The nationwide lockdown during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic of 2020 stirred a longtime discussion on street vending. What provoked this discussion was the tranquility in city centres and town centres during the lockdown as there was street vending. Many people found this environment of no vendors in city centres to be tranquil and ideal. Following this lead, municipalities have been discussing how they can maintain the tranquility of city centres that most citizens witnessed during the lockdown.
A Polarised Issue
Street vending is very controversial and very polarized. On one side of the polarization is the antipoverty argument that contends that vending is a symptom of a deep-seated problem of a poorly performing economy. The proponents of this argument advocate for street vendors’ right to the city for them to earn a livelihood since city centres are where vending is most vibrant. On the other side of the polarization is the absolute order argument. Proponents of absolute order argue that street vending hampers the operation of formal businesses so it needs to be moved out of the city centres where formal commerce is concentrated. This controversy of competing interests of various stakeholders of the city is the very role of town planners to rationalize. Town planners by their very nature solve urban challenges in a way that keep the cities and towns in equilibrium. By doing so they act as allocators of scarce resources among all the inhabitants of the city, making sure the interests of one group do not trample the interests of other groups, by that creating harmony.
In Zimbabwe, however, town planners themselves as the responsible professionals do not have a common position on how to address street vending. Most of the expert opinions of the town planners are also as polarized as the opinions of the public. There are town planners who believe that since vendors have the right to earn a livelihood, they should not be moved out of their vending places, that the government should address the fundamental cause of vending which is poor economic growth. Such town planning opinion stems from the idea of ‘right to the city’ of a socialist city which is also currently fashionable in the town planning profession. The other group of town planners believe that vendors should be moved out of the city centres to ensure formal commerce operate in tranquility. This is idea stems from the modernist movement of utilitarian orderliness which shaped most zoning regulations that are used in town planning. This belief leans on the capitalist side of town planning of asserting right to private property and the formal economy. As town planners are also polarized on how to solve street vending, they are challenged to remember that they do achieve most of their work not when they act as moralists that ban activities absolutely but when they act as allocators that put activities in places that ensure harmony.
As polarized arguments keep dominating the street vending discussions, the centred argument has not been explored. So I would like to take on this task of rationalizing these two polarized arguments. I believe if we are to integrate street vending into cities and towns successfully the two polarized ideologies on their own will not achieve the integration. The solution lies in a balance of this polarization as planners ought to do. Before going into the rationalization of solutions to street vending, we need to understand street vending in historical context, at least briefly.
A Historical Context
In the modern cities and towns, street vending may appear to be an alien practice that should be removed from city centres. The history of city centres, however, is a history of vending. In the early evolution of cities before industrialization, street vending was main practice of retail. During that time, shops were not well established. Retail was done in market squares and market halls that opened on specific days of the week. During other days when these markets were closed, street peddlers moved from place to place selling wares and groceries. The establishment of permanent shops emerged as a new development to improve convenience. This legacy of market halls and market squares is still evident across the world. In Europe, for example, one of the tourist attractions are Basilicas, well ornamented classical buildings that are usually used as churches of the Catholic. The original use of the Basilicas however was that of being market halls.
In Harare, since its establishment in the 1890, a market hall existed facing a market square where sell of produce and vending was done. This place is now occupied by Gulf Complex and Market Square bus rank. Most, if not all cities in the world have faced the problem of vending in its evolution. Even England whose rapid urbanization was supported by strong industrialization to ensure high employment levels, it had a huge problem of street peddling, so significant that in the late 19th century the population of street peddlers in London huge, if they were to break off from London they would have formed a city that was going to be the fifth largest in England. New York as late as the 1950s it still had a huge challenge of street vending, the stories of the cat and mouse game between vendors and police resemble very much what is now happening in Zimbabwean cities. This context helps us understand better how street vending has been a part of the city in the evolution of cities. It helps us locate the state of evolution of Zimbabwean cities and towns in relation to street vending. Eventually it helps us rationalize the polarized solutions to street vending.
The Antipoverty Argument
The antipoverty proposition on street vending is very well-intentioned and understands the plight of the urban poor who survive on street vending. As well-intentioned as the proposition is however, its absolutism does not help much in the long run. The challenge with this absolutist approach is that if focuses on the interests of one group that is the vendors. But the activities of the vendors since they occur in a city centre where many other activities are impacted, the approach has ripple effects that eventually impact the urban poor negatively. Because of the absolutism of the vending advocacy, vending across the country as a result has gone so radical to the extent to destabilizing the formally established retail. For example, there are now cases where vendors are selling groceries in front of supermarkets, clothes right in front of clothing stores. This creates a difficult environment for formal retailers that pay taxes and rates while also employing a significant number of people. To continue advocating for the antipoverty proposition creates a situation where formal businesses that contribute to the revenue of the city and the national economy more end up channeling their goods to the informal market. This eventually weakens the formal retail sector.
