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Spreading happiness one building at a time

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Cities are living things. They grow, they get sick, and they even die. But they can heal.

Many of the people who live in residential estates do so because the cities ‘beyond the wall’ do not meet their requirements. They are sterile, uninviting, unsafe, car-centric places where people do not matter, plants do not thrive, and animals – animals like rats and feral cats – fight for survival on the mean streets. Our cities are not happy places. But they could be.


Working with what we have

Our history is writ large on the face of our cities. There are the scars – and in some cases still the festering wounds – of apartheid spatial planning, the empty city-centre buildings that testify to international sanctions and investment flight, the rubble, the potholes, and the dark, dingy neighbourhoods that graphically illustrate the destruction and corrosion of essential infrastructure. It is this reality people flee when they choose to live in clean, safe estates.

But there are also pockets of potential, opportunities for optimism, and examples of excellence. They are still small, but they are growing, and it requires only time and some very careful planning for them to gather sufficient momentum to reach a critical mass and become the norm. In the same way that grime, crime and decline feeds off itself, so does hope, happiness and healing. And it’s not just away-with-the-fairies Pollyannas who frolic through the tenements with metaphorical baskets of berries. Serious planners, architects and even city councils are rallying around the call to happiness – the call to re-create positive communities from what’s left of our cities.


Urban ecology

Inner-city regeneration is happening in many cities worldwide, and in most South African cities, too, and some city councils are consciously prioritising people-friendly development. Jonathan Edkins, previously eThekwini City Architect, and now CEO of architectural think tank Vusa Collaborative, described an exciting vision for the city at the Independent Home Property Summit & Expo at Durban’s Nkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre (ICC) in September 2017.

eThekwini’s vision, he explained, is to become Africa’s most ‘caring and liveable’ city. It’s all part of an ecological regeneration initiative for parts of central Durban. Historically in South Africa, there has been some conflict between environmentalists and communities, so the term ‘ecological’ carries some negative connotations but, in this context, it refers not just to natural cycles, but to an intricate and mutually dependent web of forces – nature, people, culture, history and community.



There is a season

It must have been somewhat surreal for Edkins. Standing in the immense, world-class, internationally renowned ICC, which was built ‘on his watch’ as city architect, he focused his audience’s attention on a site about two or three streets to the east, and a world away from the super-slick convention centre. In 2014, Durban hosted the 25th congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA). They could have met in the very convenient and well-appointed ICC, but Edkins, who was then City Architect, and his colleague Nina Saunders chose to use the congress as an opportunity to revitalise the area that is now called Rivertown.

Just a short walk from the ICC, it was a rundown industrial area with blank warehouses, empty streets, a concreted-over canal, and an air of dismal fatalism.

They started off with one building – The Beer Hall. Looking more like a warehouse than a
pub, this low brick edifice had served as an institutionalised segregated drinking den for black men with all the oppressive colonial- and apartheid-era baggage that entails. But the space was successfully transformed into a vibrant public forum for congress delegates and Durbanites alike. With exhibitions, performances, debates, panel discussions, pop-up food and drink venues and a wide range of performance art, The Beer Hall came into itself. And, with the City behind it, the momentum continued after the event. As many things do, it started slowly – building by building – but it seems to be set on an everaccelerating path towards rejuvenation.


A time to break down, a time to build up

What makes the Rivertown Triangle area unique is that – with the exception of The Beer Hall – there are very few historical or beautiful buildings. It’s an area of panel-beating shops, car dealerships, warehouses and other mundane buildings of – mostly – unpleasing proportions. So the chances were, if it was to be developed, it would have been flattened to make way for an office block or a neat geometric grid of themed houses with a small retail centre.

But the City’s emphasis on recognising the history and community of the area, and its importance as a connection between the Beachfront and the city centre, have contributed to its continued in-site development, regeneration and repurposing of buildings. And that – really – is how cities do actually evolve. One building at a time.

So far, there are a number of mixed-use buildings, including The Beer Hall, some cunningly designed shared office space, and a slew of performance venues, restaurants, coffee shops and bars. An existing spice shop was expanded to include a small spice museum to showcase how spices have impacted not only the history and community of Durban – but also of the rest of South Africa. The plan is that – ultimately – the Spice Quarter will tie in sustainable roof gardening, universally accessible restaurantsand a hotel, and – of course – an expanded museum. Rivertown’s position within walking distance of the ICC makes it a popular venue for breakaway events, where delegates can get to see a bit of the real Durban beyond the convention centre. There is a street market on the last Friday of every month.


Spreading happiness – a time to rejoice

This way of thinking about spaces and communities has developed into something Edkins calls happitecture. ‘Happitecture,’ he says, ‘is the embodiment of harmony between place, humanity and ecology, where systems, beliefs and individual emotions are accommodated to lead to community briefs for action.’

This concept shares many values with the concept of happynomics that was developed in Bhutan – the country that measures its prosperity in GNH (Gross National Happiness) not GDP (Gross Domestic Product). It’s all about working with what we have – the buildings, the people, the communities, the history – and that includes the scars, the warts and some of the not-so-pretty aspects of our shared spaces. It’s not about creating a perfect society with no slums, no crime and no social ills; it’s about making what we have the best it can possibly be, making our communities, our spaces – and ourselves – the best we can. It’s about healing.

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