Derek Morris wondered, as we tasted wine from the third floor of the Masa Centre, why the Gaborone Central Business District (CBD) was not socially alive during the evening.
He had noticed the previous day that the CBD went sleepy much earlier than one would expect Sandton City in Johannesburg from where he comes.
It was precisely why people like him had descended at Lansmore Hotel for a one day CBD executive seminar to explore challenges and opportunities in developing the CBD. A business development manager at Interpark, Morris came to share his knowledge in managing vehicular access and parking facilities as a key infrastructural driver of a CBD.
Experts in urban design, Leta Mosienyane of Mosienyane & Partners International and Jo Noero of Noero Architects, may not have a solution to Morris’ innocuous curiosity but are shedding light into some of the reasons that lead to failure in city planning.
The CBD was planned in 1995 and its master plan did not accommodate changes that have since obtained over the last ten years as a result, it failed to attract investors.
Noero says there are three issues of urban design that need to be taken into account when planning ÔÇô that of design, that of scale of decision making and that of an uncertain world.
“We persist in trying to plan for the future. A master plan is not cast in stone. We need to get real and refrain from having blind faith in a top down way of solving problems. Action planning is needed to take issues as they arrive. Any other way is a recipe for disaster,” warns Noero.
He advocates for a 21st Century city which puts citizens first giving them a voice without constraining them.
Central to the current debate around the success or failure of the Gaborone CBD is the issue of accessibility. It is against this background that Mosienyane observes that while cities must produce, the Gaborone CBD does not have a public transport system and pedestrian accesses.
“Designs may not give solutions to a problem. You need a life plan. Before you start to design, you should begin by talking about existing edifices and natural forms,” says the local urban designer.
Econsult economist Dr. Keith Jefferis regrets there are no policies to compliment the government’s urban development policy.
“We do not have a transport policy in place. People still think rural-urban migration is bad,” he argues.
An official from the Department of Town and Regional Planning would later agree with Jefferis that there
Both Mosienyane and Noero hold a common view that governments are getting it wrong in their blind faith that development master plans for cities are a cast in stone solution to developing cities. Both are for what they call the “compact city idea” whose emphasis is on improved public health and energy efficiency.
Mosienyane observes that the Gaborone CBD development was delayed by some ten years because developers did not have an interest as they were never put on board in the first place.
“Majority of the designs of the CBD were done outside the country. A lot of fronting happened as a result,” he regrets.
The architects offer that decision making should not be top down but inclusive and cross-cutting.
“It is foolhardy to dictate the value of land without creating enough interest to those who want to invest in that land. Government and the private sector should get together and define a protocol on the direction they seek to take their cities,” says Mosienyane.
The urban design expects fear that at the current rate the Gaborone CBD seems to be almost developed in isolation divorced from the reality that there are other players such as the Old Mall, West gate and Rail Park Malls.
“CBDs are not islands. Local centres should strive for the CBD to succeed. In the event that the CBD succeeded at the expense of local centres it would not survive,” warns Mosienyane.
“Culture must be a central platform for development of a city as it ties with the conceptual age,” adds Noero.
Mosienyane advises it is important to create a symbiotic relationship to avoid urban blight by having reasonable public transport and pedestrian access to the CBD.
He is for an urban design that shapes movement and public spaces into a spatial armature as opposed to having one that involves zoning where predetermined ratios are served by transport links.
Mosienyane observed that for any CBD to thrive there has to be a commitment to specific initiatives by stakeholders which should include what he calls a private city chief executive officer at private sector level.
“There is the need for business-led planning for the city. We spent five years trying to obtain a planning permission of the CBD from government. Planning permissions must be relaxed,” he says.
Mosienyane can only conclude that the absence of a symbiotic relationship between government and other stakeholders led to the Concrete Highway in New York which caused urban blight.
“Locally, it has blighted Moshupa, Lobatse and Kanye when the Gaborone-Jwaneng road was constructed,”
To avoid such situations at the CBD, he calls for a protocol to ensure quality and success of the environment in the CBD, to help it to become competitive, thrive economically and facilitate creativity and innovation.
With office space at the CBD rapidly increasing every year, there is hope that investors will come to the party at CBD but there are also rising fears the delay to construct bridges and roads including spaghetti ones by the government may cause the CBD to blight.
Joe Simpson of Knight Frank says the demand for office space in the CBD has surged. In 2011 the CBD was able to provide 20 000 square metres of office space with just above 120 000 square metres of office space expected to be available by the end of the year rising to 1600 000 next year.
Things being equal, it worries Othata Batsetswe of Finmark that investment partnerships at the CBD focus on institutions, at least at the moment, rather than the average persons.
“Investors should be looking at making affordable housing accessible to the majority of working citizens. Home ownership in the country stands at less than ten percent. There is a huge opportunity for investors in the form of partnerships with individuals to tap into this untapped market,” he advices.
He offers, for instance, that the CBD investors should provide for vendors so that they can become manageable.
He says there are many sectors which are untapped by singling out the P46 billion wealth of Pension Funds which he holds mean nothing to individuals until the structure in which pension funds are tied is changed.
“Pension funds should be used for investment at different levels. People should be able to leverage against their pension funds and use funds to get mortgages,” argues Batsetswe.
He is calling upon investors to use as little as 0.02 percent of their profits into interest free loans for their staff as one way of developing people as one way of investment from a human perspective.
President of the Botswana Confederation of Commerce Industry and Manpower (BOCCIM) Alex Monchusi would not agree with Basetswe more. He says time may have come for the government to review its policy on investment of Pension Funds to invest 70 percent of funds internally and 30 percent externally.
Monchusi says Gaborone needs re-branding and benchmarked along the likes of Antwerp as it is now a diamond city saying government must drive the initiative.
“Diamond trading creates a need and opportunity for social, religious and cultural enterprises, with a new urban dynamic to ensure that Gaborone becomes economically vibrant and sustainable even beyond diamonds,” says Monchusi.