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Seeing possibility in the cracks of our cities

South Africa


Seeing possibility in the cracks of our cities

Vitsitors watch a map of a Smart City at the Huawei booth at the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover, northern Germany. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Focke Strangmann)

Following the delivery of the second SONA in 2019 by President Cyril Ramaphosa, there was an immediate flurry of alarm and dismay about his infatuation with ‘smart cities’, at least among my urbanist contacts on social media. I want to take a different tack. I think it is fantastic that the Presidency is taking the challenges and opportunities of urbanisation seriously and the government is genuinely trying to identify potential game-changer solutions. Also, it is a mistake to dismiss the alluring power of the Chinese urban development growth model.

For most people urbanisation is simply too complex and messy to contemplate that we have to work with what we have instead of seeking Terranova to start anew. And yet, ironically, we are only going to find “bold” answers that force us to “reach beyond ourselves”, as the president implored, if we learn to pay attention to the transformative potential of the spaces and places where the majority of South Africans live and create a livelihood against all odds, day in and day out. As an aside, this is exactly the argument that is made in the official urban policy of South Africa, the Integrated Urban Development Framework, adopted by Cabinet in 2016.

In fact, this point was firmly recognised in the venerated NDP that President Ramaphosa insists must (again?) become our lodestar for the next decade. Chapter 8 of the NDP, that deals with urbanisation and spatial transformation, argues that: “The main challenge in planning for urban areas is to enable job creation linked to sustainable livelihoods and to establish well-performing human settlements. This should be at the heart of what municipalities do and how they function.”

This self-evident assertion allows us to connect a number of dots scattered throughout the SONA. One of the seven priorities in the SONA is “spatial integration”, to be pursued through a more innovative approach to human settlements and the effective functioning of local government. Four of the five top priorities for the next decade can only be achieved if we single-mindedly pursue the transformation of the township context and physical environment and how it connects with the affluent parts of our cities. The proposition in the SONA that South Africa can and must embrace the green economy through a re-imagined approach to infrastructure investment and maintenance is also helpful and points to the potential to use this focus to enhance the economy and livelihoods in the townships. Lastly, the aspiration to massively incorporate young people into experiences of work through a renewed EPWP and Youth Service can be anchored by connecting those initiatives to the physical transformation of townships and especially the maintenance of public infrastructure. Public works hold the key to effective place-making strategies in working-class communities.

If the South African government, across all spheres and including the powerful SOEs that shape the investment landscape of our cities and towns (think Prasa), can operate in a coherent fashion to advance the vibrancy and safety of our townships, then we will be giving expression to smart urbanism. And yes, ICT innovations can be effective tools to achieve this level of coordination and sequencing, but it should not set the agenda.

China is learning this lesson the hard way. It has massively over-invested in technologically enabled new town developments creating unsustainable urban forms (ie car dependent and polluted), millions of unused real estate square meters, and a fiscal nightmare due to the costs associated with maintaining under-utilised infrastructure and buildings. Due to the size of the Chinese economy and the state’s role in land markets, they can arguably afford these mistakes but the last thing we need to learn is that they offer a model to copy.

Cities are by definition contextual creatures. The greatest cities in history and in our era are those who work with their soil, local cultures, endogenous knowledge, appropriate technology, and in the process become hubs of experimentation and innovation. Such cities are also marked by a celebration of diversity and openness—the lifeblood of creativity. This is not what we do in South Africa. Yet, we have ample opportunities. I will briefly sketch one example where bold and imaginative action can be taken immediately.

There is a nondescript tract of land that the one must pass en route to Parliament from the airport in Cape Town. It is called the Two Rivers Urban Park (including Oude Molen) and it emerges just after Langa as the presidential motorcade sweeps to the right to take in Pinelands, Mowbray and Observatory.

This parcel of land is public, partially owned by the Provincial government and the City of Cape Town. It abuts the Ndabeni and Maitland industrial areas (vibrant sources of employment with enormous growth potential), as well as one of the few working-class townships in the core: Maitland Garden Village, which is about to come under severe gentrification pressures. It is rumoured that the SKA will build its headquarters in this area, potentially spawning a globally renowned science hub.

Biovac Institute, a leading African vaccine manufacturer is already there with great potential for growth and stimulating a biomedical cluster of research and development, especially if coordinated with Vincent Palotti and Groote Schuur (2km away) hospitals. Furthermore, there are at least six train stations within 1 km that surround the site suggesting brilliant public access, once our trains become the reliable and safe backbone of our city.

However, the site is also severely constrained by natural limits: flooding, polluted rivers and precarious biodiversity nestled in a rich heritage cauldron. These framing conditions also present an opportunity to figure out how we can intensify the use of the site, using these constraints as sources of design creativity and African ingenuity. In 2014 we (African Centre for Cities) ran a design research experiment to explore a “new” city in this area that is about the same size as the city bowl of Cape Town.

We concluded that it is feasible to imagine the following developments on this site, concretising a truly post-apartheid imaginary about future cities:

  1. a new metropolitan scale water-based park that offers job opportunities related to green infrastructure mechanisms to restore the river systems and cultivate urban agriculture.
  2. 55,000 mixed-income housing opportunities (catering for 150-200,000 people) in medium- to high-density blocks at the edges of the site creating an urban interface between the park and the surrounding suburbs that have stubbornly refused to allow affordable housing opportunities.
  3. Pedestrian and cycling linkages along the waters’ edge into adjoining townships such as Bokmakierie and Langa, encouraging play and circulation.
  4. A research and development hub into sustainable infrastructure solutions for South Africa and Africa, using the investments on the site as a living laboratory. Such a hub will facilitate active collaboration between the four regional universities and TVET colleges, optimising knowledge synergies and drawing in future-oriented private sector investors.

There is so much more to say about the potential of high-impact infill solutions that truly represent a break with the past and genuine innovation, or smartness, if you will. In fact, all South African towns have numerous sites of this nature, ready to be put to use as catalytic forces to remake our spatial dynamics.

However, the biggest obstacle is not imagination or an unwillingness to dream. The real source of continued urban blight and exclusion is governmental intransigence, intergovernmental bickering, insularity and a fundamental incapacity to work collaboratively with citizens, social movements and the private sector. I guess my dream is that our political leaders can truly see all the unrealised potential and opportunities that we already have and not be seduced by glitz and glamour of “smart solutions” that are little more than a mirage. DM

Prof Edgar Pieterse is the director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town and NRF South African Research Chair in Urban Policy.


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