The places where people are going to live, work and have leisure activities, the type of infrastructure and transport system they require, need to be given proper consideration
Vacoas-Phoenix is a smallish town, and to many it lacks ambition. Some lament that it has not changed over the years; at times the same people feel that it should not change. Today it is one of the most populous towns in the island after Port Louis, yet it continues to lag behind as the mindset of its inhabitants and its urban structure seem to have been cast in a mould that is difficult to break. But some serious rethinking about the future has become a necessity.
It may come as a surprise to many that the population of Vacoas-Phoenix has doubled over the last few decades whereas most of the populations of other towns have stagnated and Port Louis’ has even declined. In 2011 Vacoas-Phoenix had a resident population of 104,271 inhabitants compared with Port Louis’ 118,431. Whereas the population of Port Louis increased from 132,460 to 144,303 during the period 1990 to 2000, the population of Vacoas-Phoenix increased from 56,452 to 100,066 in the same period. Yet the patch covering its shopping area or town centre has hardly changed.
A few commercial premises, which used to service the military complex in the past, have survived to the present day. The old train station had been demolished. The old market has remained as lugubrious as ever and served mostly as a teashop. The Municipal Library is small but well kept and is made good use of by students and others. The new Municipal Office bloc remains unattractive.
The sports ground left by the military, once a no-go area in the colonial past, breathes with life every afternoon, though one feels sad at the daily spectacle of young children being turned back and being denied the right to play on the ground for various obscure reasons. It is only on Tuesdays and Fridays that the market fair attracts a lively crowd, a reminder that Vacoas-Phoenix remains true to its vocation, that of a big agricultural village.
Major changes in the human settlement in the region follow closely past historical trends. Closure of sugar factories and sugar estates resulted in the parceling out of agricultural lands for sale. Hollyrood emerged out of the land belonging to Mrs Moon. The same trend was observed with the closure of Reunion Sugar Factory, with more land being put on the market at Henrietta, Glen Park or La Marie. Recently the closure of Highlands Sugar Factory has resulted in new VRS settlement as well as new settlements in Highlands and Plaines de Hermitage. The latest ‘morcellement’ by Omnicane in Highlands consisted of about 1800 plots, both for residential as well as for commercial purposes, with a proper sewage system but a grossly inadequate green space.
Mauritians in general cherish the ownership of a plot of land, a house and a small garden – ‘a bourgeois ideal which had developed earlier in England more intensely than elsewhere’. People loathed living in flats unless they had no choice; only in recent years have Mauritians started to do so and come to appreciate some of its benefits. Some have abandoned their old houses and moved to flats not only for security reasons but also find it more suitable to manage. Some of the disadvantages of living in a flat continue to linger. Many of these flats lack proper acoustics. No provision has been made for green space. The syndics do not function properly and there is a shortage of basic amenities within a reasonable walking distance.
Coming back to Vacoas-Phoenix, the type of sprawling residential development taking place is something to be avoided and discouraged by the authorities for it is not conducive to a livable environment and cannot be sustained in the future. Not only have we in the process lost valuable agricultural land, human settlement in areas that constitute a catchment area for our rainfall and where there is no proper sewage system can only pollute the water that flows to our reservoirs or boreholes.
The traffic problem has become a nightmare for the inhabitants. Just to take one example: whether we travel along La Marie Road, John Kennedy Avenue, the Phoenix Main road, or the motor way and subsidiary roads at Camp Fouquereaux or Hermitage, the streams of traffic flowing through both main roads and the lesser roads (which were not meant to be used for cars or even less by oversized lorries) have caused traffic congestion, noise pollution, damage to bridges and water pipes, road accidents. The heavy use of side roads by traffic has made the roads generally unsafe for pedestrians, especially children and senior citizens.
As we reinvent the Mauritius of the future, government authorities and the public must debate many of the issues regarding housing and the environment. They will need to review the building and environmental laws and improve the planning process. We cannot merely blindly copy what had taken place in the past without understanding the context and without considering changes which have taken place since and which are likely to take place in the future, when we will need more blocks of flats with all facilities in Vacoas-Phoenix. Some of the blocks of flats in Beau-Bassin or Quatre-Bornes indicate a trend worth studying for adaptation although the setting up of service flats may still be in the distant future.
Although the term ‘holistic’ has become a cliché in various speeches and reports, we should understand the interconnectedness between various aspects of our lives, the environment and society. Imagine if the 25,000 employees working in Ebene were to work and also live there. They could walk on broad pavements to their work and back home, go to the gym, play tennis and other sports on the nearby sports ground, refresh themselves in a park or garden, send their children to infants schools within the same complex and later even attend primary or secondary schools. All this requires a little more prior planning and imagination and possibly not more resources than actually expended.
The places where people are going to live, work and have leisure activities, the type of infrastructure and transport system they require, need to be given proper consideration and should be integrated in urban planning to optimize resources and enable our citizens to live healthy and productive lives. We will need fewer cars or even no cars with improved transportation system. The daily use of a private car must be reduced to the minimum. We will save on energy and time. There would be no need for parking spaces and more land available for outdoor activities.
The public must debate many of the issues raised in this article as we rethink our future. As a start, we should start by building better and broader pavements for pedestrians along all our roads to make public transport safe and accessible. In fact we should reclaim our roads and streets for pedestrians rather than for car owners.