The sale of part of a section of Harare Gardens to hotel group, Legacy Hotels by the City Council has sparked debate and controversy among stakeholders. City of Harare is selling 2.2 hectares (13 percent of the Gardens) of Harare Gardens to the hotel and leisure group, Legacy Hotels for construction of a conference centre. This leaves about 11 hectares for public space in the gardens. The proposal has come under pressure from residents and residents’ associations over the economic and social rationale of the transaction. Several issues emerge nevertheless regarding how the city is developing, fulfil its vision and raise funds to meet its expenses.
The council has been succumbing to financial challenges that include poor revenue sources and mismanagement and embezzlement of funds at expense of service delivery. Several questions remain unanswered: Is sale of part of Harare Gardens economically and socially justified? Does the council conduct fair and effective consultation process? Is the city’s vision realistic?
Fulfilling a vague City vision
In justifying the need for the conference centre by African Sun, Mayor Bernard Manyenyeni mentioned the need for the city to achieve World Class city status by 2025. The realistic nature and effectiveness of the city’s vision is questionable however. Two problems exist with the current city’s vision. First, in global ranking of cities, a ‘world-class city’ is a status which has never been defined before regarding the benchmark and the indicators used to measure that. This leaves the status to self-definition. Second, if such a status existed it will be problematic since it presents cities in linearity form which ignores contextual differences across the globe.
Close to this vision of ‘world-class city’ are the popularly called, global cities which are nodes of global economic system. These are major cities which by their economy have become hubs of economic activity as manufacturing hubs, financial hubs, political hubs, or tourist hubs. Washington D.C is a global city as a political administrative centre, Paris is a tourist hub, London is a financial hub. Identifying trajectories towards a global city and linking it with the city’s current status, can enhance the vision towards better services and economic competitiveness. The narrative of ‘shoot for the moon, if you miss you land on the stars’ does not apply to the current vision since by ‘world-class city’ there are no clear targets (moon) defined. The African Urban Institute in its study on strategic planning of African cities found Harare as one of the cities with a ‘spaced-out’ vision that need revision to become a ‘blue-sky vision’ which is realistic, achievable and forward looking.
The challenge of unfair trade-off
Harare has been suffering from lack of adequate of public places in its inner city. There are three parks in the inner-city: Harare Gardens, Africa Unity Square and Greenwood Park. Of these three, Harare Gardens is largest the most preferred civic space for Africa Unity Square is small and ceremonial while Greenwood park is distant from the CBD. This make Harare Gardens (regardless of its poor state of maintenance) a unique inner city park located in the CBD. It holds the unique value which can be compared to that of Central Park in New York which is in the downtown of New York, making resident of the inner city close to nature. Hence equating Harare Gardens to other peripheral open spaces in Harare is unfair. This can be explained better by an urban tool, the transect which classify a city into 6 zones.
Having Harare Gardens which belongs to Transect 1 in Transect 6 presents a unique value for urban residents who can be close to nature in an ever-expanding city and should not be taken for granted.
The sale of 2.2 hectares of Harare Gardens, is economically rational as the new conference centre becomes part of the critical urban renewal of the inner city which the city desperately need. It also attracts investment, increase conferences capacities in the city. Nevertheless, trading such public space for private property without adding value to civic space that is accessible by public is an unfair trade for residents and it is bound to face resistance. The use of proceeds from the land sale are critical in determining a fair trade in this transaction. The council emphasized, the $1.76 million will go into the council’s mainstream budget and allocated to priority areas. In the transaction, the council need to clarify to residents the alternatives civic spaces that it offers or how the proceeds of the sale will be utilised. By going into mainstream budget, residents know well from experience, the use of the money. Mainly salaries and other administrative expenses that have no direct value to the quality of service delivery such as improvement in ablution facilities or other civic spaces. With reduced civic spaces in the inner city, the city is also creating an unfavourable environment for commercial activities and investment in the inner city. The lack of quality inner civic spaces in the inner city has led to premium shopping malls such as Joina City to be congested with people who even have no business in the mall. It has become so congested that its management has a traffic control team. Such lack of civic space makes premium commercial uses flee the CBD since tenants at Joina city find the congestion unfavourable for their operations and overuse of their ablution facilities.
The city’s bureaucratic public consultation
The resistance by residents over the Council’s move to sell the part of Harare Gardens reveals the ineffectiveness of public consultation the city undertakes per its statutes. While deliberation of the sale started as early as 2016, no effective consultation has been conducted by the council. The council’s consultation procedure is designed to be restrictive since it perceives the residents as always opponents to its proposals. To object the sale of part of the gardens, one has to send the objection in writing to the Council a process which cannot be effective consultation since it lacks two-way communication. Thus, the public consultation conducted by the Council is mainly to fulfill the statutory requirements without much concern of the input from the residents.
Resistance to development in cities in Zimbabwe has not reached alarming rates as NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) is not yet prominent. People are still welcome to development. By continuing the path of bureaucratic consultation process, it creates a fertile ground such resistance. Civic spaces are already a critical challenge in Harare and the transaction is lessening them further. Public Consultation through town hall meetings prove effective for council to justify its decision. The current consultation process has been that of seeking endorsement, fulfilling a procedural step. Nevertheless, the details of participation are in the alternatives the council offers and the use of proceeds in service delivery. These alternatives should be put to the public for deliberations to have an inclusive development of civic spaces.
The caution over the environmental implications
One of the issues that have been raised by residents and environmentalists is the possible negative implications of the development on the rivulet and wetland in the Gardens. This is one challenge that is facing the city as environmentalists and urbanists are fighting over protection of environmental sanctuaries. In this debate, nevertheless, we should consider that urbanism is another form of environmentalism. Commercial uses are occupying a dense space that reduce automobile use instead of locating in suburban areas causing problems of sprawl. This takes on the need to put some of the rivers and rivulet in pipes with critical environmental consideration, to achieve environmentally sustainable urban density. One good example of the integration is Manhattan, the most densely populated region of New York. With its density, which accommodate more than 1.6million on a 59.1 km2 piece of land it has between 2 000 and 2 700 rivers and rivulets covered in pipes. If development had to stay away from these streams, it will be lesser denser and less walkable and connected than it is now, an urban form that reduce urban sprawl. In ensuring the environmental sustainability of the development, piping rivulets and streams that might exist will be more environmentally sustainable than to abstain from them for an inner-city development. Nevertheless, wetland areas need to be protected with the requirements needed for their continued existence.
The City council need to rethink comprehensively how it trade public spaces for commercial development. Increased decline in civic spaces in the inner city worsens state of inner city to an extend of even causing further flight of commercial users to the periphery. The transaction has demonstrated, the city’s consultation process is technically restrictive with no interest in residents’ contributions. Revision of the city’s vision is critical for it to be realistic.
This article was published in The Opinion.