Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Controversial Baakens Parkway Proposal

Most residents regard the Baakens River, apart from its lower extremity, as being a vital green lung for the expanding city. Despite this, to solve a seemingly intractable transport problem, the solution proposed by the City Engineers Department was to convert a treasure into a paved highway. Would the nascent conservation/environmental groups win the battle over the engineers’ dream project?

Main picture: Aerial view of the lower reaches of the Baakens Valley with the freeway superimposed upon it

Raison d’etre for the Baakens Parkway

By the 1960s, the fact that the city centre was compressed between two immovable objects – the Hill and the sea – disqualified it from remaining the epicentre of the city’s commercial life in perpetuity. Based upon the unrelenting post-WW2 industrial growth, the city’s future growth was assured. Notwithstanding these sanguine projections, the space constraints as well as the road infrastructure from the western suburbs had to be addressed in order to cope with the expected demand.

In essence, the road infrastructure issue could have been addressed in one of two ways: an expressway using or following the route of the Apple Express or alternatively to construct a Parkway in the Baakens Valley. It was envisaged that the road would link the Settlers’ Freeway at the mouth of the Baakens Valley with the N2 national road at Greenbushes.

To cater for the anticipated additional commuters and vehicles, two other projects would have to be added to the list. First, there was a lack of parking both in terms of parking space as well as its distance and location from Main Street. The council’s solution was twofold: demolish the historic but unused Collegiate School in Bird Street for parking space. Moreover, as if destroying one landmark was insufficient, they would also desecrate the historic heart of the city by remodelling Market Square and its environs. As a consequence, the architectural integrity of this precinct would not merely be compromised but rather obliterated. The economic benefit of this was to use the buildings comprising the Union Castle Corner, the Mosenthals and the Richardson buildings as a bus station and parking space.

Contain, repulse and fight back

As the saying goes, “cometh the hour, cometh the man” with the man being Prof. John Grindley who was the chairman of the Co-Ordinating Council for Nature Conservation in the Eastern Cape. The idea that the freeway could be built, and the valley’s natural beauty retained was inconsistent with the facts revealed by intensive investigations. Prof. Grindley vigorously claimed that the Baakens River Valley was so narrow that twin carriageway roads would use up virtually all the space within the valley walls.

Above: End of the line. This raised roadway to nowhere was intended to be the link between the Settlers Freeway to the Baakens Parkway.

 One must recall that during the 1960s, development took precedence over conservation. The embryonic environmentalist organisations had not gained sufficient traction to sway public opinion. The underlying motivating force for the rejection of the Baakens Valley option was the destruction of an environmental gem. Amongst the objectors, the existing environmental problems were listed:

  • The high incidence of vagrancy and vandalism
  • The many footpaths crisscrossing the valley
  • Damage caused in 1972 by laying a pipeline
  • Veld fires in the upper reaches of the valley
  • Refuse dumping by adjacent residents and other people

In an article by Rob Nuttall in the Herald dated 11th February 1976, he states that “Prof. Grindley said that while the City Council had already committed itself to the project in some degree by expropriating properties at an early stage, it was not too late to look for an alternative route.

Above: This plot at the bottom of Brickmakerskloof can lay claim to being ground zero for industrialisation. This building commenced life as a woolwashery, the converted into a steam laundery, Anderson’s Sweet Factory and later to the non-polluting bus sheds.

If another route was found, it would undoubtedly mean more expropriation on a large scale. The Baakens River valley is unique in that it runs through a city and provides unlimited scope for recreational development by the wise use of natural resources. He added that the Municipal Parks Department would not be very sympathetic to appeals from the conservationists over the Baakens River Valley because they stand to get big subsidies if the scheme went ahead. “I am still convinced that we stand to get a more attentive hearing from the City Council,” he said.

Roiling controversy

The parkway controversy has been bubbling if not boiling in Port Elizabeth since before 1961 with those ratepayers against the freeway vociferously demanding that the whole idea be scrapped. By 1979, six alternatives to a route through the valley were selected and details published.

If another route was found, it would undoubtedly mean more expropriation on a large scale. The Baakens River valley is unique in that it runs through a city and provides unlimited scope for recreational development by a wise use of the natural resource

Options considered

This section is sourced from the article entitled Baakens Parkway options ready soon from the Herald dated 13 October 1983 by Denise Boutall

Alternative routes to the proposed Baakens Parkway were lodged with the Port Elizabeth City Council in November 1983. Among the most promising was for a relatively low-grade road either along Walmer Boulevard and Heugh Road or up the lower Baakens Valley from the “stumps” on the freeway and then along Villiers Road. Another proposal was to build the proposed Buffelsfontein Expressway, a limited access dual carriageway, to the south of Walmer.

The investigation into the alternative routes was undertaken as the Provincial authorities refused to deproclaim the parkway route through the Baakens Valley until the Council approved an alternate route.

There was also the question of linking the road at its western end with the proposed Buffelsfontein Arterial or more to the north with the proposed extension of Luneville Road through Fairview. Mr. Clayton said the decision could not be postponed for the results of the major update of the city’s traffic study due for completion in about three years, because a large number of planning decisions depended on the alignment of the alternative to the parkway.

Ratepayers say NO

Herald: 28 June 1983

On the 27th of June 1983, Port Elizabeth’s Central Executive of Ratepayer’s Associations gave the thumbs down to the Baakens Parkway. At its monthly meeting last night, the executive decided to urge the council to seek the deproclamation of the route through the valley and rejected a proposal that an alternative route be found first.

