Urban design magazine

Public spaces

A successful gamble: from urban wasteland to vibrant city centre

Photo of Port in Réunion - Photograph by Golem Images
Photograph by Golem Images

Transforming a shanty town into a pleasant living area is a huge challenge for the urban planner. This feat was successfully pulled off in the city of Port in Réunion.

Thanks to a favourable combination of factors, the unsanitary city centre was completely transformed in just a few years.

The city of Port: an unUsual history

‘An immense shantytown in an arid landscape’. This is how Réunion chronicler Jacques Lougnon described the city of Port in 1965. The settlement around island’s only industrial port near the capital Saint Denis flourished because of its proximity to Pointe des Galets Port and the railways station. Built at the end of the 19th century on desert-like area of savannah and spiky vegetation, the municipality today comprises more than 400 hectares of business and industrial zones and 150 hectares of green public spaces.

During the 20th century, the city developed in an unusual way. Workers from all over the island to set up camp around the port where they worked. Shanty towns grew from these camps, which constitute the city’s historic centre. Strangely, the suburbs are far more urbanised with shopping areas built in the 1970s and more salubrious housing that contrast strongly with the city centre. In the early 1980s, the idea of extending the port started to take root. Built for a 19th century marina, the structure was no longer adapted to the volume of traffic. Several projects to restructure the city were suggested including constructing a new port, rehabilitating the centre and extending areas around the port such as the Zac des Mascareignes.

Political and financial stability: the keys to success

The local council, run by communist mayor Paul Vergès, was able to carry out wide-reaching projects with the help of a skilled and motivated team. The Mixed Economy Company in charge of managing the project brought together Réunion’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCIR) and the General Council. This political stability and the unfailing motivation of the teams involved created an exceptional degree of continuity that helped make the urban plan from the 1960s into a reality. Grouping together the majority of the island’s companies, the municipality had generous funding for the project.

In the heart of the city: rehabilitating and enlarging the centre

The aim of the project was to recover the city’s main axis running from the sea to the city’s commerical centre to provide a greater degree of urban continuity. Until then, the abandoned space had been invaded by cars and dust and lined with small buildings and shops.

Photo of street furniture in Port, Reunion - Photograph by Golem Images

Street furniture made from local materials – Photograph by Golem Images

Public spaces were redesigned so that the inhabitants could appropriate them in a positive way. How? By restructuring pavements to improve circulation for pedestrians and cars, creating shade with numerous plants and trees and designing street furniture in keeping with local traditions. Seating and window boxes were made with local materials and produced on the island. All these elements helped create welcoming spaces that would last.

Since then, several other important projects have been unveiled including the ongoing redesign of the ZAC des Mascareignes. The municipality has been completely transformed and life in Port is far more pleasant. These projects have highlighted the very close relationship between politics and urban planning. Stable and motivated local government is an urban designer’s best friend.

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