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Bringing liveliness back to the town centre


THE launch of the Mandela Bay Development Agency’s Safety Programme last week reminded me of the essay penned by British urbanist Julian Dobson titled “From Ghost Town to Host Town”.

In the essay Dobson asked whether city centres still had a purpose in an economic environment that had seen the demise of the concentration of offices, retail shopping and social spaces to a shadow of what they had once been.

Maybe the real challenge for our city is to turn our town centre into a social centre that supports a wide range of overlapping communal activities, only some of which are to do with shopping.

That means making our town centre a place for everyone and finding ways to make the various activities the wider public engages in, mutually beneficial and supportive of societal cohesion.

As Dobson points out in his essay, developing a vibrant social centre requires these key elements: A living town centre: “Town centres need to be promoted as places to live for a wide mix of people.”

A learning town centre: This might “combine formal learning accredited by universities and colleges with spaces for informal learning and exchanges of skills”. A greener town centre: “Interest in growing projects is rising as consumers become more aware of the waste associated with global food distribution systems, and climate change is likely to increase the need for [locally sourced] food and for relearning gardening skills.”

A creative town centre: “Creative activities will draw people into urban spaces, generating interaction and business opportunities. Many such activities need temporary, flexible space rather than permanent buildings.” A networked town centre: “The key to a successful centre is not the buildings or the retail offer; it is the people.”

Social supply chains: “Town centres that support networking and creativity make good business sense. There is an opportunity to recreate networks of the kind that enabled market towns to succeed in the past – personal relationships between suppliers, links between producers and consumers.”

Planned fluidity: “Town centres . . . need to be planned for shifting modes of transport, flexible public space, and changes of use that are likely to be more frequent than the planning system currently allows.”

On many of these elements the Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA) has made great strides over the past few years. An example of steps towards a more creative town centre is the upgrading of the Athenaeum building to become a popular cultural hub for the city’s young and trendy.

Recently, the NMMU school of music, art and design celebrated its return to the area with the official launch of the new NMMU Art Gallery. The Bird Street campus is a thriving arts and music hub.

However, it is not just institutions like the MBDA and NMMU that are responsible for creating a social town centre. Private and public buy-in is needed to make Nelson Mandela Bay’s town centre a communal space for the city’s people to enjoy. If we can get this right, business opportunities will follow, to the benefit of the entire city’s economy.

The safety programme is a collaboration between various stakeholders and will lend support to activities unfolding in the city centre which support the notion of a “social town centre”. The call to action now is for business to respond to the opportunity that our city centre still holds.