South Africa

Johannesburg’s new towns: The utopian answer to the city’s needs or another problem to fix?

By J Brooks Spector 23 September 2014

J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the impact and future of two new towns to be completed on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Will they enhance or threaten the nature of Johannesburg?

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery…

– Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

For as long as people have been living in towns and cities, somebody has planned the urban space – perhaps just the way Kublai Khan did it for Xanadu. Build it here; don’t build there. Add a palace, a temple, walls, streets and bridges, homes for the rich, hovels for the poor, water, and – more recently – electricity, IT connectivity and Mag-Lev trains.

Recently, this writer came across a beautifully drawn 16th-century plan of the city of Milan. The way the city was depicted, Milan had a magnificent, balanced symmetry. Its walls were precisely designed to be works of architectural beauty as well as to offer enfilade fire on any would-be attackers. And there was a sumptuous ducal palace located in the northern quadrant of the city, balanced between East and West.

Nations have sometimes taken the decision to build an entirely new capital or another city in order to encourage a new node of economic growth – or to give a fresh start to a new political order. Based on a plan submitted by the French architect Pierre L’enfant, it is well-known the US established its new capital city as part of a political compromise between the northern and southern halves of the nation – as well as to create a symbol of its new political order. (Not surprisingly, certain politically well-connected land speculators made out tidily, once the precise location was publicly announced, of course.) And Brazil constructed its entirely new capital of Brasilia so as to encourage the economic exploitation of an entire region of the country away from the overcrowded coastal cities; while Australia established Canberra as an act of political will to balance the different states that had come together to form the country. In each case, the city planners and architects created a plan for the city and ambitious architecture to be a physical expression of that political statement and so that it would inspire citizens and rulers.

Even where cities have existed for millennia, planners and architects have often been brought in to forge a new statement of optimism and empire – and give physical expression to the ideals of an age. Among other examples, this was true with Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s magnificent grand redesign of Paris as well as Frederick Law Olmsted’s construction of the vast faux-wilderness that is Central Park – the space that has become the core and green lung of New York City.

And in Asia, too, there has been a long tradition of city planning for new capitals, or the vast rebuilding of older ones. Prior to Beijing and its Forbidden City, China has had a sequence of predecessor capitals under its many dynasties, most of them built on a grid system, with spaces carefully set aside for temples and palaces, as well as imperial gardens, just as the Yuan (Mongol) Emperor Kublai Khan is supposed to have decreed in the famous poem.

In states paying obeisance to Chinese ideals and city planning models such as ancient Japan, rulers have built both Nara and Kyoto, until the seat of power eventually moved to Edo (now Tokyo). It was only really in the latter case that a capital arose amidst an already highly populated area that was a collection of towns and villages that grew together to the vast urban conurbation of today’s Tokyo.

Of course South Africans have had their own special experiences with town planning. Some cities such as Welkom, Sasolburg and Secunda were designed right from the first as residential and commercial cores for populations engaged in gold mining or the production of petroleum from coal – but built on strictly segregated lines, of course.

While large cities like Johannesburg were often built haphazardly in the beginning, as the nation’s social-political culture took hold firmly, entire neighbourhoods were demarcated on racial terms. African, Asian and Coloured inhabitants living in the urban core were forced to move into planned townships increasingly distant from the town centre. Such townships were designed to restrict their inhabitants from engaging in meaningful local economic activity. Inhabitants had to come into the urban core to work and shop – but never to live.

In the post-Apartheid era, the greater Johannesburg area has largely continued with a spreading, low-density suburban culture. This dispersed development is almost entirely dependent on the automobile for transport. Even if it now also includes a movement to small cluster housing developments, it continues to be at a much lower population density than most other large cities worldwide. And it has become increasingly focused on sprawling suburban shopping malls and away from the old urban centres of Johannesburg or other nearby towns and cities.

One recent development has been the creation of new, purpose-built entirely new urban developments such as Melrose Arch. A development like this features mixed commercial areas, high-priced apartment-style living, and the simulacra of real urban streets. It is romantic without the messiness of real city streets and neighbourhoods. But beyond developments like that, however, the newest trend is the creation of entirely new urban cores way out on the periphery of the current city. These are purpose-built from scratch as planned environments with – presumably – all the amenities of a city that has grown up organically over the centuries and more.

