/ 5 August 2020

Manage urban transformation to avoid infrastructure blockages

Jo'burg Is Africa's Top Destination City
Deeper concentration of human and economic activity has been proven an effective strategy to improve geographic convergence of living standards rather than targeted interventions to reduce spatial disparities at source.


Eskom’s recent spate of electricity load reduction is yet another blunt reminder of the ongoing local development and town planning failures and the absence of foresight in reshaping South Africa’s economic geography. Most townships or some sections thereof have been enduring the abnormally cold winter season without power for days, some going for a month, after Eskom’s warranted decision to reduce load and stop repairing damaged infrastructure in areas notoriously known for non-payment of electricity, overloading of the local network because of illegal connections and vandalism of electricity infrastructure. Yet, electricity reduction is only the tip of the iceberg compared to the disaster that is likely to unfold if the structural integrity of municipal infrastructure for basic services is compromised.  

Overloading of stormwater drainage and sewerage systems and the resulting blockages can cause serious environmental and health hazards as we have recently witnessed with raw effluent flowing into the Vaal River system. Reports of sewage spilling into people’s yards and houses as well as flooding during rainy seasons are a common occurrence in the townships.  

These are the direct result of poor regional/town planning and land-use management, which at a very basic level is concerned with managing and directing demographic movements (migration), the spatial location of economic activity and property development activity through zoning as well as guiding both private and public investment, particularly the layout and capacity of basic services infrastructure, across space.

Regional planning and land-use management is a crucial function of the local government to drive economic, social and spatial transformation which has unfortunately been relegated to the periphery, presumably because it’s an administrative undertaking that offers few opportunities for procurement patronage. 

Factually though, the entire regional planning and land-use regime is bogged down by sheer lack of vision in terms of underlying economic geography — the spatial variation and/or integration of human economic activity — and a combination of a credibility deficit and responsibility contestation between the different level of government, which makes it difficult to implement and regulate land-use planning and foster wider economic integration. 

Politicians are the centre of blurred vision for transforming economic geography as they often agitate for contradictory spatial development patterns: wanting to promote rural development; arrest the growing trajectory of urbanisation; and to build new cities all at the same time. In his 2020 state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced plans to build a new smart city, on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg in Lanseria, destined to become home to 500 000 people as South Africa gears up for 70% urban population by 2030. Ambitions to build new cities occur simultaneously with a growing agenda for spatial redress policies and arrested development to accommodate growing population in major centres of economic activity. The recent unpleasant images of a naked man being evicted in the informal settlement of Cape Town underscore the perennial struggle of exclusive urban land markets and most importantly the incapacity to manage rural-urban integration both at the local and national levels.  

The desire to build new cities is conspicuously startling because South African cities are acutely small by international standards, the most populous being Johannesburg with just under 6-million residents. This constitutes a third of Cairo’s and one tenth of Tokyo’s populations.

Deeper concentration of human and economic activity has been proven an effective strategy to improve geographic convergence of living standards rather than targeted interventions to reduce spatial disparities at source. Notwithstanding the low densities, certain parts of South African cities are counterintuitively experiencing the ills of rapid urbanisation linked to unreliable power systems, transport and infrastructure congestion, inner-city degeneration and low-density and informal settlement sprawl. 

In the absence of vision for reshaping economic geography and the apartheid spatial planning overhang, development and regional planning has taken a trajectory of its own, led by desperate landless city dwellers and migrants, private property developers who have taken it upon themselves to establish new low-density, upmarket and exclusive urban nodes and township homeowners who are building backyard rental rooms to take advantage of the swelling urban population and the shortage of low-cost accommodation. High-rise properties are mushrooming in areas that were never designated or prepared for high-density development. 

In the townships, some people are building rental accommodation without following the necessary local council approval processes. Informal settlements are springing up rapidly on land which has neither been surveyed nor proclaimed for residential occupation. The result of this unled spatial transformation of the cities is premature congestion, environmental risk, community tensions, slums proliferation and suboptimal urban land utilisation. 

Congestion arises because buildings are constructed on top of the water, sewer and drainage networks and without taking due consideration of network carrying capacity.  Similarly, people are settling informally in low-lying areas prone to flooding and on wetlands damaging the environmental ecosystem. In some areas, communities have been divided into two between those who pay electricity and the illegal connectors causing needless conflicts and disunity in resolving service delivery problems. 

At the same time, private property developers are increasingly de-densifying the city space and reinforcing the apartheid spatial disparities by building on the outskirts of the city where land is cheaper but also inaccessible to many of the township and informal settlement residents.  The result is a continuous cycle of informal settlement formation as people follow opportunities. Gauteng’s over 300 informal settlements are partly attributable to this development pattern.  

To be fair, the role of backyard rooms and informal settlements is not to be undervalued. They are crucial reception areas for job-seeking rural migrants before they can upgrade socially into other types of formal settlements. Much as they seem chaotic and pose a big development challenge for municipalities they are not to be discouraged. Instead, these settlement patterns should be seen as visible manifestations of the importance of economic-geographic transformation for development. 

The fact is that urban areas attract people and investments — and people always move quicker than authorities can respond with rapid land release and infrastructure development.  Cities need to invest in the administrative capacity to anticipate, plan and manage urban transformation, land markets must work well to accommodate more and more people, but even more importantly the country needs a common vision on spatial and economic integration where integration permeates more than one geographic and institutional dimension. 

It is possible to concentrate or urbanise without congestion and the attendant ills through emphasis on better institutions — to co-ordinate land-use management and conversion across all levels of government and good quality infrastructure to facilitate movement of peoples, services and goods with ease.  After all there can be no growth in South Africa if spatial transformation is suboptimal and certain areas are continuously left behind.