The future of SA’s cities is green
There is a version of the future that works — one where smart ideas, active communities and constantly evolving technology bring out the best in human ingenuity. With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, that future will be forged there.
In South Africa, the seeds of that plan are contained in the city planning documents of Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Tshwane. Each one has unique challenges, from urban sprawl and drought to flooding and drought. Each suffers from chronic congestion thanks to poor planning. For the poorest in these cities, living in the areas with the highest air pollution means chronic asthma and earlier death than those living in affluent suburbs.
The structure of each city means they are vulnerable to the extremes that come with a changing climate. Flash floods in Johannesburg already overwhelm stormwater drains and sewage plants, spilling polluted water into residential areas and spreading disease. High tides and floods in Durban mean businesses being inundated with water. And in Cape Town, desertification is already eating away at the rich biomes that make the city so popular with tourists, while intense heat means dangerous fires are a norm in summer.
But each of these problems has a solution. These solutions come from pilot projects and the sort of community work that Greening the Future has recognised in the past, and projects that this 13th edition of the awards seeks to acknowledge.
It is in smart cities that humanity will come together to create a survivable future.
Apartheid planning still affects city life today, with the poorest stuck the furthest from their places of work. Bad planning and disjointed public transport systems mean people struggle to get to work. That means more carbon emissions — transport accounts for 13% of South Africa’s emissions — and other toxic chemicals spewed into the air in dense urban areas. But that is changing. The corridors of freedom being created in Johannesburg seek to form new nodes of development, built around bicycles and public transport such as the Gautrain. In Cape Town, the rapid bus transport system is alleviating congestion in a city with little space for ring roads.
After power generation, the world’s biggest source of emissions is building things and sending them around the world. That widget then inevitably finds itself discarded and on a waste dump. It will rust and rot next to piles of food (a quarter of all food is thrown away). That rotten mush then pollutes water sources and bring disease, as well as local air pollution. In Durban, toxic fumes from waste dumps makes communities downwind sick, with chest problems and higher rates of asthma. But waste is a resource. Municipal bylaws in South Africa’s big metros are already moving towards a policy of zero waste going to landfills. Instead, waste will be recycled and turned into new products. The dumps that already exist are also being harnessed to create energy — Johannesburg gets 19MW of capacity from five landfills.
Besides Koeberg in Cape Town, no major metros have power stations in their vicinity. Instead, power is produced in far-off provinces and sent along vast transmission lines to be used by energy inefficient cities. That means the pollution — over 90% of South Africa’s energy comes from coal-fired power stations — is felt in rural communities that have the least resources to survive that pollution. But the power is wasted in cities, where heat islands and lots of cement mean massive amounts of energy is used to cool buildings and homes. The problem is particularly acute in South Africa cities, where buildings are built for summer and have little winter insulation. But it is a problem that cities are tackling. Cape Town is going directly to renewable energy farms in order to buy electricity. The Gauteng province is planning 100MW of solar energy to be generated from the roofs of the buildings that it owns. In the near future, smart buildings and local energy production will mean cities use less energy and also generate their own energy off free surfaces.
The current drought has exposed the frailty of local cities, which rely on dams to supply them. Any rainwater collecting capacity that used to exist on the land where cities now stand is gone; wetlands replaced by slabs of cement and tar roads. That means water runs off and flows away from cities. But the drought, and future predictions of less average rainfall, mean cities are getting smart. Every roof becomes a water collection place, with tanks to harvest that. Grey water from homes goes to gardens. Treatment plants, like that in Windhoek, turn sewage into drinking water. Factories become more efficient and wring out every bit of production for the water they get allocated. More will be done with less.
Food is a great weakness of cities, because they cannot produce their own. That means reliance on farms in the countryside, and imports when drought or frost ruins those harvests. The grey cities of today are, however, giving way to ones where each surface is used to grow things, from peppers on a porch to vertical gardens. Communal and door-sized gardens in each home will make people more self-sufficient, and improve diets. Cities will breathe and feed their own people.
Get your entry in for Greening the Future 2017 here. The M&G is looking for organisations and projects that are doing good work to find solutions in the following areas:
Energy efficiency and carbon management, Innovative climate financing, Youth leadership, Job creation for climate, Water efficiency and management, Women in climate, Innovation in construction, Species conservation, and Community conservation and resilience.