Of course this is not an entirely new idea. British and American town planners (among others) started this movement back at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1930s, right in the midst of the Great Depression, the US federal government decided to sponsor the creation of such new communities to be visions of hope in the midst of the surrounding economic pain and to be projects that would create jobs as unemployment had reached virtually unprecedented levels. These towns were designed to offer a range of housing at varied prices so as to cater for a wide range of income levels and the town cores would offer hospitals, clinics, schools and shopping areas and a well-planned transportation grid. They were placed on the peripheries of major cities, such as Greenbelt a few miles outside the Washington, DC city limits. (Washington’s suburbs have ultimately swallowed Greenbelt, but miraculously this town has managed to maintain a sense of itself as a special place.)

Johannesburg now has now not one but two new town projects on the boards. The first of these is Steyn City, located out near Dainfern and Diepsloot, while the second is to be a new town on a huge piece of land that was once the old AECI property in Modderfontein between Tembisa and OR Tambo Airport. Douw Steyn, the billionaire magnate behind Auto and General Insurance, is developing the first of these towns. The second comes to South Africa by way of the Shanghai-based Zendai Group.

Steyn City describes itself in the kinds of language property developers that would not be totally unfamiliar to land speculators who have lured starry-eyed, landless settlers from the overcrowded slums and downtrodden peasantry of Europe to newly available virgin land in the New World – since the 16th century. As Steyn City describes itself, “On the urban edge of Sandton, connecting Fourways to Lanseria, Broadacres and Midrand, lay 2,000 acres of undeveloped land and an unused quarry. A piece of land so huge that it stretched across a number of townships, while traversing urban boundaries and agricultural holdings. The initial land parcel acquired by property developer Giuseppe Plumari and earmarked for industrial development, prompted well-known South African businessman Douw Steyn to acquire the remaining tracts that make up the site today, to fulfil the vision of building a city like no other. Together they imagined something that, up until this point, did not exist anywhere on the African continent – a lifestyle estate founded on the principle of community and quality of life – an ideal that has been lost in today’s urban living [italics added].

“At Steyn City, residents will enjoy a home that forms part of a wider community where security, freedom and functionality form the cornerstones of this visionary lifestyle estate. Picture houses set among hundreds of thousands of indigenous trees, pedestrian-friendly and landscaped green spaces and every conceivable urban amenity within reach. Steyn City will transform how Johannesburg residents view city life. The development’s underlying conceptual design of ‘a city in a park’ will provide an environment where children, joggers and cyclists never need to share a street with a car. There will also be little need to venture beyond Steyn City’s walls, [italics added] as an office park, healthcare centres, schools, a retirement village and a host of recreational and sport facilities will meet the needs of today’s busy lifestyles, all within the same vicinity.” Hmm, if the promoters are to be believed, Steyn City will be a place that will be the virtual antithesis of a real city and walled off from any contagion from any neighbouring city. Those are places that are filled with contradictions, confusions – and real opportunities for the go-getter and energetic.

The other day, the writer heard a presentation about that other new development, Modderfontein. This presentation, too, was replete with the same utopian language and the promise of a life so complete that one would never even need to leave the estate for the – unstated consciously but clearly on the minds of developers – grubby, dangerous, crowded, congested and dirty city.

This presentation came with one of those video animations that looked like that pseudo-utopian lifestyle in the satellite in that recent film, “Elysium”, or perhaps in one of Star Trek’s immaculately groomed urban landscapes. Modderfontein is going to be developed by the Zendai property development group – based in Shanghai, China. As its Chief Operating Officer, Du Wenhui, explained it, Zendai sees its core mission as the construction of the “artistic life of architecture”. The company clearly is experienced in some big property developments inside China as one of the mid-sized firms that have been the beneficiaries of that country’s recent go-go property development boom. Internationally, it is undertaking a major project in New Zealand and now, in South Africa, and in this Modderfontein property, previously held by AECI (the explosives and chemicals firm), Zendai says they have found the last significant major undeveloped property bloc – some 1,600 hectares – that is close to major Johannesburg nodes such as the transport and export hub surrounding OR Tambo Airport.

In explaining Zendai’s thinking, Du said that in their thinking on this project, the points that weighed heavily in its favour included the fact that South Africa has a stable political environment; it is the 27th largest economy in the world; it represents a quarter of the continent’s entire GDP; the fact that Johannesburg has been called the top African city for the future and the fact that it already is the base of a thoroughly advanced financial sector.

