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REBUILDING SA OP-ED

Urban planning – our cities are at a crossroads

Urban planning – our cities are at a crossroads
Commercial properties, residential buildings and skyscraper offices on the skyline viewed from a rooftop bar in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Thursday, May 21, 2021. Image: Guillem Sartorio / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The golden era of urban planning in South Africa is not just a distant memory, but a living legacy that can be rekindled, say the ‘Young Urbanists’, a new generation of urban professionals eager to take on the responsibilities to make South Africa a country with vibrant cities and towns that promote social inclusion, economic growth and environmental sustainability.

At the dawn of democracy, South Africa entered an exciting era during which urban and rural redevelopment interventions were going to undo the manifestations of apartheid and colonialism through spatial and social integration. The Development Facilitation Act (DFA) was among the first post-apartheid legislation designed for this purpose. Throughout the country, national, provincial and local governments were focused on the role of integrated development planning as the means towards renewed and integrated built environments. This represented the potential and ushering in of a golden era for planning and planners which included a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission explaining the role of the planning profession in addressing the spatial manifestation of apartheid. 

Sadly, this golden era was short-lived when even the DFA was declared unconstitutional because, ironically, it gave inordinate powers to provinces instead of municipalities where integration and renewal were meant to happen. It took several years for the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act (Spluma) to become a reality, by which time spatial inequalities through gated estates and shopping centres for the wealthy on the one end and the growing urban poor being locked in townships through RDP housing on the other, became entrenched. Notwithstanding the Spluma principles, growing spatial inequalities have worsened apartheid’s spatial and social inequalities and new policies stating the same goals of integration kept being reproduced even while successive administrations kept undermining them. Over almost three decades the golden era of hope and anticipation for a new society in newly built environments came to a disappointing end. 

This disappointment seems to have driven former statistician-general Pali Lehohla recently to write: “Confronted by the monumental task of building a nation divided and devastated by apartheid, South Africa has indulged in a series of plans — Reconstruction and Development (RDP), Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear), the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Programme (ISRDP), the Urban Renewal Programme (URP), the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA), the New Growth Path, the National Development Plan (NDP), the Nine Point Plan, the Fourteen Point Plan, the New Dawn, the Growth Renewal and Sustainability Plan, the Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan, the District Development Model and attendant master plans, and Just Energy Transition. Fourteen plans in three decades is a new toy for the nation every two years.”  Cabinet also adopted the integrated Urban Development Framework in 2016 and the National Spatial Development Framework was gazetted in February 2023.

This is the predictable pattern followed by all spheres of government, instead of reflecting on the failure to implement policies, plans and strategies; they elect instead to have new ones which ultimately are the same as the previous ones. Former president Thabo Mbeki was driven to say that the National Development Plan is not a plan at all, but merely a framework. The National Planning Commission is likely to present us with another one by the end of its term.  

As usual, successive administrations have not taken responsibility for their failures, blaming instead reactionaries, sabotage and the shortage of professionals such as urban planners, engineers and architects. The roles played by contradictory government policies, corrupt land use decisions and general public sector incompetence in implementing post-apartheid visions are ignored. The problem is not limited to built environment professionals, as a large number of unemployed newly qualified medical, engineering and teaching professionals show. It is an indictment of the bureaucracy that qualified professionals are unemployed when the needs have been established and the budgets allocated accordingly. The impact of basic incompetence and corrupt employment practices is pervasive across the country in all public institutions.  

A generation has passed since the golden era of planning and the challenges have become fraught with difficulties where parochial interests inform how spaces are used. However, a new generation of urban planners, engineers, architects and economists determined to create new urban spaces is emerging. Not satisfied with the status quo, these young professionals are not emigrating and are committed to staying in the country to bring about tangible change. They are challenging the inability of public institutions to employ them, because of the general lack of batho pele

Read in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s cities can be reinvented to restore people’s hopes and dreams

The golden era of planning in South Africa is not just a distant memory, but a living legacy that can be rekindled because the energy of the Young Urbanists and those who might now seem jaded or disillusioned are being brought together. The new generation of urban professionals is eager to take on the responsibilities to make South Africa a truly liveable country, with vibrant cities and towns that promote social inclusion, economic growth and environmental sustainability. These planners are not content to merely respond to challenges but are actively seeking new ways to solve them and make South Africa a model for other nations to follow. 

To achieve this vision, it is essential to support this generation and equip it with the necessary tools, resources and opportunities to succeed. It is also crucial to provide it with the support required to overcome the challenges they face, whether it’s funding, networking opportunities or legislative reforms. It is vital that this generation works cooperatively with other urban professionals in the health sector, the economy, safety and those dealing with various forms of misogyny and racism. Collectively, they are at the core of making our cities and towns more liveable, equitable and sustainable. Urban planners are not just technical experts but also advocates for the public good, working to ensure that the needs and aspirations of all South Africans are taken into account when making decisions about the built environment. By supporting the planning profession and the values that these emerging professionals embody, other young professionals will work towards creating a better future for all South Africans, one that is built on principles of social justice, environmental stewardship and economic inclusion in cities and towns. 

