Durban’s central business district is poised for a R150 million make-over that will see streets shut off to traffic, fairy lights hung from lamp-posts, mobile ‘pop-up’ parks, painted manhole covers and a host of other design innovations for the 25th World Congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA).

An artist’s impression of the proposed pedestrianised portion of Dr Pixley ka Seme Street between Stalwart Simelane and Sylvester Nthuli streets.

The congress, scheduled for the International Convention Centre between August 3 and 7, will afford the city an opportunity to reposition the CBD so residents can reclaim the space and trade in the area can be reinvigorated.

A big thrust of the makeover is the ‘repurposing’ of Durban’s old light industrial area, Motortown, into an arts and culture precinct renamed Rivertown.

The area will have a beer hall beside an unearthed canal running down Milne Road that is the historic water course between the uMngeni River and the port.

City architects are using the conference, with the theme ‘otherwhere’ and a focus on building sustainable human(e) settlements, to showcase several initiatives designed to reinvigorate the CBD.

‘What we build must not just be utilitarian, it must also be humanitarian – an investment in the environment and the people who live in it. Our focus is on the inner city, because without a functioning inner city, we don’t have anything,’ said Nina Saunders, the local government liaison for UIA 2014 organising committee.

She said the conference hoped to unlock three headline initiatives.

The first is the Dr Pixley ka Seme Linear Park, for which a section of the road is to be ‘greened and repurposed’ to reduce the number of traffic lanes and increase the sidewalk space between Stalwart Simelane (Stanger) and Sylvester Ntuli (Brickhill) streets.

Between 6am and 6pm on a typical day, about 6 500 to 7 000 pedestrians move east and west in this area, with between 5 800 and 9 600 vehicles travelling east on Dr Pixley ka Seme (West) Street.

Reducing the road from four lanes to two will create space for street furniture and decorative lighting.

The linear park is initially to be open for about six weeks around the time of the congress.

This short ‘exhibition’ is to give citizens an idea of the permanent plans, similar to what was done in New York’s Times Square.

The second initiative is to revamp the old Motortown light industrial area east of the CBD.

This Rivertown arts and culture precinct is to start with exhibits during the conference. The plan is to lift the top off the canal opposite a historic city building formerly known as the Beer Hall.

Numerous public exhibits will be installed to encourage citizens to return to the inner city.

Pocket parks will also pop up around the CBD.

The concept was formed in partnership with UKZN architecture students who want to create mobile gardens in renovated shipping containers and on flatbed trailers.

The idea is to reduce barriers between residents and encourage social cohesion.

Saunders said the mobile modular parks would fit into parking bays and could be easily assembled, dismantled and moved.

Made almost entirely of recycled materials, they could pop up anywhere.

City architect Jonathan Edkins said the pocket parks fell into the city’s focus on ‘small, carefully placed interventions that may be enough to spark huge interventions’.

The city says the government and private sector will invest R150m in the upgrades before and flowing from the conference, while the event will generate about R400m in economic gains.

Edkins said the theme was critically linked to Durban’s bid to keep its inner city alive and vibrant.

City spaces had to be creatively reimagined, especially those that could be easily shared, he said.

Formal and informal traders could coexist more comfortably and motorised transport should not dominate the city.

Edkins cited Warwick Junction as an example of city intervention creating a more functional space.

‘Through caring interactions and interventions, we changed government perceptions of inner-city traders and created a more receptive and accepting environment, albeit in a robust and vibrant part of the city.’

Edkins said that the initiatives would stimulate human engagement and trade.

Andrew Layman, chief executive of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry, welcomed the ‘exciting’ initiatives, which he said were a crucial component in the plan to create a progressive yet caring city.

‘While these projects may have been stimulated by the UIA event, they are important because, properly advertised and marketed to the city’s inhabitants, interest in and enthusiasm for the city can be enhanced.’

The projects were part of a move towards the regeneration of areas subject to urban decay.

‘Aspirations of being a ‘smart’ city will be realised when clear progress is made, and progress means a growing economy. We live in a progressive city, despite the negative attitudes that often appear in the media, and there is a great deal to be proud of.’

Sunday Tribune