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Monday Dec 09, 2013

Shopping mall for Durban's Warwick Junction will be 'step backwards'

Urban regeneration is being vigorously pursued across Durban's inner city. 

The development of a dynamic system of spatially linked urban 'nodes' - from the beachfront and the CBD to the ICC, Warwick and new plans for the Centrum - reflects an important strategic effort to revitalise and integrate cultural, social and economic energy at the heart of the city.

What is perplexing, though, is that in the midst of this renewed enthusiasm for a forward-looking model of urban regeneration, it appears there are now proposals to reach backwards and dust off plans to introduce new formal retail operations in the Warwick trading area.

Durban's Warwick Junction

Currently, each of Durban's nodes offers a distinctive mix of economic, social and cultural activity. Plans for greater transport integration will deepen the interdependence of these nodes. As a result, inappropriate development could not only have negative local effects but also destabilise a maturing but vulnerable economic and social system in which the city has considerable investment.

Instead, regeneration should be embraced as an opportunity to strengthen existing nodes and design an alternative and inclusive retail model for Durban and beyond.

What's at stake in Durban? In the case of Warwick Junction, the area offers an efficient and dynamic commercial and transport node for formal and informal businesses, customers and commuters.

Supported by city investments in infrastructure and maintenance, the market sustains the informal retail sector at scale and demonstrates a capacity for responsiveness to local needs and conditions. The area has also demonstrated remarkable economic stability across the 15 years of city investments in the area.

Underlying this stability, however, is an established equilibrium of mixed formal and informal retail providers in the area. Inappropriate development in Warwick, such as the introduction of a major formal retail node, like a mall, in the heart of the market, threatens to undermine its vibrant economic and social fabric.

Hundreds of informal traders would be displaced. Customers who rely on the market's affordable and accessible goods would be disrupted, and the livelihoods of a wider network of businesses would be threatened.

Too frequently development schemes fail to build on what is already working. For example, a possible scheme to centralise minibus taxis to achieve spatial efficiency in the Warwick market overlooks the fact that the current system benefits both commuters and traders.

Lots of transfer points allow numerous opportunities to buy and sell affordable goods. Simarilarly a new formal retail node at Warwick would likely disperse national brands and poach customers from the CBD without relative gains. Innapropriate development in Warwick best poses risks for its stakeholders, but also for the CBD and the municipality.

What is the way forward? By undertaking the right process and vision, development can have positive outcomes for formal and informal businesses, local customers and tourists across the inner city.

Consultation and transparency in the preparatory process will be critical to finding responsive solutions. The municipality must take an active role in steering the strategic vision for the urban landscape and ensuring that parastatal or private actors continue to operate responsibly and for the public good.

In envisioning the end product in Warwick, we should expect a retail environment that captures the dynamism of a market environment, with an appropriate measure of formality.

If correctly configured, this could attract a volume of small-scale rentals whose aggregate would be comparable per square metre to those of the CBD, without poaching from this established formal retail environment.

Warwick presents important investment opportunities with respect to enabling mature businesses to evolve, which in turn can facilitate new entrants.

The market thus has the potential to become a training ground for entrepreneurs, which could be supported by the introduction of community support facilities like financial institutions, social services offices and Home Affairs.

These not only represent support mechanisms, but are also rental-paying entities that could contribute to the economic feasibility of such a development.

Upgrading would also present a huge boost to tourism, in line with Durban's global tourism marketing strategy that has recognised the huge demand for the tastes, sights and sounds offered by the Warwick area.

Urban regeneration intent in Warwick Junction and around Berea Station presents a huge opportunity to develop a typology around a balanced configuration of formality and informality.

This new model could encourage new tenancy while supporting existing trading communities.

Development in Warwick must be embraced as an opportunity to strengthen existing nodes rather than imperil them.

Warwick holds the potential to lend Durban a social, economic and cultural relevance that extends beyond our provincial and national borders.

In order to unlock this potential, we must engage in a broader debate concerning the strategic logic of our urban regeneration scheme.

Are we engaging in developments that seize existing opportunities and build on the city's economic and cultural investments, or are we pursuing formulaic projects that will ultimately be tone deaf or even harmful to local circumstances?

Next August, architects, engineers, planners, thinkers and writers from all over the world will gather in Durban for the 2014 Congress of the International Union of Architects.

Organisers have highlighted Durban's unique position - a vibrant, post-apartheid environment that strives to transcend cultural and economic barriers in the inner city and embrace the formal and informal fibres of its urban fabric.

So let's live up to this international expectation. Let's pursue an urban regeneration approach that can attract investor interest to the inner city while ensuring that the dividends meet the most inclusive set of interests.

A unique urban solution is within our grasp.

It can be founded on an alternate and inclusive retail model in Warwick Junction, relevant for South Africa and beyond.

Without a thoughtful development process and outcome, however, we may well be taking a huge step backwards in the push to move ahead.

Richard Dobson
Sunday Tribune


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