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Friday, 07 June 2013 10:00

Rethinking our country’s planning : A need for a new urban form

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Mauritius is an island of promise and of prosperity, an island symbolising dreams of brighter tomorrows. But it is also an island that is fast drowning under the burden of whimsical economical faux-pas and infrastructural short-sightedness.
Figures garnered by our bureau of statistics reveal that Mauritius harbours 2040 sq km of land and an existing population of 1,233,000. This equates to 604 inhabitants per sq km, thus projecting our small island echelons upwards the population density ladder. We are indeed now the 6th most densely populated country worldwide. This concept is staggering, especially if we reflect back on our populace a century ago. In 1911, Mauritius recorded a total of 374,000 inhabitants. These figures show that our small island has witnessed a massive demographic explosion of 330% over the last century alone.

If spatially contextualised, one can clearly notice that the fundamental location of our cities favours an intrinsic connective system. Once pockets of civilisation are created, the need to establish a route of connection and exchange between them is essential. Hence, our highway is very much the spine of our country’s transportation and urban planning. Most of our cities are located adjacent to the linear axis it represents and when our population mirrored that of a low density area, this system worked perfectly within a sociological, political, cultural and environmental perspective.

However, in parallel to the demographic explosion, our cities mirrored the same exponential expansion. People adopted the tendency to move further from the city boundaries, spilling over into rural land, hence stretching the city limits further. This trend promoted a change in land adaptation and usage outside the core of urban life resulting in a relatively disparate form of residential development and thus causing a loss of open space, farmland and wildlife resource. This sparsely monitored development was encouraged all to promote a certain standard of living and to inculcate a sense of ‘closeness’ to the inhabitants, hence catering to their sociological needs.

This ‘Urban sprawl’ happened at an unbelievably fast rate and to an overwhelming extent, such that now all our cities are nearly connected and form a consecutive strip of urban settlement along our highway. The impact on density is such that 40% of our total population is now occupying 8% of our land, namely that of our cities. This equates to 3022 inhabitants per km sq, a number that astoundingly demonstrates that our cities are denser than individual international metropolitans such as San Francisco, Dublin, Milan, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.

In the above paragraphs, we referred to a population’s ‘sense of closeness’. In this context, it defines the acceptable driving distance by an individual that is not considered too cumbersome. Within the concept of ‘urban sprawl’, cars are a necessity and their usage is promoted. It is however important to point out that while the city walls are expanding, so should the road pattern in order to accommodate more vehicles. However, our roads and planning models have illogically remained in their original form and size. In addition, most of the amenities have remained in the areas of their original location, usually the core of the city; a fact which forces more people into a limited space.

A phenomenon called the Urban Heat Island effect can be witnessed in high density urban states. This involves the capture of heat in the form of sunlight by hard surfaces. This in turns has a thermal effect on the air above those solid surfaces, thus resulting in a considerably hotter environment than in low density areas. This increases the need and reliance on air conditioning which represents an increase in electrical energy expenditure. Hence we are experiencing a gradual metamorphosis that is turning a once humane city into a machine that operates solely on the basis of mechanical logistics at the expense of the population’s needs.

This concept of centralisation is further enhanced by the addition of a “Cyber city” as an office hub for the country. It can be debated as being the most ill-founded planning strategy, especially from a long term perspective. Skyscrapers are unsustainable as high density urbanism creates more problems than it solves, among which is the massive reliance upon neighbouring resources. This developmental model also short-sightedly depends on an interrupted supply of vehicular fuel as most of the employees rely on commuting from all over the country to one single destination.

Ebène Cyber city mirrors, on a nationwide scale, the same centralisation process that has taken hold of our cities, hence contributing to fuel consumption & traffic congestion.  This in turn is taking a massive toll on our economy. According to the Road Development Authority, traffic congestions are costing us a staggering 2 billion rupees annually. The Energy Observation Reports, on the other hand, reveals that half of our national energy consumption is linked to the transportation industry. We are however paying for this flawed urban planning model not only with our pockets but also with our well-being. Currently, there are about 422,000 cars registered in the country and of those, 41,500 were involved in an accident.

This averages 1 accident for every 10 vehicles. Promoting more cars on our streets in this already dire situation is certainly no solution to the problem.

Furthermore, this automobile dependence alters our urban geometrics in such a way that cars are accommodated as a priority over pedestrians. These are certainly the wrong pre-requisites for a healthy lifestyle, but also generate a subtle discrimination towards those who cannot drive; the young, the elderly and those whose income preclude the use of a car. A sustainable city must be designed for pedestrians first.

World-renowned Urbanist, Nikos Salingaros believes that reliance on those wrong codes will eventually result in our roads being the primary determinants of the geometry of urban settlements. When the government invests in the installation of roads to connect two towns, it invariably will give rise to a spate of construction across the length of this road, hence linking those buildings from that particular road but remote from anything else. It should be pointed out that human civilisation does not confine to such limits. People connect to their place of work, leisure and worship and as such prefer to fulfil all the latter requirements at the expense of remote convenience.

In accordance, a new ordered urban form is strongly needed: one that promotes the connection of human beings to their activities. As for its structure, instead of centralised city, we need a living & productive model. One of which could be that of a geometrically living cellular pattern where each cells having their own cores, much like a living organism. A setting of this sort, adapted to our local planning code, would have numerous advantages:

• It would help promote a decentralised system.
• Vehicular transportation would be discouraged and basic activities that connect a human to his habitat, such as walking, would be on the increase.
• The panorama would be more pleasing as our roads would be populated with fewer cars. This would in turn decrease the need for numerous parking lots and hence encourage the green expansion of land. This would also directly impact on the pollution levels.
• A drop in stress levels and increase in productivity rate.
• Economically more viable as it would reduce our energy consumption through vehicular fuel cut back and decreased electricity consumption through reduced heat island effect.

While this proposal may be perceived as unconventional by conservative norms, analysis of developmental trends proves that cities enlaced in a centralisation ideology are in danger. Instead of designing to consume, we need to design to produce in such ways that it creates harmonizsation with nature and its inhabitants.

Thus, we need to view urbanism as a precept that can drive our economic value at every opportunity. Dated and archaic analogy of planning as a purely mechanical process need to be deconstructed and zoning and urban codes have to be completely revised since new developmental models would be rendered prematurely ineffective by adhering to the present code. An approach towards urbanism in an engaged and ethical manner is necessary as it will define us, as humans, just as it will define the long-term prospects of our nation.

Acknowledgement: We are greatly thankful to Prof. Nikos Salingaros for allowing us to peruse his book ‘Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity’ before its publication.

Info about authors: Zaheer Allam is an independent scholar with a background in Green Architecture & Project Management. His field of interest lies in relation to Sustainable & Utilitarian Urbanism, Ecological Architecture and Culture.
Dr. Zarrin Allam is an ex-laureate and a medical practitioner. Holder of numerous awards, her passion expands to literary works and exploring avenues for environmental & cultural conservation and regeneration.

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