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Destruction of Africa Unity Square can be reversed

It is inexcusable that Harare should become so rundown in appearance in those areas where very little money is needed to present a decent face to the world.

Instead, as we recently highlighted, the central point of what is supposed to be a modern capital city of a country moving forward rapidly is a disaster.

Africa Unity Square, is the oldest and most central of the city’s parks. While city parks staff do try and keep the place usable, they face an almost total lack of support from the city council and from senior officials as they battle against decades of neglect and vandalism and with no one seeming to care.

Yet so much could be done with very little money.

In the 1990s there was an attempt to redesign the park, with a competition launched, to fill its function of bringing a small green lung into the middle of the city. Businesses around the park were prepared to help out, but leadership was required and decisions needed to be made. No one provided the leadership and no one made the decisions, so it just continued to fall to bits.

Many of the proposed designs allowed more people to use the area, but with less damage, some kept the central fountains, although with new piping and pump and a different sort of water design rather than the slightly odd double fountain on a timer that was there before everything broke down.

Some, although fewer, of the new designs kept the wing water features, although there was a lot of criticism of too much concrete with little benefit to show for it.

Most people recognised that the trees needed to be replaced over the next few years, and around half have now been chopped down, most of the cypresses being well past their safety age and the jacarandas starting to show signs of approaching death.

But almost any of the top half dozen or so designs would have served the purpose and kept the square attractive and useful for another century. But nothing was done and the decline continued.

The little park started out as a fort, the Fort Salisbury of the British South Africa Company. Someone paced out the boundary while holding a compass, so fixing the street grid in both direction and block size forever.

Our streets are aligned to the magnetic north-south of September 1891, in most of the city centre except in the kopje area, and our blocks are the width of the old fort and twice the height.

No one knew really what to do with the old fort in the early 1890s when the first rains reduced the height of the walls to less than a metre and the second rains basically washed them away.

It served as the first cricket field, although was on the small side, before getting its new role when the fanatic who was in charge of Harare’s parks managed to get hold of it.

He was fairly smart. He knew people would walk across the park on their own routes, regardless of where he put the paths. So he put in three paths, two diagonal ones connecting the corners and one giving pedestrians in George Silundika Avenue a straight connection.

That gave him the space to plant his trees, and since at this stage all water came from wells he reckoned trees were required as lawns were not going to happen anytime soon. He had a few flower beds though.

Someone then added the central north-south path, which was not really needed, so the square would look like a Union Jack. But this did not stop the woodland planting. The trees still in the square are the survivors.

As water and electricity became available lawns were planted and flower beds extended.

In the 1950s, the central fountain was built and in the 1970s another ideologue put in the long concrete water features, selling them as a central white stripe in the field of green so the park would look like the Rhodesian flag, rather than the Union Jack. But the changes did stop ideas of converting it to a parking garage.

What is needed now is to go back to those redesign ideas, if anyone bothered to keep them, or do another proper redesign. New trees need to be established now, in some areas because there is just bare earth and in other areas while the old jacarandas still have a few years left so there will not be a total desert.

Somewhere in that square is an old borehole, that someone needs to renovate and probably reline. The private attempt to restore seating with pure concrete seats needs to be pushed forward, since these are harder to vandalise and in any case cannot provide wood for fires lit by vagrants.

It should not be expensive to repair the pool of the central fountain and put in new pipes and a pump. But that does mean the square needs to fit some image, and a rundown mess fits no image.

Because so little has been done for half a century the square no longer fits modern needs and some of the colonial design with its insistence on making the square look like the flags of the time are no longer needed.

But we still need the trees; we still need decent paths; we still need shrubs and flowers; and we still need places where many people can just sit for a short while and reconnect.

A redesign could cut back on maintenance if that was a primary need, so that a decent looking park would still be there even if less money was spent on it.

The incredible thing is that fixing up Africa Unity Square could be done for surprisingly little money so long as there was a decent new design and a willingness to do whatever earth moving was now required. But what is needed is not so much a huge budget as a willingness to restore the central point of Harare so that it fits a modern capital city.

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