Making inclusive spaces of trade in Durban

In this post Brittany Morris explores how citizen participation helped transform Durban’s Warwick Junction into a thriving, inclusive market hub which supports traders’ needs and re-establishes public space

Brook Street Market
Brook Street Market

Walking through Durban’s Warwick Junction is a kaleidoscope of colours and a symphony for the senses. The myriad of kiosks and markets, and once-derelict-now-vibrant bridges and overpasses offer a glimpse into the experience of street traders in city life here. The creative use of public space accommodating the traders’ needs is apparent all around you as your feet hit the pavement, traversing wide walkways, a pedestrian bridge, enclosed vendor stalls, and roofed market areas. With 460,000 people and 38,000 vehicles passing through daily, Warwick is Durban’s primary public transportation and trading hub.

Nonhlanhla Zuma is a traditional medicine trader in Warwick Junction. Her trading days began in 1982; at this time, a culture of harassment meant she often had to run from the police and watch her goods being removed. Amenities were not provided to traders and she worked on an exposed street pavement where her goods faced the constant threat of being damaged or stolen. Now, she has moved her business to a kiosk that is complete with water, lighting and security facilities to lock up at night. Nonhlanhla is one of approximately 8,000 traders who come to Warwick every day to trade informally.

Warwick’s past is steeped in racial discrimination, exclusive policies, and neglect. The area’s reputation was one of dilapidation and crime, and due to years of apartheid planning Warwick was segregated racially and divided politically and economically until the early 1990s. During this time the area faced such neglect it became extremely rundown and congested – however as Durban’s market and transport networks expanded, the locational advantages offered a form of employment, and many traders lived on the sidewalks in Warwick to secure their goods. Discriminatory legislation and policies, and violent mass evictions, made life very difficult for informal street traders.

Following the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, in an effort to transform a poorly designed Warwick into a safer and more inclusive space for street traders’, the Warwick Junction Urban Renewal Project was initiated by the City. For over a decade local officials, street traders and membership-based trader organisations collaborated and negotiated on the project’s redesign of the area. The project’s inclusive approach adopted an area-based management and local inter-departmental operating structure, where participation of all stakeholders occurred on a number of levels. Redesigning infrastructural components of the market area following consultations dramatically improved the trading conditions: priority was placed on increasing pedestrian routes, widening walkways, and easing congestion of primary trading hubs. The trading area was paved, shelter and locked storage facilities increased, trader kiosks with water and electricity were constructed, and new spaces were developed for traders.

Muthi market
Muthi market

With approximately 700 traders, Warwick’s muthi (herb and traditional medicine) market is one of the largest in South Africa. Customers approach the herb traders and traditional healers with their illness or ailment (anything from a stomach-ache to a broken heart) who then diagnose and prescribe their medicine. Once an abandoned overpass, facilities were built for the healers and traders and now the muthi market thrives and is connected by a pedestrian pass to other markets in Warwick.

The infrastructural changes and repurposing of empty space supported the traders’ needs, and created healthier, less congested, and safer public spaces. The participatory processes and innovative operating structure included in the urban renewal of Warwick were central to the project’s success of revitalising the area as an inclusive space for street traders and the informal sector on the hinge of Durban’s inner-city.

Warwick’s revitalisation has led to economic development including community-based tourism opportunities, and continues to contribute to the local economy and provide employment. Informal trade turnover in Warwick Junction is estimated to be R1 billion annually. There are very few examples in South Africa and internationally where street traders have been acknowledged for their contributions to cities or included in urban plans and development projects.

The early morning 'Mother Market'
The early morning ‘Mother Market’

Traders, their organisations and allies continue to collaborate and advocate for inclusive public spaces and street traders’ right to the city. Asiye eTafuleni is a non-profit organisation who works with Durban’s informal workers operating from the city’s public spaces. AeT advocates inclusive urban planning and design, and serves as a learning hub for those interested in integrating the informal economy into urban design. Through consultative and participative processes AeT has led various projects and campaigns within Durban to develop informal workers’ working environments and opportunities, such as the Inner-city Cardboard Recycling Project and Markets of Warwick Tour Project. Asiye eTafuleni means ‘bring it to the table’ in isiZulu, and they are living up to their name – engaging with the public and stakeholders to make inclusive space for Durban’s informal traders in an urban environment that recognises the informal economy’s contribution to city life and public space, as well as the rights of informal workers.

Warwick’s street traders still face challenges, such as under representation in urban-decision making processes and policies, and proposed development projects. Although the benefits of the informal trading sector’s contributions to creating inclusive, sustainable and vibrant cities are often ignored and undervalued, traders, their organisations and allies continue to collaborate and advocate for inclusive public spaces and street traders’ rights to the city. The success of the Warwick Junction project is a testament to how including street traders in urban plans supports sustainable livelihoods, addresses poverty and unemployment challenges, and creates democratic public spaces that are safer, more inclusive and contribute to city vitality and overall urban connectivity.

This is an edited version of a post which originally appeared on Vancouver Public Space Network. All photographs author’s own. Brittany Morris is a researcher and writes about inclusive urban environments, public space and creative community engagement. 

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