The issue was raised as a matter of urgency by Mr. Dennis Glendinning who expressed his surprise that the council still had no alternative to the route. Last week the council was told that the Provincial Roads Engineer, Mr. J.A. de Kock, had recommended that the Baakens Valley structure plan, which provides for the development of the valley, not be approved until the city council has come up with an alternative to the Parkway. Mr Glendining supported the notion that an alternative route should be selected first.

Above: Baakens Valley. Dunell, Ebden & Co.’s woolwashery before 1877 after which the premises became a steam laundry for a time

However, Mr. Bill Hayward disputed Mr. Glenining’s assertion that there weren’t alternative routes. Instead he proposed that the association urge the council to seek the deproclamation of the route and inform the Provincial authorities that there are alternative routes and that the council is busy with a traffic survey which will motivate the alternatives.

Renewed support

During October 1983, the Baakens Parkway gained renewed support from two Port Elizabeth ratepayers associations. According to the chairman of both associations, Mr. F. Marais, both of the Western Suburbs Ratepayers Association representing Wards 8 & 9 and the Wards 5 & 6 Ratepayers Associations wanted it built. Mr. Marais claimed  that the western suburbs’ ratepayers and councillors had always supported the construction of the road. The pressure against it had been brought by the Walmer ratepayers.  

Above: Baakens Valley circa 1890. Bridge to Bridge Street

Mr. Marais stated that the road system had not kept pace with the development with the development of the western suburbs and that the Kragga Kamma interchange had become a traffic hazard. Moreover he claimed that the Buffelsfontein Expressway to the south of Walmer would not be a solution. Possibly his opposition to the Buffelsfontein route was that the distance to the city centre would be slightly longer. In defiance of the countervailing mood, he claimed that the road planners should look to the future or else, he prophesised, the city centre would die unless there was a road to it.

In support of the parkway proposal Marais stated that the valley was the only open space available for a road to solve the problem of congestion in Cape Road. Furthermore, he said, if the road had been built on the Walmer slope of the valley, the valley would have developed into a nature reserve a long time ago.  Asked about the opposition to the road he said, “That’s just public opinion. It’s just the Walmer ratepayers. They started it.”

Mr. Patrick Bracher, the chairman of the wards 2 & 4 Ratepayers Association, countered Marias by stating that his association, like the Walmer Association, had always opposed the parkway and moreover, the association was unanimous in its opposition and had recently asked for the deproclamation of the road.

Above: Baakens Valley circa 1881. In the background three cottages (now Harris Street). Below them is the old homestead of the Board family. To the right is the steam laundry, which opened in May 1877

Expropriation issue

What many councillors were unaware of was not the fact that properties had to be expropriated but how much had already been spent without their being aware of it. However, in a brief report to the relevant committee, it showed that R802 272 had already been spent on the scheme to build the freeway along a meandering path in and on the sides of the valley.

Of this a massive R610 404 went to consulting engineers’ design fees, while it was reported that R143 447 went on property expropriations. Raising concerns was the fact that the expropriation figure did not tally with that released in October 1975 by a spokesman of the Town Clerk’s Department, who reported that – at that stage – R257 338 had been spent on expropriating 40 properties. The expropriation figure is higher still when it is remembered that in November 1973, the then City Treasurer, Mr F.F. Jenvey reported that R294 980 had been spent on property expropriation.

Stalemate on the Baakens Parkway issue

By 1984, the status of a southern roadway to the western subjects had reached an impasse as the development of the Baakens Valley could not progress until the Baakens Parkway is deproclaimed. The Council and the Provincial Administration which was subsidising the building of the proposed Baakens Parkway by 80%, had reached a stalemate. The building of the Baakens Parkway, a four-lane controlled access freeway, had been abandoned by the city council in 1979 but was still a proclaimed route. According to Mr. Harlech-Jones, the stalemate was a result of the conflict between local and central government interests. The parkway is undesirable from a natural environment point of view. The freeway and noise would destroy the solitude of the valley and reduce its plant and animal life.  

Above: Baakens Valley. C1905. In the foreground is Mosenthal’s property with the stables (still standing) facing Upper Valley Road with Bridge Street in the background

In no uncertain terms, Mr. Harlech-Jones reiterated his view that “the parkway would also extend the monstrosity of the Settler’s Freeway, which cuts the city off from the sea.” Moreover, “Mr. Harlech-Jones said the benefit from the parkway for the residents of the western suburbs could not be measured against the loss of the valley. He said an alternative route to the parkway, which included the Walmer Boulevard, Heugh Road and Circle (sic) Drive, was being investigated by the council.”

Fate decided

In spite of these belated attempts at reviving the parkway plan in 1983, the council had already in 1979 decided to abandon the parkway after vociferous public opposition. Since then, a “structure plan” had been drawn up setting the planning of the valley as a natural area including a nature reserve and botanical gardens. The road became an issue again in 1983 when the Provincial authorities refused to deproclaim the route until an alternative was found.

McWilliams’ house in the Baakens Valley

After 1983 no further attempts have been made to resuscitate the Parkway scheme nor have any further attempts been made to revive the cheaper and more environmentally friendly Buffelsfontein Expressway scheme.


Freeway will spoil the valley by Rob Nuttall (Herald, 16 February 1976)

Baakens Parkway options ready soon by Denise Boutall (Herald, 13 October 1983)

Ratepayers say NO to Baakens Parkway by Denise Boutall (Herald, 28 June 1983)

Renewed support for parkway by Denise Boutall (Herald, 29 October 1983)

Stalemate reached in the Baakens Parkway issue (Herald 15 February 1984)

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