Blantyre and Zomba need an urban link

The shifting of Malawi’s capital from Zomba to Lilongwe paralysed the former capital’s growth. In 1966, Zomba Town was Malawi’s second biggest urban centre after Blantyre City. But 49 years later, with a population of only 92 000, Zomba, now a city, trails behind Lilongwe (680 000), Blantyre (669 000) and Mzuzu (131 000).
The population statistics are from the 2008 national census. With minimal prospects for industrial or commercial growth, fears were that it may even be surpassed by Mangochi and Karonga townships which are blossoming due to uranium and tourism industries, respectively.
But things may not be the same again. Firstly, Zomba is now home to the President Joyce Banda, and it may remain such for the next 11 years. It is common knowledge that in most countries, by the time presidents leave office, they may have secured one or two major projects for their home towns which ultimately change their face.
Secondly, the rehabilitation of the 69-kilometre Zomba-Blantyre M3 Road, which is currently small and bumpy, will reduce the travelling time between the two cities, from 50-70 minutes at present to 30-40 minutes, just slightly more than one takes to travel to Chileka or Chigumula from Blantyre CBD. This will entail increased economic activities between the two cities, including more people working or doing business in one city and residing in the other.
Unlike Lilongwe, Blantyre’s growth is more conspicuous in its suburban areas than the city proper because the city proper is almost fully built. In a small economy like ours, it is not easy for one to buy a developed plot, demolish the existing outdated structure and construct a modern building on it. Lilongwe City proper, on the other hand, is growing fast because it has plenty of planned and zoned but virgin land.
But with prospects for manufacturing industrial growth much higher for Blantyre than the other cities, Blantyre’s metropolitan areas will thus continue to spread much further and faster from the main city and will most likely meet the expanding Zomba City suburban areas.
Blantyre City’s industrial growth is based on a number of convenient factors. It is the first major city on the Beira-Lilongwe-Lusaka railway route (and this route extends to Maputo, Harare and Johannesburg). Once maintenance of this route is completed, Blantyre will enhance its premier inland port status due to the fact that almost all of its heavy industrial areas have a modest railway network serving a number of cargo handling companies. Therefore, prospective companies dealing with heavy products will continue to find it a convenient base.
Lastly, Blantyre can accommodate more manufacturing companies without over-stretching Escom resources to construct additional high voltage power lines covering long distances because it is only 50 or so kilometres from all of Malawi’s major hydro-power generation plants.
Besides, the current residential statistics for Blantyre provide some telling facts. With an area of 228 square kilometres, it is the most densely populated city in the country with the majority of its residents living in slums. Its population density of 3 000 people per square kilometre is twice as high as that of Lilongwe. Therefore, as slum-packed plots give way to single or duplex bungalows, the metropolitan areas will extend even further from the current boundaries.
It is, therefore, surprising that the road planning authorities decided to upgrade the Zomba-Blantyre Road to another single carriage instead of a dual carriage because in the no distant future, going by the present trend, traffic volumes on this road will more than double. Town planning authorities should have also reserved at least a kilometre strip of land on both sides of the road as a planned area to line it up with properly designed buildings.-The author is a Lilongwe-based graduate architect

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