In March 2019, cyclone Idai blew in from the Indian ocean and hit the city of Beira, Mozambique. It was the second deadliest storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere, and the most expensive. Beira took the full force of the storm and was destroyed. That’s the word the city’s mayor Daviz Simango used, and it’s no exaggeration: 90% of the buildings were lost, including schools, the hospital and the port.
Perhaps because it happened on the same day as the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, and perhaps because it happened in Africa, Idai didn’t get much attention. Beira deserved more, because as some observers noted at the time, it has a place in history. It is the first city to be completely destroyed by climate change.
“Cities have risen from the ashes after world wars in many countries, and Beira too has to rise from the ashes” said Simango after the disaster. As a symbol of the city’s comeback, it recently cut the ribbon on Beira Green Park, a park with flood management features that will make the coastal city more resilient to future threats.
The park sits on either side of the Chiveve River, with footpaths and cycle paths that run for over three kilometres through the site. There are children’s playgrounds and outdoor gyms, a market, performance spaces and an exhibition hall. The park is carefully laid out around the river and much of it is designed to flood, forming a large scale soakaway zone for storm water. Visitors will still be able to make their way around the park during floods, thanks to paths on elevated wooden decks.
The new park has been rolled into the rebuilding work, but the plan for the river restoration and landscaping predates cyclone Idai. The city had recognised where it was vulnerable and had been working on the project for three years when the cyclone struck. The river had cleared of rubbish, sediment was excavated to improve drainage, and mangroves were replanted along the banks. Works were interrupted by the cyclone and picked up again afterwards.
I don’t know what comes to mind when you think about climate change adaptation, but Beira Green Park shows how it can play a significant part in the life of the city. It’s a flood management tool, but it’s also a high quality public space that will improve people’s lives, enhance biodiversity, create jobs and opportunities for culture and shared experiences.
The idea of incorporating ‘green infrastructure’ into public space is not new, though this is the biggest example in Africa. It’s an approach that China has been using, sometimes referred to as ‘sponge cities‘. New York has the Big U programme of works that aims to protect the city from hurricanes. The Netherlands has pioneered public squares and playgrounds that can safely flood. These sorts of spaces are increasingly important for urban planners as they look to manage greater risk of floods. I hope it makes a difference in Beira, where cyclone season is starting again.