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The smart solution is to fix our ailing cities

South Africa

OPEN LETTER

The smart solution is to fix our ailing cities

The principles of smart city approaches do not necessarily require new towns; they can equally be injected into existing settlements, say the writers. (Photo: South African Tourism / Flickr)

As urban planners and designers, we too believe that spatial interventions can have a profound, positive impact on our country’s future. But the project of mending our ailing existing cities is far more urgent than that of a new ‘smart’ city.

Dear President Ramaphosa,

We noted with great interest, in your recent SONA address your expression of a dream to create a new ‘smart city’, free of the weighty baggage of apartheid. As urban planners and designers, we too believe that spatial interventions can have a profound, positive impact on our country’s future. However, we want to propose that the project of mending our ailing existing cities is far more urgent than that of a new ‘smart’ city. We have a number of reasons to pose this different approach.

First, the international track record of creating new cities is very poor. The reason is that the spatial economy of any country emerges incrementally over a long period of time in response to complex and changing economic and social forces. Wilful attempts to impose new settlements onto this landscape almost invariably fail – the lead activity becomes road provision and housing, not an economic activity. Economic activity seldom catches up. The consequence is continuing poverty, unemployment and inequality. New settlements are also very expensive to create since there is no benefit from historical investments in bulk infrastructure. Atlantis, in the Western Cape, is a good example of the misery which can result.

Second, the real problem, and arguably the country’s most exciting challenge, is to improve the performance of existing towns and cities. Their unacceptably poor performance entrenches and exacerbates poverty and unemployment and they are hostile and expensive places to live in, particularly for the poor. To fix them, resources are required. Building a new city will divert the country’s attention and resources away from this. The way forward lies in incremental growth in which each tranche of investment improves city performance. The future lies in creative, focused, small activities, not in the mega-project.

Third, the term “smart city” implies that the problem lies with technology. Of course, it is sensible to make creative use of the best technology available. The real problem, however, is that the ideas and practices which have informed the nature of our settlements historically and which continue to do so, are simply and demonstrably wrong. It is quite possible to embark on a process of gradual incremental improvement, but only if there is a radical review of almost all current planning practices.

Some examples of the necessary changes are given here:

  • Stop considering urban and rural development separately: they are two sides of the same coin. For example, badly needed small farmer programmes should not be pursued in the deep periphery but on the edges of, and even within, existing town and cities where there are markets for their produce, where they can contribute directly to improving food security and where some of the treated wastes can be used to irrigate and fertilise the land.
  • Put nature first. Good planning begins with determining where development should not go, and fiercely defending this. Urban development should be planned in direct and positive relationship with a structure of the inter-connected matrix of green space.
  • Change the model of development from a suburban to an urban one. Inter alia this requires making them:
  • more compact – with carefully focused densification of suburbia, selective occupation of large areas of vacant land in small parcels within city boundaries and the formation of high-density urban activity corridors;
  • more integrated – by making residential opportunities available for all income groups in many different areas and by breaking down barriers created by limited access roads;
  • more mixed in use – so that people don’t have to travel far to schools, shops, clinics, work and so on.
  • as networks of quality public open space (city “living rooms”) which “glue” settlements together, as opposed to the current situation which sees the basic building block of cities as free-standing buildings (objects) which collectively do not contribute to positive public open space.
  • Break the dominance of the motorcar. The country must commit to creating urban environments in which all people can carry out most of their daily activities on foot or by non-motorised transport – when the cycle of movement on foot is broken, cheap, viable public transportation is essential.
  • Disallow the creation of exclusionary forms of development such as car-dependent shopping centres, office parks, industrial parks, gated communities and so on.
  • Change housing policy. In particular, mass housing schemes should be replaced by projects on much smaller parcels and of a self-help nature which uses social capital, sparks individual initiative and creates multiple opportunities for small business.
  • Repair the many problems of the currently dysfunctional spatial planning system. For example, decision-making processes related to land development are very cumbersome and slow; decisions are frequently made on party political imperatives, not developmental ones; there is little control over the direction of growth of our cities – bulk infrastructural development follows, it does not lead; the historical model of modernism based on separation, and inevitably resulting in sterility, is deeply entrenched in current norms and standards – it is impossible to create highly liveable environments based on the current rules; public investment decisions are largely made in disciplinary silos which often barely communicate with each other; engineering concerns dominate over human and environmental ones – our cities are over-simplified technical “solutions” to highly complex human processes.

The principles of smart city approaches do not necessarily require new towns; they can equally be injected into existing settlements. What is urgently required is a steady collective effort towards transforming the problems of our existing towns and cities.

We are grateful to you for putting the urban issue so firmly on the New Dawn agenda. We hope this marks the beginning of extensive urban reform. We are happy to discuss ideas with you and your advisers at any time that may be suitable for you. DM

Julian Cooke, David Dewar and Lucien le Grange are all Emeritus Professors of the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at UCT. Simone le Grange is an architect and urban designer (and lecturer in the same School) and Piet Louw an Architect, City Planner and Urban Designer

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