanding of the concept of urban renewal. In the case of cities like Cape Town and London, the land has long been exhausted but the authorities still make plans for the growth of the city. In Botswana, discussions about development plans still tend to be focused on the allocation of new plots but once a city has reached its maturity, then it continues to grow – from within.
A shift in thinking, not just by the powers that be but also by the populace, to one in which we can look within Gaborone for progress is exactly the thing for which Mosienyane is advocating. The architect disapprovingly recalls the days in which residents used to travel to Mafikeng and Zeerust for basic needs such as groceries and other services. “Infact, I can say with confidence that to this day, many people still go to Johannesburg for medical attention. I don’t know if the medical services here are below standard but I believe they are up to date. It’s just that it has become almost a culture to look outside for excellent service delivery; we do not look within for excellence, we look elsewhere,” laments Mosienyane. However, one wonders if it is fair to condemn citizens for looking elsewhere for their needs to be met when government does not effectively consult with them on issues of development.
Neo Modisi, an architect and development consultant, who has worked in different parts of Africa, is adamant that the authorities in Gaborone need to broaden stakeholder consultation. She recommends that the government engage transport service providers, such as combi and taxi drivers and food vendors or Bo mma sa apei, as they are locally known. In Modisi’s view, these are the people best placed to forecast the development trends of the city, even more so than architects and physical planners. She goes on to cite the example of Tunis, “There is a building in the middle of Tunis (The Tunisian capital) which showcases the plans for any and all new developments that are to be introduced to the city. The plans are made easy to understand and any interested person is free to come and view these plans and make their comments.” This is an example of a city in which the authorities have gone out of their way to involve the public in the formulation of new development plans, an example that the authorities in Gaborone would be prudent to try to emulate more effectively.
There are signs that the city authorities have learned from past mistakes though. Roads are being transformed into dual carriageways across the city and circles are being converted into traffic lights, apparently to accommodate the rising needs of industrialisation. After long having been surpassed by the likes of Commerce Park and Kgale Mews, the Central Business district (CBD) is finally staring to show signs of growth. The CBD is slowly developing into the important business hub that it was initially envisioned to be, with multi-purpose plazas and high-rise office buildings already under construction. They may not be giant leaps forward but they are steps in the right direction.
While Sebuso does concede that the decision-makers may have faltered in a few key steps in the past, he is optimistic for the town’s prospects. “The one thing we want is for people to own up to the city’s development plans because with that sense of ownership, everything will become a success. We want Gaborone to be a major city in Southern Africa and if we can achieve that, then we can look beyond.” Gaborone still has some way to go before it can compete with some of its more accomplished counterparts in the region but it is refreshing to see a shift in the paradigm that made the city lag behind in the first place.
To be fair, the likes of Harare and Maputo were given somewhat of a head start in that these cities were developed during colonial times while Gaborone was neglected – Botswana, still considered a worthless settlement at the time. This means that it has been a game of catch up for the fledgling town since the very beginning but residents should take comfort in the fact that London had a head start of more than a thousand years over New York City. The race is long indeed, so time still abounds for Gaborone to hit the ground running.