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Young Urbanists NPC (YU) recently hosted an open forum in response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ill-considered comments on spatial transformation in South Africa. Many disagreed with his claim that there aren’t enough qualified professionals in urban planning. The forum brought together a diversity of urban professionals from all over South Africa to discuss key challenges and barriers to effective urban transformation. 

The forum identified six barriers to effective urban change in South Africa. First, there are challenges in the implementation of planning policies. Second, there is a lack of collaboration between other urban professionals  and urban planners. Third, the South African Council for Planners (Sacplan) has been egregiously slow in the transformation of urban planning, as found in its ignorant response to the President’s comments. Associated with this has been the decline of the once-active South African Planning Institute (Sapi). Fourth, the limited number of skilled and ethical professionals in planning positions is due to a lack of governance. Finally, since 1994 there has been an endemic failure to develop and implement a transformative urban policy based on social justice, environmental stewardship and economic inclusion. 


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To address these issues, the forum developed a plan of action that includes alternative policies and legislation to facilitate change, filling the voids created by Sacplan and Sapi, activating and engaging current urban practitioners, responding to the President’s claims and advocating for the built environment professions collectively. 

Importantly, the forum was the catalyst for the formation of an interim planning committee that will now seek to establish alternatives that Sacplan, as the legal custodian of the urban planning profession, has failed to realise. Young Urbanists South Africa will organise and mobilise  planners of all ages by taking up issues in a broad-based, bottom-up and consensus-based manner. The interim committee consists of young urban professionals and stalwarts of the planning profession who have been at the coalface of urban policymaking over the past three decades. 

Read in Daily Maverick:Where you live matters: Undoing spatial injustice

The goal of Young Urbanists is to mobilise and organise support and activities that advocate for progressive change within the various built environment professions. It is working on its manifesto to be signed by the built environment and fraternal professionals. This will be used to engage with Sacplan, the government and other bodies on contemporary challenges and solutions. A series of sustained campaigns is envisaged to raise awareness of critical issues confronting the built environment professions using the manifesto as a point of mobilisation. 

Young urban professionals across diverse sectors have both the opportunity and the responsibility to challenge old ways of thinking to achieve the goals of a democratic and inclusive country. By joining Young Urbanists, urban practitioners can act and advocate to challenge old ways of thinking and achieve a new society because the problems will only get worse if we do not.

Join us, the interim planning committee, in advocating for real change in the planning field. Together, we can make a difference and realise the possibilities of tomorrow for our cities and towns. 

The golden era of planning has been rekindled, let’s get to work. DM/ML

The Interim Committee is part of Young Urbanists NPC and friends. Please reach out to us if you are keen to join and be part of this new movement for the planning profession in South Africa. The mini-report from the first forum can be viewed here which was held in response to the President’s comments in Parliament. 

Ashraf Adam has more than 30 years of experience in urban development, serving as president of the South African Planning Institute, Deputy Chair of the Municipal Demarcation Board and as a member of the South African Cities Network. He’s been involved with policymaking and implementation and was until recently the CEO of the Mandela Bay Development Agency. 

Roland Postma is the current organisational coordinator for Young Urbanists South Africa and co-coordinator for the Active Mobility Forum where he seeks to support young urbanists and instil positive change. He is from Pretoria originally and has a first-class Honours degree in Urban and Regional Planning and currently resides in Cape Town.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    This is a desperately needed initiative. Our old metropolitan areas are struggling with failing infrastructure and massive urbanization inflows on top of apartheid spatial planning that marginalizes the majority of the population. There needs to be a look at growing middle order towns as the future cities to create urban spaces that are low-income friendly, efficient and able to offer a much better quality of life for all citizens, particularly children. Polokwane, Mbombela, Newcastle and East London need to be considered. They are all close to poverty stricken former homelands and could generate economic linkages into those areas. Such a change of direction could generate great economic excitement and social progress. It would also take pressure off the old cities allowing them space to renew with a reduction of pressure.

  • Jill Tyson Tyson says:

    South Africa’s major cities are very likely to grow to double or triple their present size. Other similar cities like Cairo and Mexico City among others show what happens when long term plans are not made. Cape Town has seriously limited land and has to be densified. RDP houses are insane in a city environment and apartments also make economic sense. Water, sewerage and other services need advanced planning, as well as transport, education facilities, police and health facilities. We can’t wait until we reach 10 million citizens.

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