Port Louis - A tropical city revisited

Regarding the tragic flooding that put the City of Port Louis in chaos on the fateful 30th March 2013, Auguste Toussaint’s book “Port Louis-A tropical city” published in 1973 by George Allen and Unwin comes to our mind as a distinguished historian’s work but equally as a piece of researched documentation that puts forward the concept of what a tropical city should look like. Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II granted Port Louis the status of a city-the unique one to date- in 1966 in the Indian Ocean prior to Independence regarding its strategic location in the region, the infrastructure that Port Louis had compared with other urban locations in the Indian Ocean.
To us, Mauritians, Port Louis led all the way in the Indian Ocean region because, from a historical perspective, it was a port of call for the French in the period 1735 to 1810.  The French administration left Mahebourg and chose Port Louis as a main location because the Moka Range, also known as the Port Louis Range, sheltered ships in a safe and calm harbour from the strong South-East trade winds.  In Mahebourg, the gusts blew from the windward side while Port Louis was ideally located on the leeward side protected from strong gales.
The choice of Port Louis as a capital city was not even contested when the British took over the island in 1810.  Almost two years later, Colonel Draper developed horse racing business at the Champ de Mars, a location deeper inside Port Louis and once again in close proximity to the Signal Mountains and the Citadelle forming part of a small range of hills adjacent the magnificent Port Louis Range.  So far, Port Louis developed from an urban location to a city as it travelled through the times of Mauritian history and nation building.  Port Louis had its Parliament, its central market, and major train stations while it grew as a major confluence in Mauritius with various populations at different times of history. 
De Cossigny’s legacy
To understand the planning of Port Louis, one needs to go back to the French colonisation era and see how the city was planned.  To many Mauritians of the 1950 generation or earlier, Port Louis has been designed in such a way that nobody gets easily lost.  Everyone walking in the streets meets at certain places since the urban planning of the town has been done in square or rectangular forms.  Streets are perpendicular to one another and rarely deviate in diverging ways.
This was the legacy of Charpentier de Cossigny who developed Port Louis as a modern capital using Cartesian philosophy where all streets make their way ultimately to the harbour or the quay, a place of confluence.  De Cossigny worked under Mahé de Labourdonnais’ governance but had clashes with him, according to selected historical readings.  Despite his character, Port Louis was long time ago scientifically planned or designed “à la cartésienne” with the full-fledged contribution of workers from Mozambique, Madagascar but, importantly, from talented workers working as “affranchis” from Pondichérry, the French East India port.  In those days, the port was developed in such a way that part of the Port Louis shore could be merged with the nearby streets and gutters, through the setting up of “pilotis” supporting infrastructure upon them.  
The gutters, in turn, would serve as an underground basement to drag water from various canals like le Ruisseau de la Pucelle or Ruisseau du Pouce, the most popular one.  The French foresaw that rain water flowing in strong currents from the lush green but steep hills could move along them and find its way to the harbour.
The City of Port Louis travelled through the test of time.  The plague of 1892 drove people away from Port Louis to cooler locations like Moka and the Upper Plaines Wilhems.  The 1945 cyclone devastated Port Louis again in the same way as cyclone Carol in 1960 but then the population resisted displacement elsewhere.  Earlier in 1865, Port Louis suffered from tragic flooding claiming the lives of twenty-one inhabitants.
A modern city in an industrialised economy
The Municipality of Port Louis, being the hearth of political and urban development decisions, became the envy of politicians of all creeds.  Every major politician cherished his desire to control Port Louis as it was evident that the corridors of power could not shift elsewhere despite some efforts to decentralise activities.
In the 1980s, the elected government aimed at enhancing Port Louis infrastructure.  The Bulk Sugar Terminal was constructed and it replaced the Docks while the Moulin de la Concorde stood majestically with its strong pillars near the quay.  Similarly, the new Mauritius Commercial Bank building surpassed the Bank of Baroda that so far heralded its six stairs. Rogers House, a project under Laxmanbhai Construction’s supervision became the first private sector “haut de gamme’ building.  Alongside, the motorway from the South was widened and drifted into a straight serpentine line to link Port Louis to the North.
The population of Port Louis remained stagnant.  With its four constituencies, Port Louis maintained a constant population of less than 150,000; never exceeding it.  It was the construction of buildings that now took over it.  Geneviève Dormann, celebrated writer of “Le bal du Dodo” was shocked when skyscrapers aligned in front of the lush green mountains, shielded their view from the harbour.  The Port Louis skyline became the fashion of times as well as the driving force of property development.  The town grew clumsier when old one-storey buildings were pulled down one after the other to allow for the rise of huge and magnificent concrete buildings.  
Le Caudan Waterfront, in an effort, to broaden leisure and recreation in Port Louis, developed as a major property in 1995 pulling away vestiges like Taylor Smith sheds and other small buildings hedging the harbour.  In parallel, road infrastructure was enhanced with the Caudan bypass a few years ago.
Safety cautioned
Port Louis has remained a safe city compared to African standards with petty theft and higher levels of surveillance with video cameras.  However, it is the main town that suffers from the forecasted greenhouse effect.  Although torrential rain can be considered as an unpredictable event, Port Louis rarely cautioned poor safety standards.  It feigned having sirens and similar alerts in times of disaster.  Being too busy all the day coupled with nearly 200,000 people who cross it everyday, Port Louis stands as a bombshell.  Everything can look eerie now.  Imagine what happens if a conflagration takes place in Champ de Mars, some unexpected hazard takes place in the Central Market or in centralised locations like the Government House or cinema theatres.
The times of unexpected hazards have come or are knocking at the door.  Last year’s tragedy still awakens our minds to the hazard of what the human pursuit for careless planning might cause in a sudden and unexpected situation. The city, with its tall buildings that produce higher levels of carbon than ever, pose an imminent threat to climatic conditions.  The tarred roads slanting to the harbour can be converted into raging torrents and deadly canals.  Exit places for rescue can turn into nightmares or death traps.  The tropical city revives through history with unwelcome disasters like floods, strong heat waves, and deadly thunders.
It is now time to think of a safe city with high levels of security for the common citizen.  The tropical city imagined by Auguste Toussaint recalls a haunting refrain.  If a city is poorly planned and disallows open spaces for safety and rescue, perils will remain impending.  The architecture designed by Charpentier de Cossigny for a modern tropical inhabitation back two centuries ago might still bring food for thought.