Sustainable urban planning


Our cities are valuable economic and cultural convergence points that drive growth and development. Appropriate and sustainable urban planning is vital to ensure that optimal use is made of the many opportunities.

In today’s globalised environment, cities serve not only as a connecting point between countries and cultures, but as a vital economic and creative outlet for the many individuals, groups and businesses that function within its borders. Constituting areas where some of the major economic and industrial activities occur within the country, our cities are facing the ever present threats related to urbanisation, industrialisation and the growing informal population that serves as a labour force.

The dire need for better urban planning stems from the rapid growth in population due to rural to urban migration. There seems to be a strong link between urban planning and how it relates to the informal communities that constitute a vital part of the labour force and informal trade sector.

The burning question forming the basis of all related issues around urban planning, remains: “What do you do with the very large numbers of indigenous, impoverished, disadvantaged, poor people, who had moved to industrial cities and without whose labour the flourishing capitalism of the age would have been inconceivable?”

Another dominant theme that needs to be considered when we look at urban planning is sustainability and increasingly, infrastructural development of a city landscape centered on creating urban space that is suitable for human living. Since we have become aware of the polluting effects of industrial civilization, and focus on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to promote creative forms of environmentally sustainable development.

South African cities face a particular set of challenges. Mention is made of the fact that our developmental issues are similar to those in many parts of the world. But we also face a particular set of spatial challenges which are the legacy of generations of segregationist and apartheid policies.

These and many other issues around urban planning were highlighted, discussed and challenged at the recent Helen Suzman Foundation’s roundtable discussion (with the emphasis on urban planning) on the future of our cities. Topics on the table ranged from global communities and urban planning to informal settlements and sustainable development. The event, which was supported by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa in association with the Gordon Institute of Business Science, saw some of the best professionals in the industry participating in finding solutions to the urban issue in South Africa.

They included the likes of Professor Adrian Saville (executive director and chief investment officer of Cannon Asset Managers), Dr Tanja Winkler (senior lecturer at  UCT’s School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics), Andile Skosana (town planner and associate director at KPMG) and Jean-Pierre De la Porte (research director at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Architecture and Infrastructure). Saville, talking about the ‘global city’, said the way the world and its cities are becoming ever more connected has made it possible to think of a ‘global community’.

“Cities are founded on the principle of rural-urban migration. Maybe that’s what establishes them, or finds them. I venture to suggest that cities thrive on the basis of community, and communities exists at many levels. It exists at a very local, intimate level and then it spans out from there, where, at the broadest level, communities exist across borders.”

According to Saville, the internet, media, and cheap travel, have rendered distance almost irrelevant. He pointed out that the digital age “creates the potential for a borderless world. However, despite this perception (or ideal) of a ‘global community’, we are not there yet. There are many obstacles.” He argued that South Africa has a connectivity problem, which impedes its ability to reap the benefits that can be gained from greater participation in the global community. Education, for instance, could be greatly enhanced by providing learners access to online resources, and online text-books. Saville argued that South Africa needs “connectivity within its borders, to connect communities, in addition to the ability to connect to the global community.” When commenting on how connected we truly are, Saville said: “We are still not as connected as we imagine ourselves to be. So I suppose I’m venturing, as a first idea, that whilst there is a perception that we might be globalised and living in this giant world city, in fact, it’s a far cry from that. When we use that TCIP framework, it translates into elevated incomes per person, lower degrees of unemployment, higher equality in income distribution and, more broadly speaking, greater levels of social welfare and general wellbeing.

“This suggests that getting across national boundaries is a way in which we can elevate socio-economic welfare. I’m at pains to underline the point ‘socio’ in that term. There are many illustrations of how societies, communities, cities and countries can be built through these types of communities. But I would venture that we might be getting ahead of ourselves.

“There has been a broad fascination with the digital era, and it has led to our perception that we are always online, and universally connected. If you take an intercontinental flight you can sit on wireless technology while you’re flying between cities. It begs the question, I suppose, which city are you really in? When we connect with ICT, economic growth is raised by 1% for every 10% improvement in ICT and for every 10% improvement and physical infrastructure, road, rail, harbours, airports; you get a 3% contribution to economic growth. If South Africa’s ambition is to lift from 3% to 6% growth, I don’t think the answer lies in the National Development Plan (NDP). The answer lies in connecting and building the ability to generate social mobility and connected communities.”

Despite the considerations involving connectivity within our urban communities, housing and population concerns were also brought to the fore. Dr Winkler warned that, “despite a decline in the rate of growth, informal settlements are still growing”. She said rural-to-urban migration and urban-to-urban migration continue to contribute to our continually expanding informal settlements. She expressed her concerns over the population density in shack communities and noted that the current state of affairs is unacceptable and that more land or better housing is needed.

