On the Edge: Harare’s Urban Heritage and forces of Urban Informality

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Manica Cycle Building integrated into Steir Kinekor

Historic buildings in Harare that shape the city’s urban heritage are on the verge of collapse. Efforts to prevent further demolitions and alterations have been initiated but are these efforts going to hold back the forces of informality?

In 2015, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) and the City of Harare (CoH) launched the Historic Building Plaque Project. This was a project to setup plagues on historic buildings marking them for protection from any alteration or demolitions. This project came after alarming demolitions and alterations of historic building in Harare without consent of the regulatory authorities.

Historic buildings in Zimbabwe are protected under the Building Preservation Order (BPO), which prevents them from demolition or architectural alteration for their awarded architectural merit. The buildings awarded architectural merit have survived more than 50years and some dates from 1910. Flagship buildings include Market Hall, The Ranch House College, Queen’s Hotel, Parliament of Zimbabwe, Mashonganyika Building and Cecil House.  Most buildings are located along Robert Mugabe Road and the rest scattered around the city. The NMMZ Act Chapter 25:11 and the Regional Town and Country Planning (RTCP) Act Chapter 29:12 stipulate protection of all historic buildings by law. The Acts requires owners to notify NMMZ and CoH at least 14 days before the work starts on protected buildings.

Building Preservation in age of Informality

There is a remarkable variation in historic building preservation in Harare. From prestigiously preserved Cecil House in Northern region of the Central Business District (CBD) to the dilapidating Corner House and White House building in the Southern region of the CBD.

Fereday and Sons Building
Fereday and Sons Building

Most buildings along Robert Mugabe Road have been subject to uses not compatible with age of the buildings, which has led to structural damage and decay. Most of these buildings are used for retailing, hardware stores and as office space for small to medium enterprises. Other than general decay of location these buildings, historic buildings also succumb from low value caused by restrictive zoning ordinance on building heights. They also lack  improvements in ablution facilities to cater for current uses. The Market Hall is one of the oldest civic structure, which was used for council offices, motor spares and warehouse. This was later turned into a people’s market in 1900s and now a flea market as Gulf bazaar. Nevertheless, Manica Cycle building (corner Robert Mugabe Road and Sam Nujoma Avenue) is one of the most successful preservation projects in that region. It was integrated into a redevelopment, Steir Kinekor without architectural alteration. Other buildings include Standard Bank buildings and Meikles shop which maintained their original use and tenants.

Manica Cycle Building integrated into Steir Kinekor
Manica Cycle Building integrated into Steir Kinekor

On the Northern, side of the CBD is the existence of well-preserved and sustainably occupied historic buildings. Flagship among them are Cecil House, Mashonganyika building (Supreme Court), Munhumutapa building, Parliament building, and St Mary Cathedral building. Most of these buildings are occupied by functionally compatible uses, and have sustainable occupancy that matches ablution capacity. Financial capability to maintain the character of the buildings is major influence to the differences. Financially less capable owners and/tenants in the Southern part struggle to maintain the buildings.  Such disparities illustrate the divide in how historic buildings are being preserved and underlying challenges leading to dilapidation of buildings in other parts of the city.

Cecil House in Harare
Cecil House in Harare

Efforts to address these dilapidation and demolition problems have been oriented towards regulatory tightening as preservation methods are outdated and legislation is inadequate. Efforts to preserve the buildings also rose as renovation of some buildings was including compartmentalisation without consent of the Local Planning Authorities at the damage of architectural preservation.  Smart growth adoption and rise of small to medium enterprises that increased the demand for commercial space are major factors to urban heritage dilapidation.

Rethinking Heritage Preservation in Transition

Disparities in historic buildings preservation in Harare are evident. The properly maintained and sustainably occupied buildings on the Northern side of CBD buildings. On the other hand are dilapidating buildings in Southern region as tenants lack adequate funds to effectively preserve them as well as incapacity of ablution facilities for overcrowded uses.

Harare adopted preservation regulatory instruments of cities in developed economies, which are now experiencing stable urban development. Harare is in transition characterised by informality. Given the disparities of the state of the historic buildings segmenting the Building Preservation Order application, can  be an effective way of saving the historic buildings which are on the brink of collapse. Integration, as evidenced by success of Manica cycle building could be an alternative comprehensive measure to restore the historic buildings in dilapidation along Robert Mugabe Road. In this way, Historic buildings will be the drivers of urban renewal in the sections of the city succumbing to urban decay thereby playing vital role in shaping the urban fabric. This could also change the perception of country-orientated heritage tourism in Zimbabwe, as urban heritage tourism blossom from these historic buildings integration projects.

Political barriers of regarding historic buildings as colonial legacies can be a deterrent to the preservation projects, which mostly lack enough funding and human capital to inspect and enforce legislation. Fore fronting historic buildings as vantage points for urban renewal through integration, projects can prove to be effective way of incentivising historic buildings preservations in the decaying regions. The Historic Building Plaque Project may prove to be a successful initiative as an informative initiative. Preservation goes beyond awareness. The economic challenges of funding preservation by incapable tenants requires economic intervention other than legislation and awareness.

This article was first published by Urbanizim Institute

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