Welcome to the Concrete Jungle

By TD Fuego

Once upon a time, Mauritius was a desert island covered by a dense, lush, verdant tropical forest which contained a mass of exotic plants and trees. After three centuries of human activity, we are left with a mere token of this Eden, a strip no larger than a kilometre near Grand Bassin.

Twenty years ago, as his plane came in to land, a tourist would normally see below the luxuriant green fields, with the Lion Mountain providing a beautifully apt backdrop to the whole panorama. After touch down, as he drove north along the M1 to his hotel in Grand Bay, barring the agglomeration around Port Louis, he could feast his eyes on more of the pleasant, luxuriant green of the island. Today, it is much the same view that greets him from the plane. But the rest, alas, has changed and continues to do so inexorably.

All the way from SSR airport to Grand Bay, there is hardly any place left that is not covered, or is about to be covered, with concrete. This change has not come about overnight. It has been happening piece by piece, almost imperceptibly even as we have passed them by and imagined that every new development was a unique happening. But, cumulatively, they have begun to form a tight, concrete belt along both sides of the motorway.

This développement sauvage is going on all over the island; and the Réduit area is a good example of what this type of development means.

The Big Horror

Twenty years ago, aside from the old village, we had the University of Mauritius (UoM) and the AREU on the west side of the M1 and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI) to the East—both discreetly tucked away among trees and greenery. Whilst the village has remained virtually the same, the UoM has grown manifold and the MGI has acquired new buildings. Now, the concrete structures of both institutions have replaced the trees that used to line the motorway.

On the east side, we have also seen further buildings go up. These include the MBC, the Marathi Centre and the Apollo hospital. Just a stone throw way from the MBC, we have yet another mega commercial centre going up. Whilst approving building permits, someone has simply overlooked the traffic that all these development will generate. Already at rush hour, the roads round here get so congested that, in order to get an emergency case to the Apollo, a helicopter rather than an ambulance would seem a more appropriate means of transport.

But, the biggest horror has to be to the west of the UoM. Grandiosely named the Cybercity, the development at Ebene is nothing but one large, monstrous concrete jungle. In less than ten years, we have managed to transform a fertile, green and pleasant expanse of land into a horrid hotchpotch of asymmetrical concrete buildings that epitomizes the worst case scenario of a large ugly, malformed, vertical cité. Apart from the two smart Cybertours and a few office blocks that blend in with them, the rest seem to be the Lego work of a backward, schizophrenic adolescent.

The road design is no better than the winding ox-cart trail that many of our older highways and byways stand on. As the promoters have gone for maximum floor space per toise of land, there is little room for much else. Already, we have a parking crisis in this so-called Cybercity, which presupposes the best planning that mingles the agreeable with the practical. But, good architects and landscape artists seem to have been on exile whilst this Cybercity was being planned and executed. With the horse now having bolted the door, it is now just too late and just too bad!

The Urban Sprawl

In a well planned development, there should always be adequate room for a buffer zone which is known as the Green belt. This is necessary not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also for its ecological, environmental and social aspects. Demarcating, as it does, adjoining habitations, the Green belt promotes community building, engenders a sense of belonging and facilitates social interaction within each boundary. Of course, these things are much more difficult, if not impossible, to attain in the anonymity of an urban-rural sprawl.

As a result of Réduit growing in all directions, there remains little or no demarcation between any of its neighbouring towns/villages. Thus, it is now joined to the east with Moka, to the west with Rose Hill and Quatre Bornes. Bearing in mind that these towns, through past développement sauvage, are in turn joined to their neighbours and beyond, we have here the perfect making of an infinite urban-rural sprawl. If we are not careful, very shortly our overseas visitor will see one vast conurbation that spans the entire stretch of roads from SSR airport in the south to Grand Bay in the north.

Already, the situation looks bleak and, in spite of all our chest-thumping talk of MID, remedial action is all but absent. Recently, a regular visitor from abroad remarked, “Mauritius is a beautiful island. It is pity that the town planning and the buildings, including private dwellings, are rendering her so ugly.” Une laideur sans comparaison, is how he actually put it.

A Thing of Beauty…

Yet, it need not be like this. One need only hop over to Reunion Island to see the contrasting difference of good town planning that respects the environment, and an architecture that combines the utilitarian with the aesthetic.

Local promoters and architects, on the other hand, seem to concentrate solely on the utilitarian aspect and the profit margins of their projects. Unfortunately, they are not alone in this, because all along they have a tacit accomplice in the planning authorities. Together, this trio is destroying the unique beauty and soul of the motherland in front of our very own eyes. Instead of Welcome to l’Ile Maurice, the segamen will soon be singing Welcome to the Concrete Jungle.

BUT, who cares?!

* Published in print edition on 8 October 2010

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