“There is a concern regarding the way municipalities address these situations. Municipalities fail to consider the reality of these situations, for instance, preparing plans where the number of people currently living in a community are not factored in. The Reconstruction and Development Programme and Breaking New Ground programmes of the past are unaffordable. One way to address the problem is to work with existing legislation. The national housing code (USIP programme) proposes a four step process,” she said.

This involves finding land that is owned by the state and suitable for human occupation; establishing the buy-in and approval of the community, producing a comprehensive account of community members formulating a detailed plan which must take into account sustainability considerations and executive summary for the long term; and finally if previous steps have been satisfied, this plan can be (partly) funded, but may still be beyond the residents means.

Although, she says it is much harder to implement. “The existing legislation we’re trying to work with is very cumbersome, and it’s near impossible to implement. For this reason, to my knowledge, no municipality has managed to implement all four requisite phases of the UISP programme successfully, and you need to implement all four phases before you get a state subsidy to upgrade, and to move from a home or a shack, to an actual permanent home.”

Winkler said attaining security of tenure requires a massive effort on the part of communities and project leaders and the legislative framework needs to be changed. Winkler and her team have managed to progress to step three of the process in Langrug (Franschhoek), Western Cape.

“No municipality has managed to get this far. Our team has done so by working with the community, and including the community at every stage of the process. Informal communities need to be integrated into the larger community.

“Therefore schooling, health care, and transport must be made available, and residents have to play a pivotal role. You have to think about how residents currently live, tightly packed, and how they would move from this to a different kind of ownership in an incremental manner. At the same time, you have to plan for the urban infrastructure which is a long-term plan, while constantly thinking about the residents and the need for short-term development in a long term plan.”

Skosana argued that change and improvement of communities can only be brought about at a local level, whether that is at a municipal level, or at an urban planning level. Creative initiatives develop at a local level, however, since power resides at a higher level, these initiatives are often stifled, or not considered. Skosana further said the ‘social net’, often considered to exist in the cities, is not always there and the poor and jobless face massive obstacles as a result of their social status.

“Cities are where the ‘takkie meets the tar’, as people say. Cities are at that point where our legislation is supposed be real. It is supposed to be tangible. You should be able to feel part of a community and know that now you live in South Africa, now you are enjoying all those joys.”

Skosana said, while the cities are burdened by the needs of the many jobless citizens, these citizens are, in fact, an untapped resource. He drew attention to the informal economy — a whole sector that thrives below the radar. “The most interesting things happen where the state fails. This is a massive market that has not been accurately measured, and is worth many billions. ‘Informal’ is often equated with ‘illegal’. This is a misperception.”

He also makes reference to the sophistication of informal markets, where clear hierarchies and controls can be observed. He argued that this kind of sophistication is not reflected in our policies, and ought to be incorporated.

“For me, those areas around informal trade, around informal settlements and the social net, it is an interesting convergence of thinking — as African planners the task is very much different for us when we think about cities of the future. Our cities are very much burdened by the need to provide for the masses who are not working. I think some of the latest stats around unemployment are that 52% of the youth between the age of 16 and 24 are unemployed. They are sitting around. This is a huge resource that is idle, that is agitated and that is agitating for a change, as we are seeing in our political landscape of late.”

Skosana ultimately argued the importance of developing public participation and getting people to work together. “As the model is evolving, I’m finding that people are getting involved. You can actually shape a lot of what happens in your area for your own benefit and for the benefit of those that you identify as your community (because there are many communities), and for others. So there’s that kind of work happening,” he added.

Prof. De la Porte refered to the permanence of cities and the ability of citizens to exploit this permanence. In the report it was mentioned that this permanence allows cities to flourish by accumulating resources and capital and also to drive development by creating the space for enterprise. “It is the permanence of cities that allows innovation, automation, and great diversity. A city could be viewed as a barometer for the effectiveness of legislation.

“In general, cities produce permanence in human affairs because something about them allows them to take the place of a human action. Not all human action, but some tiny ones like the door opener or a human congress such as this one, to get together and hear ideas and share ideas and points of view. But then cities also create automation, because automation simply provides machines connected to other machines that take over the role of slaves. Cities have been hosts to industrial processes for a long time by essentially exchanging their slavery-type of permanence for a machine-to-machine type of permanence, sometime in the last part of the 18th century.”

Our cities are one of the main economic drivers in the country, a fact that needs to be tempered with the reality of meeting the needs of the large number of communities. This goes hand-in-hand with finding innovative ways of addressing urban planning that provide appropriate, livable and workable conditions for these communities.

They constitute a huge untapped market which could be integrated with the correct approach. To get to this point, we will have to look closer at the legislation and procedures involved in current planning. We need to come forward with new, inclusive approaches that target the various sectors and communities as a whole for local integrated participation.

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This edition

Issue 68