City of Durban, South Africa. photo by Peter Muiruri
There is something about Durban that captivates a first time visitor to the city. Maybe it is landing at King Shaka International, evoking memories of the legendary Zulu warrior. May be it is the city’s vibe – her renowned eateries and entertainment joints that draw people from all corners of the world.
As an ethnically diverse area combining Zulu, British and Indian influences, the culture and general hospitability of Durban greets at every turn.Whatever lens you use to look at the city, Durban’s architecture has come a long way to claim its spot as one of New Seven Wonder Cities of the World.
Nowhere is this evident than what is perhaps one of the busiest beaches along the Indian Ocean coastline.
Running from the 2010 FIFA World Cup legacy in the name of Moses Mabhida Stadium in the north, to the uShaka Marine World with its impressive shipwreck-themed aquarium to the south, Durban’s beachfront promenade, otherwise known as the Golden Mile, is a case study to our urban planners on waterfront architecture.
Some have compared Durban’s Golden Mile to our own Mama Ngina Drive in Mombasa. However, the contrasts are like night and day. Granted, the view of the ocean from Mama Ngina Drive is splendid. Watching huge ocean liners heading to or leaving the port of Mombasa from here is a delight.
Like Mombasa, Durban’s rise was largely as a result of foreign settlers to the Indian Ocean coast. In 1497, renowned Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama visited the Natal region. Of course he was not interested in permanent settlement but was looking for a way to India.
In 1824, a British party of 25 traders under Lieutenant F. G. Farewell arrived from the Cape Colony and established a settlement on the northern shore of the Bay of Natal, near today’s Farewell Square. They were spurred by the exploits of Zulu warrior, King Shaka whom they helped recover from a wound inflicted during one of many conquests. As a token of their newly found friendship, Shaka gave the men some 50 kilometres of the coastal strip. Ten years later, the settlers decided to construct a town which they named “d’Urban” after Sir Benjamin d’Urban, then governor of the expansive Cape Colony.
Principally, there was no difference between the Kenyan and South African beachfronts. The area around Durban was covered by mangroves, pelicans, flamingoes and even hippos. It was not until 1970 that the city made deliberate attempts to develop the seafront as the premiere tourist attraction in the city.
But the biggest redevelopment was to come 40 years later when the South Africa was chosen to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Anticipating an avalanche of visitors, the city embarked on a mission to champion green tourism that encourages residents and visitors alike to walk, jog, ride or swim with the backdrop of the city.
A newly paved thoroughfare, interspersed with old lighthouses has become the focal point of life in Durban. Separating the beach and the walkway are dunes that are always under maintenance. The dunes trap sand blown by the wind from reaching the busy metropolis.
Included in the green corridor were plush gardens, complete with Italian-looking columns, water features and wall art that involves the city’s prominent artists. There is a model city and eateries that attract global clientele. Vendors are well organised.
At uShaka Marine Park, the architecture includes an abandoned shop that has been turned into the largest aquarium on the continent. The crown jewel was the construction of the iconic Moses Mabhida Stadium to the north of the promenade that hosted several World Cup matches. According to Phillip Sithole of the Durban Tourism Board, there has to be deliberate investments if the city has to keep attracting top dollars from visitors.
There are 70 projects in the pipeline meant to spruce up the city at a cost of more than R700 billion (Sh490 billion). These include a three-kilometre extension of the beach promenade and a cleanup of derelict structures.
“We have identified certain areas where our city and especially the beachfront needed some facelift. There must be security and peace at the promenade,” says Sithole in an interview at the sidelines of the continental tourism expo Indaba.
Previous attempts to redevelop Mama Ngina Drive have always come a cropper. Political undercurrents have derailed any tangible attempts aimed at regenerating the region. Like any open public space in Kenya, land grabbers have never been far away.
Writing about the attempts to prop the region as a tourist attraction a few years ago, Baraka Mwau, an urban planner said lack of inclusiveness has seen all such plans fail. “Since the early 2000s, various design upgrades have been made in the area. The most recent one was upgrading of the walk-way and the driveway. The results of the makeover are however yet to be felt, and especially beyond the street paving, no space was allocated to the ever present vendors, and no on-site infrastructure services. Since the key space users, the street vendors, were excluded from the street design, they came back after the revitalization to repossess and re-appropriate the space,” he wrote.
That has been the bane of our big cities that have water bodies as part of natural features.
In fact, all our three principal cities have such features but have done little to develop interesting infrastructure around. Nairobi has turned her back on Nairobi River. Sporadic cleanup efforts have yield little success.
Like Nairobi, Kisumu too has made little use of the nearby lake, and economic activities have all but collapsed.