New eco-plan for Baakens

CREATING OPPORTUNITIES: An artist's impression of how the lower Baakens River could look once it is allowed to flow over a wider area
CREATING OPPORTUNITIES: An artist’s impression of how the lower Baakens River could look once it is allowed to flow over a wider area

A FANTASTIC new campaign aimed at rejuvenating the Baakens River Valley is set to be launched this evening.

The Save the Baakens River Valley Campaign tackles the 2000ha Baakens catchment as a whole, proposing key changes in management and a range of landscape architecture catalysts which can together recapture the immense recreational and environmental value of Port Elizabeth’s unique green lung.

The planned meeting in Walmer this evening, hosted by campaign initiator Rose Buchanan and the Baakens Valley Preservation Trust, is aimed at bringing together all the role players including scientists, NGOs which run rehabilitation programmes in the valley, community representatives and the municipality.

Straddling the confluence of five of South Africa’s seven biomes or climate-vegetation zones, the Baakens Valley winds through the heart of our city. It’s a blue chip environmental and recreational resource but at the moment it’s polluted and unsafe and being suffocated by poor development choices.

Buchanan describes how as a child growing up here she spent much of her time in the valley. Having graduated with an architecture degree from NMMU she worked for three years in Port Elizabeth and then moved to Cape Town to do her masters in the revolutionary new discipline of landscape architecture. Her dissertation on “reviving the Baakens River” has sparked considerable excitement in the sustainable development fraternity here and it forms the core of the proposed campaign.

Buchanan say commercial development already happening and being planned in the Baakens headwater area has damaged rare vegetation and reduced the quantity and quality of water flow.

Development can be economically viable and environmentally conscious – but no-go areas have to be identified, respected and policed by the city managers, she argues. A key area in this regard is this spongy source of the Baakens around Hunters Retreat.

A lot of the pollution in the 23km-long river comes from the 40-odd stormwater outlet pipes along its length. These same outlets deliver the deluges which spark the floods which have swept down the Baakens wreaking havoc in past years.

First off, all the impermeable pavements, walkways, cycle paths, carparks and driveways around the valley could be replaced with “sustainable urban draining sustems”, she says. This approach incorporates a range of materials which allow rainwater to seep through into the ground at the same time as filtering out pollutants, thus reducing and cleaning run-off.

Complementing this strategy, a natural bulwark of swales and artificial wetlands could be created beneath each stormwater outlet, further reducing flood pressure and filtering out pollution, she says.

Premised on this methodology of slowing the river down the key recommendation for the lower Baakens in Buchanan’s dissertation is for decanalisation, allowing future sustainable development to “maximise the riverine edge”.

The groundwater table will benefit, less river water will be lost into the harbour, the return of natural biodiversity will be encouraged and fish like freshwater mullet can again start using the river as a nursery where at the moment they are too exposed and heavily predated on in the canal.

The existing Lower Valley Road would be shifted higher up the south slope. The Old Tramways Building, the Bridgestreet Brewery complex and the Brickmakerskloof bridge would remain in place and to this could be added a harbour for boating, a public plaza and picnic area planted with red milkwood, a playground and a market space, a climbing wall, biodiversity garden, eco-education centre and “gateway” cultural-tourist nodes including a restaurant.

A fishing node on the north bank could dovetail with dredging under the Baakens Bridge next to the Old Tramways to increase tidal exchange.

Cycle tracks and walkways would loop below the new road and a cliff walk would be created beneath Fort Frederick. The South End Museum could be moved to link up with the historic Malay cemetery adding further substance and interest.

Gabion structures made of recycled rubble and installed around the edge of the lagoon would give it structure and resilience and make it easy for people to access the water. Indigenous palmiet would be planted and allowed to grow over the gabions.

Hailing the campaign, senior environment consultant Dr Mike Cohen says the valley is degraded and it is going to take significant commitment and input from government and private sectors to revitalise it. “But it can be done.”

What’s needed now is community action, says Buchanan. People can join the campaign by liking the Facebook group. Thereafter simple acts like people sharing posts, considering their own properties as part of the catchment, fund-raising and protesting against bad development will all help get the ball rolling. – Guy Rogers, The Elephant’s Ear

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