Central, Port Elizabeth – Blueprint for metro’s urban future?

I tend to go on a bit about the form and shape of our cities. I find myself speaking about better cities, greener cities and walkable neighbourhoods wherever I can and whenever I can. But, I have come to see that perhaps the idea of a new urban future is not so easy for most of us to visualise.
In a small meeting last week with very intelligent Phd’s, business champions and students of literature, a colleague and old friend confronted me: “What do you mean by “re-imagining the city”. Do you mean building winding streets rather than straight streets?” My friend could not see that changing the form of the city would have any impact on the lives of ordinary people. His frank question helped me see that the important work of building consensus on what our cities of the future should look like has not yet even begun. The ideas are there, but they are stuck in the minds, books and blogs of the brilliant few. The brilliant few however don’t build cities; they tend rather to spend most of their time arguing with each other.
I have decided to come to the aid of the brilliant few in attempting to build consensus. I have also come to see that looking back at our history exposes us to a laboratory of urban experiments, some that worked and some that did not. Looking in to the future on the other hand, is of course very confusing, untested and most of all; impossible.
I love Central Port Elizabeth.
I love the cool shade of Trinder Square. I love the antique shops of Lawrence Street. I love the galleries, museums and courthouses. I look through the grime and the vice to the underlying physical and spatial structure. Central is a living, breathing lesson in urbanism. It is a lesson from the past about how we can build the cities of our future. Let us consider Central for a minute:
·       Vibrant mix of Offices, residences and shops
·       Comfortable mix of old and young
·       Street life and café culture
·       Nightlife and youth culture
·       Rare mix of rich and poor
·       Healthy mix of rental and freehold
·       Hospitals, churches, schools, buses, taxis, shops and parks all in walking distance
I am not looking at Central as something that needs to be protected like a museum. I am pointing to Central as a contemporary model of urban land use, a model of mixed use and a model of car management that should be replicated throughout our metro, (or at very least along the corridors that now become supported by public transport)
Providing roads, sewer, water and electricity is cheaper in Central than in Sherwood or in NU5, because taller buildings and higher densities mean less infrastructure cost. Central has proportionately less streets to sweep and fewer bins to collect. We know that higher density environments are much more efficient for the public and private sector to service. About this there is no disagreement.
So, if Central is efficient, if Central is green, if Central is pro-poor, if Central is fun, if Central is beautiful, why can’t we see to it that we build more neighbourhood’s like Central?
The answer quite simply, ladies and gentlemen, lies in a very powerful little document called the “Port Elizabeth Zoning Scheme”. Authored in the 1960’s by nameless champions of suburbia and reworked and edited over the years by technical types seeking to close loopholes; The Port Elizabeth Zoning Scheme sets out what you may and may not do on your own property. It may allow you to work there, but not sleep there. It may allow you to pray there, but not shop there. It may compel you to build 10 m away from your boundary or it may compel you to provide hundreds of parking bays on your site for the shop you choose to build.
Central was designed before our contemporary obsession with the motor car. Central was designed at a time when walking was the dominant means of transport, (supported by public transport for longer distances). Central was designed at a time when we understood that it is illogical for each city dweller to plant a quarter acre of lawn in front of each of their homes. Suburbs like Newton Park or Kwadwesi will never become like Central because of the provisions of the Port Elizabeth Zoning Scheme (and other schemes like it). The Zoning Scheme requires that millions of Rands be thrown into parking basements, setbacks and building lines. The Zoning scheme encourages single use sterility. The Zoning scheme discourages mixing of rich and poor (you try build an affordable, Central style block of flats on your site in Walmer and see how far you get!)
I am not suggesting here that we abandon our tradition of orderly city building, but I do suggest that we do not continue to let our city be designed by a faceless, anonymous and hugely outdated rulebook. I put it to the readers of this column, that we must be clear when engaging the municipality. We want our city to look and feel like Central. If they have rules on their books that stand in the way of this then those rules are of no use to us.
We are fortunate to have Central. It is full of life, it is full of hope and it is full of lessons.

This column first appeared in The Herald, Port Elizabeth, 29 November 2012

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