‘Speke-ing’ up for the City

January 29, 2015

Around the world cities are looking for ways of bringing new life to run-down parts of commercial districts. That is the ethos behind the Urban Space project, which is giving a new spurt of hope – and colour – to downtown Harare.

Over the last fifteen years, the streets of downtown Harare have gradually become like markets, with informal traders taking over pavements in response to the severe job shortages affecting the country. Statistics currently put unemployment in Zimbabwe at over 80 percent.

An increase in urban population has also added to the crowding factor. All this, coupled with aging infrastructure and a cash-strapped city council operating in one of the toughest economies in the world, has made for a central business district without colour or lustre.

One Harare resident, Louise Bragge, was moved by her city’s slow demise and decided to do something about it. She created an organisation called Urban Space, whose aim is to reclaim spaces in the city, rejuvenate and/or re-purpose them.

She explains: “We initially began working on urban regeneration at Newlands Shopping Centre, which has experienced severe economic decline and has a community of property owners, tenants and other stakeholders who are highly motivated and are working hard to enhance the area and put it back on the map.”

However, the Newlands project did not take off as the city council was hesitant to let Louise try out her “funky” new ideas at a shopping centre. They suggested she find a smaller space to start.

Together they agreed on a pedestrianised part of Speke Avenue. The small Urban Space team’s challenge was to use this as an example of how to incorporate environmental sustainability, public art and community participation into urban planning.

Towards the end of 2014, with the help of a grant from Hivos, they descended upon Speke Avenue and began their transformation. The highlight of the project is a colourful array of patterns on the street itself. They will also add benches made from used tyres and other materials and introduce plants to the space.

Bragge asserts that this work is important because it helps members of the public re-associate themselves with the spaces they inhabit: “Re-purposing public spaces is important when the users of the space no longer respect it or do not even consider it as a public space – this unfortunately is the case of many of our open spaces, streets and parks.”

Martin Stewart, one of the participants in the project, painted part of the pavement and has been delighted by the results and the reactions from people. “People love it. Many are taking selfies and enjoy the seating. There is more static traffic as people like the space now, so they spend more time there.”