Sunday, September 27, 2020

Gaborone’s towering ambition

On the fourth floor of a tower block in the city’s Main Mall, Tefo Mooketsane is filling me in on the Gaborone City Development plan (1997-2021). The Project Manager doesn’t mean to scare me. It’s just a bit difficult for her to talk about the current Gaborone plan without dropping a few horror stories.
Gaborone was initially planned as a suburb. Indications are that the planners did not anticipate how badly things could turn out. Today most motorists trying to pick their way around the city usually find themselves up against yellow concrete boulders.

Gaborone Cul-de-sacs have turned neighbours into strangers. “You have to take a long a winding route and travel five times the distance just to drive to a neighbour who is only a house away. Imagine if you had to pick up a sick neighbour and drive them to the hospital, by the time you get to their house they would be dead,” she says.
When the conversation turns to the city road network I could almost see irate motorists trapped in rush hour traffic jams, trading insults and horns blaring. It gets even worse when it is raining. It only takes a slight drizzle and Gaborone motorists find themselves battling in flooded roads, thanks to the city’s drainage system. At the end of the difficult journey, motorists have to rack their brains trying to find free parking space.

Mooketsane is not making up these scare stories to justify the redesigning of Gaborone City ÔÇô far from it. In fact, most of these stories are believed to be personal experiences gleaned from SMS and e-mail messages sent by residents who wished to have a say in the redesign of Gaborone.

It is not often that residents get a say in shaping their future towns. Architecture (or a lack of it) is something that has traditionally been imposed on residents. But for Gaborone residents, things are changing. A major regeneration scheme is taking place across the city and residents are having their voices heard loud and clear.

For the past few months, architects at Mosienyane & Partners International and Plantec Africa have been asking Gaborone residents what they want. Their plan is to rebuild Gaborone as “a model city of choice by the year 2021 and beyond.”
Mooketsane explains that they have had to go through thousands of SMS, e-mail and faxed messages to come to the current proposed plan. Hardly surprising, almost every Gaborone resident has a nasty story to tell about the current city plan.

Not surprising, a smiling Gaborone resident is as rare as a vacant plot. Officials who drew the original plan of Gaborone adopted a zoning strategy that isolates residential areas from commercial and industrial areas. This planning strategy has put stretches of kilometers between students and their schools, between workers and their workplace and between shoppers and their shopping complexes. This means workers can not walk to work, students can not walk to school and shoppers can not walk to their shopping complexes. They are all forced to use either their cars or public transport, and this has created a big traffic congestion problem in the city.

There is enough evidence to suggest that the bad planning has put both the city and the transportation system under enormous pressure. Motorists have to duck, weave and dodge when driving along Gaborone main roads which have been beaten down to a patchwork of potholes by torrential rains and heavy traffic. Despite indications that Gaborone has more people than it can handle, its economic vital signs are still anemic. Businesses are going belly up in droves and “to let” signs posts planted outside empty office complexes have become a familiar sight.
“I think I have heard that more than 30 restaurants have gone bust lately and all the Spars, Pick ‘N Pays, Family Grocers, etc, are struggling because Gaborone has a small market,” says Jan Wareous, a local town planner and Managing Director of SwedePlan who agrees that the city plan has to be redone and the population grown to make Gaborone attractive to investors.

“My view is that we have to beef up Gaborone.” By ‘beef up Gaborone’, Jan Wareous means that there should be a deliberate campaign to increase the city population. A funny view, considering that on the face of it, Gaborone city already has more people than it can handle and government is spending millions of Pula trying to discourage rural folks from migrating to Gaborone.

It is, however, private developer, Luc Van de Casteel who presented the issue in more granular terms: “The problem of overcrowding in Gaborone is all a result of bad planning and bad regulations. Hong Kong is roughly the same size as Gaborone but it has 7 million people’ more than ten times the population of Gaborone.” (Sunday Standard April 30-May 6 2006)
Van de Casteel, an architect by profession says Botswana needs to increase the population of Gaborone to make it more attractive to investors. He blames the zoning strategy for the traffic congestion in the city.

The Gaborone mixed plan, put together by Mosienyane & Partners International and Plantec Africa, will have residential, commercial and residential areas meshed. Then, residents would only have to cross a few doors to consult their doctor, climb down a flight of stairs to do their shopping and walk a few meters to their work place.

A colourful water paint artist’s impression of the planned Gaborone city centre provide a jaw-dropping glimpse of what Gaborone city centre is on the verge of becoming: a hustle and bustle of workers and shoppers with the current flat skyline replaced by towering sky scrappers. This is also expected to ease the city’s land and accommodation shortage.

This is a far cry from the current city centre which comes alive at eight in the morning and goes to bed at five in the evening. If you stroll down the city’s Main Mall after hours, when the workmen are gone, you notice that the buildings around are silent and darkened. There is no sign of life save for the occasional solitary security guard.

Explaining the phenomenon, Mooketsane said residential areas die during working hours when commercial and industrial areas come to life and industrial and commercial areas die after hours when residential areas come to life. The new plan however will give Gaborone the character of other international cities, the city that never goes to sleep.
INDEPTH will be running a series of feature stories on the Gaborone Development Plan

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.