Urban planners reach out to the people

Consulting on the urban development of cities is now moving to include community participation. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Consulting on the urban development of cities is now moving to include community participation. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

More than 60% of South Africans live in urban areas, and this figure is projected to increase to 71.3% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

The ultimate goal of urban development should be to improve the lives of people in a sustainable manner.

This is also the goal of rural development but, thanks to the increased urbanisation of the population, urban development is becoming more crucial.

The Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF), developed by the department of co-operative government and traditional affairs, aims to cater for these increasing numbers with proper planning and infrastructure.

Urban development happens in stages. National government sets broad policies in line with the needs of the country, government policy and international best practice. It then falls to local government to implement them.

The IUDF calls for compact, co-ordinated and integrated cities but what they will look like will depend on the more focused “precinct plans”.

As urban planners, what we find most rewarding about creating precinct plans is the input we get from residents. Principles and models are all very well but, if you can explain them to the people they affect, they can make practical and implementable proposals.

These will be extremely relevant because they come from the people on the ground, who will be most affected by the urban design. Urban planners can then formalise their input into their designs.

Their participation could involve meetings, exhibitions of proposed designs and discussions about case studies with planners and urban designers, who can answer people’s questions.

People engage readily. The events we hold are always packed, whether they’re in the middle of winter, after work or on a Saturday.

Although citizens are now becoming more involved, the planning has been going on for decades. It is really encouraging to see that the hierarchy of plans is coming to fruition now. It took 20 years for broad development plans to be brought to the granular level of making precinct or even block plans.

It is positive when precinct planning helps neighbours to connect. These days we often connect through technology such as a residents’ association Facebook group,or a neighbourhood-watch WhatsApp group.

The latter type of passive surveillance also gives residents a new sense of value. Burglary rates drop and people who were once marginalised, such as the “trolley” recyclers, become the heroes of their area.

The problem of urban alienation can also be rectified by design. As our cities grow and become denser, one can keep developing according to a human scale — even in a high-rise environment — and retain an area’s character. This might involve an open green space where children can play, with some benches and a wi-fi hotspot.

The ongoing positive involvement of citizens in the planning process shows the success of hierarchical planning systems. Initially it seemed frustrating to develop a spatial development framework plan at a municipal level first before moving on to the local area plan and only then drilling down further. But we are now starting to see this type of planning bear fruit.

It may have felt like a top-down approach but now the bottom-up phase can begin, with inputs from the citizens on where they would like to see those parks, play areas and wi-fi hotspots.

It is key for developing cities to stick to their development frameworks. In the years it takes for a spatial development framework to start being rolled out, there will be attempts to disregard the framework for short-term financial or political ends. They must be resisted.

These frameworks are vital, given South African cities’ low density and the apartheid legacy planning issues we have to overcome such as residential areas far from work opportunities.

From a consultant’s point of view, one of the major challenges is we need more time for citizen’s involvement. It is crucial but time-consuming. There is always greater interest than we anticipated. On one project public participation threw the project out by six months.

Citizens are knowledgeable. Ward councillors know their framework plans, and those plans are freely available on the internet. We have a more empowered citizenry helping to shape their own built environment.

For this reason, urban planning now requires communication and listening to be able to translate citizen’s input into designs.

In this process, with its greater participation by people, it is becoming clear that we need to incorporate an urban management plan. Having strengthened local networks in the consultation stage, it would be a shame to let them go to waste. Citizens can play a part in managing the same precinct they helped to design.

In this open, consultative way, the hierarchical planning system is now leading to greater local involvement, which in turn can create people-centred urban spaces and stronger local communities.

Charlotte van der Merwe is manager: urban and rural planning and Istell Orton is senior town planner: urban and rural planning at GIBB, a black-owned multidisciplinary engineering consulting firm

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