Describing Zendai’s planned utopia, Du explained that as they broke ground they would be creating a unique urban lifestyle with high-rise apartment blocks that would feature typical units ranging in size from 70 to 120 square metres in size. As part of this mega-development, they will build up a self-contained nature reserve on the property, there will be a new Gautrain station, and, in addition to offices, shopping malls, parks, and recreational lakes, it will host good schools and even a university. Again, as with Steyn City, the subliminal message seems to be that here will be a new town, chockablock with so many amenities residents will never need to leave it to face the buzzing, blooming – and dangerous – confusion of the larger world.

At the time of the development’s public announcement, the “SA Commercial Property News” reported that “According to the current planning, Modderfontein will include nine functional zones, the central business district, international conference and exhibition centre, an entertainment centre, silver industry and retirement industry, international residential community, education and training centre, sports Centre, trade and logistic park and light industry park. ‘We are excited about the opportunity to develop a new Gauteng CBD, strategically located and linking integral parts of the province, providing a platform for further social and economic growth. Our long standing and reputable developments stand us in good stead to bring to life this inspired initiative,’ said Zikhang Dai, founder and chairman, Shanghai Zendai.”

By the time it is complete, Zendai says the development will have created some 200,000 new jobs and space for some 100,000 residents to enjoy their near-sybaritic lifestyle. Of course, given the nature of South Africa’s economy and society, it will be difficult to visualise all those workers – many of them in the more menial service jobs needed to maintain such a community to the promised standard – being able to afford those fancy new apartments in those stylish, new tower blocs.

Even further, it will be hard to see these servitors welcomed as neighbours with open arms by the very people who have purchased apartments in Steyn City, precisely so that they don’t have to live with the dirt, noise and chaos (and the people) presumably associated with some of Johannesburg’s current urban neighbourhoods. Rather than helping build a new society, these new towns – given the likely range of housing available and the close relationship between race, ethnicity and economic circumstances in the country still – may actually increase residential segregation rather than decrease it.

As urban sociology Professor Edward Banfield famously noted in his classic (and still-controversial) study, “The Unheavenly City” back in the late 1960s, the reason cities are crowded and messy is precisely because people crowd in from other places because they want to better themselves – and the city is where that can most likely happen. This is the essence of the rush to urbanisation and South Africa has been just as vulnerable to this phenomenon as every other nation – especially once the Group Areas Act was repealed in 1991 and the restrictions on internal migration were largely eliminated. The new jobs available in these new towns almost certainly will encourage the migration of unemployed job seekers from every direction, and thus the establishment of new informal settlements on the fringes of Zendai’s new city – the kind of unguided, untrammeled settlement Zendai’s new inhabitants in Modderfontein might well have been trying to escape from in the first place.

Even more than the dynamics of population migration to places like Modderfontein or Steyn City, however, will be the extraordinary further pressures on infrastructure services – and these services are already under siege throughout much of urban South Africa. Electricity supply is increasingly uncertain and will be so for a decade according to most sober estimates. Public transportation remains problematic at best, and impossible at worst. The country is already a territory undersupplied with potable water – with an aging infrastructure that has been poorly maintained. And while improvement in South Africa’s telecommunications/Internet networks (a prerequisite for attracting the new urbanites) have been promised for years, the reality remains sadly different. Unless the developers plan to tackle all of these problems substantially by themselves, rather than relying on overstretched, under-capable local municipalities, the new towns could well drown under the weight of these requirements for a good quality of life.

But then think how many other world cities are choosing to rejuvenate themselves these days. Rather than staking out entirely new towns in less intensively used land out on the urban periphery, and thus further lessen urban density in the region and make the supply of infrastructure even more difficult, many world cities have tackled in-town, older, lower density neighbourhoods, brought those old properties together and then developed them in ways that connect them organically to the already existing city. This generates a renewed, increased tax base to provide revenue for urban authorities, and it helps bring about a stable, productive population eager to maintain the city they are part of. Instead, new towns like Steyn City and Modderfontein seem to be positioned to offer escape from the dangerous, dirty, chaotic city for those who can afford it. But such approaches threaten to leave the rest behind – to cope as best they can among the ruins. DM

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Photo: Star trampoline artist, Phaphama Nxumalo (L) seems suspended in time as she jumps on one of the two public trampolines in the Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa, 24 June 2014. Between two blocks of flats on the West Bank of the township scores of children have found entertainment playing on two huge trampolines and trying new moves while being coached by Alexandra Trampoline Club Coach, Hudson Nxumalo. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK



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