As much as the vending population is struggling to make end meet, this level of free reign risks creating an environment of anarchy. Also, when indiscriminate street vending operates in places that are incompatible with other uses in terms of noise levels and pedestrian traffic, the formal commercial activities in city centres flee to suburban office parks. As this population leave city centres that are flooded with street vending to operate in suburban office parks and living in gated communities, the trend creates the opposite of inclusive cities that proponents of antipoverty idea seek to achieve. The well-to-do will cluster in suburbs both as place of residence and of work; they will hardly ever mix with the urban lower class to understand the plight of each other which promote class cooperation. But it could be argued that such a development is a good ingredient for urban revolutions to abolish capitalism and class struggle as the well-to-do forget about inequality while cocooned in the wealthy enclaves. In such a situation, the municipal authorities will be losing on prime sources of revenue from city centre uses, the same revenue that can be used to subsidize for urban services for low income groups.
The Absolute Order Argument
The call for absolute order is also a position that is supported by many from the public to the municipal authorities. For decades, municipal authorities have been trying to implement this approach without much progress. When municipalities designate market places that are out of the city centre, the street vendors do not go to these sites for one reason, there is less traffic to make the site vibrant for vending. The absolute order proponents have well compelling arguments because the city centres thrive on spatial harmony. The city centres are more successful when they are orderly, when their various operations operate harmoniously and properties are used effectively and efficiently by high value uses. These conditions however are still a utopia that we now see in postindustrial cities in developed countries. Zimbabwe is still developing and the pains of poor economic growth do not allow such a utopia to exist. Therefore, the solution of absolute order will not be successful as it ignores the realities of street vending. Moving street vendors out of the city centres has been like pumping water upstream, it has been an act of defying gravity which requires a lot of resources.
To succeed at integrating street vending into cities we need to acknowledge the two facts: (i) leaving vending unregulated creates anarchy and (ii) vending is most vibrant where there is high traffic (mostly pedestrian).
Following the need to regulate vending, the current vending in city centres need to be put into designated vending sites. To succeed at this in city centres one crucial measure is to zone the city centres and town centres into subdistricts. This is a zoning that exist already through the Local Development Plans yet it has not been implemented effectively and still need a lot of improvement. In another ViewPoint I talk in detail about the need to zone city centres into subdistricts. Under the current setups vending and other formal commercial activities are having a conflict because of incompatibility. Across the country there is lack of designation and enforcement of subdistricts. By subdistricts a city centres is zoned to ensure compatible uses cluster together. Financial districts accommodate the financial services and other office uses of compatibility, shopping districts accommodate the retail activities of the city centre, entertainment district accommodate specific uses, government district also accommodate specific government offices. These are district that are evident in most cities across the world. When you have these districts compatibility of various uses is easy to achieve when regulating street vending. The location of vending sites can be in accordance to the subdistricts where vending sites for clothing are located in fashion district. When vending is regulated according to compatibility to subdistricts issues such as noise and pedestrian levels becomes easy to address. Vending stalls are crucial to be established that are compatible with specific districts of the city centres.
Now, municipal authorities may not have adequate personnel to enforce regulations within designated vending sites as well as controlling undesignated vending. When city centre vending sites are established however, compliance to regulations such as noise levels can be enforced through established vending associations. Just as associations of other informal sectors they can organize street vending more orderly and help with compliance of municipal regulations and adoption of best practices.
The population that vends in city and town centres is significantly high; it cannot be accommodated into the city centres all of it without disrupting the spatial harmony that city centres require to operate efficiently. This is where the decongestion movement comes in which proposes moving vendors out of the city centre. To make the approach effective however, the decongestion of vending has to be done with accompanying uses that draw most of the traffic to the city centre. Cities and towns across the country already have suburban shopping centres. These shopping centres however are not as vibrant as the city centre. To drive some of the traffic to suburban shopping centres it is crucial to also move supermarkets that are located in city centres. Unlike other retail activities supermarkets do not require agglomeration with other supermarkets for them to be vibrant; on their own they are already agglomerations. The challenge is that most town centres and city centres across the country have supermarkets yet the centres do not have residential living they serve. So they eventually serve suburban dwellers who some of them drive past their suburban shopping centres to do grocery shopping in city centres. I discuss at length on the tragedy of city centre supermarket in another ViewPoint. This traffic however which could have ended at suburban shopping centres also add to the increase of food and grocery vending that could have concentrated in suburban shopping centres where retail is the dominant activity.
If municipal authorities are to decongest vending from city centres successfully, the decongestion should not be to sites that are totally new. New sites have proven to fail and require high levels of resources to make them work. The decongestion needs to be to suburban shopping centres.
The decongestion of street vending to suburban shopping centres also depend significantly on the qualities of the shopping centres as transport nodes that receive traffic. This is also where cities need to ensure commuter omnibuses operate using the suburban shopping centres as key stations in their route. Doing this also requires coordination and enforcement that can be done using commuter omnibus associations of which the City of Bulawayo is already a leading example. We already have successful cases such as Mbare Musika which is vibrant already given partly its qualities as a transport node. Decongesting supermarkets from city centres and town centres however is such a tall order that most municipalities will not be able to do given the well establishment of supermarkets in city centres. At the very least however the town planners, the public and the policymakers have to know the real cost of locating a supermarket in a city centre. As street vending is a phenomenon that evolve as the economy develops, it requires adjustments in various areas and collaboration of many stakeholders to implement medium and long term strategies that ensure vibrancy and spatial harmony.