SA's cities have big plans for the future

Guy Biggs, head of urban design at dhk, says changing the way cities work is a slow process

Guy Biggs, head of urban design at dhk, says changing the way cities work is a slow process

South African cities have been following an unsustainable development model for decades, one based on the American paradigm of the suburban dream, but perverted to suit the apartheid state’s ambitions. Clusters of suburban housing, coupled with townships sprawled ever further from the city centre, serve an economic model in which workers commute long distances to their places of work. 

So says Guy Briggs, head of urban design at dhk, an architectural firm specialising in urban regeneration, development strategy and master planning.

“The cities that we have inherited from the apartheid state are characterised by degraded city centres, ugly and expensive sprawl, spatially entrenched inequality, a planning and development culture that is slave to the car and sky-high crime statistics that result in a population that increasingly either retreats behind electric fencing or takes the law into their own hands,” says Briggs.

“Changing the way our cities work to overcome these challenges will take time. The spatial arrangement of the city is the result of deeply entrenched and interwoven development modes, municipal management and planning systems and cultural lifestyles — it’s like turning an oil tanker. 

“But a generation after our first democratic elections we can already see the beginnings of a shift in how we make and occupy cities in South Africa. New initiatives from city managers are matched by innovative thinking from more progressive developers.” 

One such initiative is the City of Johannesburg’s “Corridors of Freedom” spatial vision, which will see the future of the city shaped around well-planned transport arteries linked to interchanges, where the focus will be on mixed-use development: high density accommodation supported by office buildings, retail development and recreation facilities. 

“In this future, Joburgers will live closer to their workplace and be able to work, stay and play without having to use motorised transport,” says Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau in the Corridors of Freedom policy document. “Safe, affordable and convenient buses, cycling and pedestrian activity will replace cars, and the Corridors of Freedom will transform entrenched settlement patterns which have shunted the majority of residents to the outskirts of the city, away from economic opportunities and access to jobs growth.” 

The key features of the policy extend beyond just adding the Bus Rapid Transport (Rea Vaya) system, and include safe neighbourhoods for cycling and walking, with sufficient facilities and attractive street conditions; safe streets with features to calm traffic, control vehicle speeds and discourage the use of private transport; mixed use developments where residential areas, office parks, shops, schools and other public services are close together; rich and poor of all races living side-by-side in housing of different prices pitched for purchase or rental; limited, managed parking to reduce the amount of land used for parking and to further discourage the use of private transport; and convenient transit stops and stations. 

Briggs adds that Cape Town has seen its CBD revitalised by the combined efforts of property owners and city authorities working together through the Cape Town Partnership, which is a non-profit organisation that works “to help people find a common language and a shared set of priorities specific to projects that can make a positive impact in people’s lives”.  Its mandated area is in the Table Bay district, stretching from Camps Bay to the Foreshore, from the east of the city to Observatory, and Salt River to Langa. 

The partnership’s initial work from 1999 to 2008 focused on lifting the city out of crisis mode as the streets were not safe and businesses were leaving. Within this decade, Cape Town’s downtown area underwent a “total turnaround, becoming one of the cleanest and safest in the country, and business was booming”.

Its current focus on “People make places” sees the partnership owning the unintended consequences of earlier projects, and for the next five years it will focus on “putting people first, on participation and people-based place-making, not destination marketing”.

Its current Central City Development Strategy includes finding ways to stabilise public-private partnerships and stimulate greater citizen and business confidence, and includes the upgrade of 170 buildings, recovery in property values and increased commercial and retail occupancy. The strategy also includes growing the number of major public squares and pedestrian spaces, inclusive memorialisation projects, and increasing the number of major events and festivals. 

These are in response to the city’s urban imbalance and lack of integration, given that it is “largely dependent on a commuter workforce, with not enough people living near to places of work”. Soaring property prices make it even more difficult for workers to live in the geographically complex city, while road congestion, a shortage of parking and limited space for expansion and growth are all challenges that the Cape Town Partnership seeks to address. 

The City of Tshwane has published its Tshwane Vision 2055 policy, with the aim of “Remaking South Africa’s Capital City”. 

The policy says that “the concepts of liveability, resilience and inclusivity are anchor principles that will guide how the city sets policy and investment priorities, as well as balancing competing needs of social, spatial and environmental issues brought about by the city’s ever-changing population dynamics. Furthermore, these principles seek to bring about the realisation of the city’s new urbanism and smart city aspirations”. 

Developments already underway with this vision in mind include several City Property projects, including 012 Central and 1 on Mutual. There are also significant plans underway for the rejuvenation of the area around Hatfield Square that will see Respublica, in partnership with Redefine Property, building new student accommodation in the area, which will also offer mixed retail opportunities. 

“The lessons learnt from revitalisation of our old CBDs are now being applied in the creation of new places and spaces. One such example is the Ecomobility experiment currently underway in Sandton, in which street space is being reclaimed from the car and allocated to pedestrians and public transport, which will be fascinating to watch (although no doubt painful for those who persist in driving),” says Briggs.

He adds that another is the “new city” proposed by Zendai at Modderfontein, for which dhk has carried out master planning work as well as the design of several buildings.  Modderfontein City will include housing, offices and shops as well as schools, clinics and libraries, all in close proximity and served by extensive public transport systems. 

“Nevertheless, many challenges to the delivery of integrated urban environments remain. Property developers tend to specialise in a particular sector, development financing favours simplicity rather the complexity inherent in the mixed-use model, and as a society we still harbour huge levels of mutual distrust and suspicion,” Briggs says. “But as a South African optimist, I firmly believe we are making great progress in building new urban models, which will better serve South African city dwellers, while delivering good returns for the commercial property sector that builds them.”