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The shape of our cities to come

Some of the world's most innovative and respected thinkers on urbanism and architecture are in Cape Town for the Architecture ZA 2012 Biennial to share their views on the need for, as the conference has put it, "rescripting architecture".

These are challenging times with economies, resources and even governments under threat. Global connectivity and rapid human migration to cities in developing countries is a key factor. An estimated three-quarters of the world's population will be urbanised by 2050; they will require natural resources, education, healthcare, water, electricity, food and other products.

What will these cities of 2050 look like? Will they be slums with pockets of defended enclaves for the wealthy?

Cities are the most fertile fields of economic, social and cultural exchange, and creativity. They are highly efficient and effective environments for the conversion of resources into opportunity and ­productivity and thus are powerful contributors to achieving human potential. Cities spark innovation and innovation fuels economic growth.

By this definition, South African cities are not real cities. For all these elements to come together, at least four attributes are required: density, diversity, connectivity and public space. They make the provision of infrastructural services, education, healthcare, social amenity and accessible economic opportunity viable and self-sustainable.

Pre-colonial ancestors
On these four conditions, our cities rank dismally low. We do not have a heritage of cities. Our pre-colonial ancestors were mainly nomadic and there was a direct relationship between resource supply and consumption.

European settlers did make dense, diverse, connected and vibrant cities, but apartheid's divide-and-rule blocked these defining attributes and their benefits. Cities were systematically dismembered, with blacks forced out and whites enticed to live in low-density areas far from economic cores. Sprawl grew, functions were zoned separately, movement routes co-opted for control and public space effectively outlawed. This is the geography of apartheid.

Since 1994, property investment and development have entrenched this trend. Greenfield or agricultural land is released for low-density single use – isolated residential, commercial and retail pockets. One result is massive expenditure on otherwise unnecessary transport infrastructure. Today, the average South African spends up to 30% of his or her income on simply moving about, driving up production costs and reducing international competitiveness. Working families rise hours before dawn to travel to work or school.

But the scale of this dysfunction is also the scale of the opportunity.  This is the attitude and focus of the biennial.

As a developing country, South Africa still has a population that is mostly rural, although this is rapidly changing. If the pressure of urban influx is managed properly, we can ramp up economic, social and cultural productivity. We can deliver a "better life for all" because government policy and programmes and the private sector response will be in an enabling context.

City cores will increase in value and become more mixed in use, meaning people can get rapidly from one activity to the next, consuming less energy. With greater density, public transport becomes viable because the people who use it also pay for it directly. On a macro-scale, the result would be huge increases in productivity, social health and cohesion. At the grassroots level, there would be a better quality of life for those who would have shorter distances to travel between home, school, clinic, shop and work.

We would not be the first to do this. Brazil and Mexico orchestrated this sort of strategic urban planning, delivering cities that are much more vital, efficient and effective than ours. They created urban spaces where people of all backgrounds intermingle and connect. They elevated diverse cultures, the arts and even foods into symbols of national unity.

Some in South Africa believe we are different, that cities are "­unAfrican" and we are "people of the land". But we do not have to choose between the two. We can make ­cities specifically for "people of the land". Many people are facing a crisis of survival and, given the ­massive inefficiency of ongoing sprawl, we have to make proper cities.

What is the African city? This is one of the things to be discussed at the biennial. Perhaps it means a city in which residents continue to produce their own food, in which we produce and sell traditional medicines in street markets and public space is designed for and dignifies traditional practices. Residential buildings could be designed to accommodate extended families.

The component parts, like the electronics in an i-Pod, must be defined and arranged relative to each other for maximum efficiency and maximum opportunity – in other words, a system.  

Conferences such as the biennale are critical for this, as are the government and the private sector. Thus, more than any other office-bearer, Minister of Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale is in the position of deciding whether we are to have healthy cities that promote quality of life and economic growth, or ones that continue with the current failing machine.

Sexwale's portfolio could move us towards "the systemic city", one of critical mass density, easy and affordable accessibility to all amenities, vibrant and super-productive micro-scale connectivity and a kind of public space in which we meet and get to know each other. Rescript our settlement pattern and we will rescript our future.

Andrew Makin is a ­founding partner of the Durban-based designworkshop:sa, which is ­associated with buildings such as the Constitutional Court in ­Braamfontein, Johannesburg

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