A big fish pond a few metres from the entrance to Hillside Park in Harare used to be a dwelling place for all varieties of fish for sightseers.Now the pond is as dry as an old bone. And there is no sign of it being revived any time soon.
Flowers and hedges have either wilted or overgrown due to lack of maintenance. See-saws and other gaming equipment for children are damaged, rusty and uninviting. A cage, which used to accommodate creatures like rabbits and peacocks, is now a shambles.
A month ago, Harare City Council shut the park citing the “urgent need for rehabilitation”.
Most public parks in Harare have downgraded from their formative splendour while others are in a state of disrepair.
Henry Kapfumvute, a resident of nearby Cranborne, now in his late 60’s, has known the place since his childhood.
Looking at the dilapidated park in dismay, he laments its decline: “It has been neglected for a long time and left to ruin. Now, it is a pale shadow of its former self.”
Negligence has taken a gradual toll on public parks in recent years. In the past, parks were an attraction for lovers of natural beauty and were well maintained. It seems city fathers have underestimated the importance of the parks.
But public parks are recreational facilities, which constitute an important aspect of urban environment. Besides providing places for recreational and civic engagement, city parks are a source of visual appeal. They also provide green infrastructure to communities in which they are located and can also be tourism attraction sites.
The case of ruinous state of Hillside Park is not isolated. Greenwood Park, Harare Gardens and Africa Unity Square are all in varying levels of dereliction.
Africa Unity Square, in the heart of the city, is half-heartedly tended to, with water fountains working on and off.
A photographer, who requested anonymity and has been doing business in the park for the past 21 years, attributed the decline in standards to lack of technical expertise, saying the current municipal authority lacks knowledge of what needs to be done.
“Part of the problem has to do with the management of the park. The guys who took over the supervision of the park are not aware of the standards it used to have. Thus, maintaining it becomes a problem since they lack that knowledge,” he said.
Harare Gardens was once a tourist attraction. The ponds had different species of fish but now these have gone. Some of the fish ponds are filled with water weeds and have become dump-sites for rubbish. Those who visit Harare Gardens can see beneath the rot that the place used to be beautiful.
Worse still, some of these public parks are now havens of vice and crime.
Hillside Park is now an attraction for hooligans. The overgrown vegetation also attracts people, including teens, who view it as the ideal location for their sexual liaisons.
School children in the bad habit of skipping lessons can also be seen loitering in Harare Gardens and indulging in activities ranging from drinking alcohol to smoking and sexual adventures.
Will these parks be revived to their original state any one of these days?
City of Harare spokesperson Michael Chideme attributes the deplorable state of public parks to lack of resources.
Although he could not give the figure of how much Harare City budgets for public parks, Chideme said whatever money was budgeted for the parks only existed on paper.
“It is budgeted for on paper but people are not paying rates with the current situation, which is restrictive to the proper maintenance of the parks. We are working with the communities to make sure that the parks are well maintained. That brings sustainability to the maintenance process. We also make sure that 20 percent of the money generated from the use of parks is ploughed back towards their maintenance,” he said.
University of Zimbabwe rural and urban planning lecturer Nyasha Mutsindikwa believes the situation with public parks can be attributed to a number of challenges that the Harare City Council is facing.
“Budgetary constraints are causing recreational facilities to be given less priority and related to this issue is shortage of a motivated workforce. There are low revenue returns from investment in these parks due to weak demand on paid services as a result of competition from private players.
“Another tragedy is that of the public places being abused by the users even as the responsible authorities are trying their best to maintain these parks.”
Mutsindikwa said the Harare City Council should invest heavily in parks and modernise and diversify facilities and services on offer to create demand. One way of doing this is the public-private partnership route.
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