The naysayers are right – Port Louis will be doomed. But not because Heritage City threatens to turn it into a ghost town. Within our children’s lifetimes, rising sea levels and torrential rains will conspire to flood it with such regularity that it will become impossible for Port Louis to function as Mauritius’ capital city. This is the sad but inevitable reality of climate change: the long term tragedy of man’s short term mentality.
If we improve the drainage, we make it easier for the ocean to enter; if we build a sea wall, we turn Port Louis into a reservoir. The slender silver lining is that there will be increased draft in our deep-water port for larger ships. Probably the best we can do is demolish buildings and plant tree-filled parks to absorb some of the rain and prepare evacuation plans to escape the storm surge from super-cyclones.
At some point in the future, our capital will have to move to higher ground – the most appropriate site being State Land in the region aptly named Highlands, accessible and equidistant from the north and south of the country. This was obtained in 2001 as part of the Illovo deal and earmarked to meet our long term housing needs in the Plaine Wilhems conurbation. However, the project soon evolved into a 920 hectare master-plan for a new capital city with an inland waterfront created by Bagatelle dam, a pedestrianised centre, free public transport and peripheral parking. Although every trace has been erased from government websites, one concept can still be found at www.ae-7.com/hdm.html.
The project was publicly cancelled in 2011 because the government buildings, to be constructed free of charge by the sole international developer, were much lower in value than the land given in exchange. However, Highlands was soon revived and was to be built in manageable stages by local companies so that the profits would be retained in Mauritius. Phase 1 was designed to catalyse new sectors of the economy with an integrated knowledge, medical and innovation hub.
In comparison to the bold plan for Highlands capital city, Heritage is little more than a quaint administrative village to be built on a small fraction of the site at the foot of the dam. It will neither house the whole of government nor the Supreme Court. It has no central business district, the tiny mixed-use zone will be dominated by the diplomatic corps and it will certainly not create any new pillars for our stalling economy. It is big enough to artificially inflate GDP, but small enough to be mostly finished within the government’s mandate. And who will deny that the unconventional financial structuring is but a sly and short-sighted attempt to meet the statutory debt ceiling target of 50% by 2018?
Despite the preposterous propaganda worthy of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” in 1984, Heritage has little to do with the future. Highlands was not perfect, but it was infinitely better. It can be improved by the generation who need it most, led by our own brilliant, young urban planners like Zaheer Allam. Why must we sell our country’s soul to profit-seeking foreigners? Isn’t the MCB building iconic? Wasn’t Cyber Tower 1 state-of-the-art? And why shouldn’t our new capital city revive our architectural legacy – updated with ecological intelligence for the 21st century?
When T. S. Eliot’s Thomas Becket was tempted to seek martyrdom for the purpose of self-glorification he reflected:
The last temptation is the greatest treason
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
We need to ask ourselves: Is the government building Heritage “City” for the right reason? Is it even doing the deed right? Is it building a capital fit for the future or a myopic memorial to the past?
Let us exercise our judgement. If we agree on the need to restore the comprehensive, long term vision for Highlands then, in a time of global austerity and financial uncertainty, shouldn’t it be realised in affordable phases that reflect our national priority to reinvent the economy? We elected politicians that promised to “govern for the people, with the people”. If they refuse to respond to what we say, then they deserve a damning vote of no confidence. Politicians that don’t bend to the will of the people will be broken.
All images courtesy of AE7.
This article was published in le Mauricien.
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