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No quick fix to save our cities, so we’d better start now

Ian Ollis is currently a candidate for the Masters of City Planning (Transportation) programme at MIT in Boston. He formerly served as a South African MP, (Shadow Transport, Labour and Education Minister). He has also worked as a city councillor in Johannesburg, briefly lectured at Wits University and ran a real estate company. He has no dogs!

Urban sprawl and everything that goes with it are global crises, and rapidly approaching disastrous proportions in South Africa. Solving the problems is fraught with every conceivable problem – all the more reason to get started right away.

I got chatting to Arnold Smit on the plane to Parliament this week about the future of South African cities. He represents the Centre for Business in Society at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. Long ago I became concerned about the long-term future of cities in the world and South African cities in particular, because the general population and most city fathers do not understand the crisis into which we are heading. Smit made the point to me that you probably only need about 4% of society to fully understand the crisis, but the trouble in SA is that often it’s not the correct 4% of leadership that understand.  If local and provincial government, let alone national government do not grasp the world crisis, then we are simply not going to be able to respond until it’s too late.

Personally I don’t like scaremongering. The old apartheid government put me off that kind of politics. With the racial epithets being thrown around at present over the new employment equity laws, I have avoided writing on my perspectives on race this week. I’ll keep that article for when we are not in the middle of electioneering.

However, my first concern about the impending city crisis is that people seem to relegate the discussion to green issues, which must be looked after by those people with green fingers and degrees from Oxbridge. You can even see this view reflected in Wikipedia: “sustainable city, or eco-city is a city designed with consideration of environmental impact”. Now, the term “sustainable city” has to mean “eco-city” which is a pity. That’s far too narrow a scope for the problem we face.

The crisis in our cities is we cannot sustain our cities with current practices in the full sense of sustain, including, (but not limited to) financial planning, spatial and town planning, roads and storm water infrastructure, water, electricity and sewer installation and recycling as well as the human migration and sustainable employment practices. It’s not just a green revolution that we need. The environmental crisis is but a subset of the problem. With current practices, our cities are not sustainable financially either. Nor can we control people movements and job opportunities, which makes spatial and urban planning very difficult.

Let’s tackle infrastructure first. Most large modern metropolitan conglomerates were built around 100 years ago, or greatly enlarged around that time after the advent of motorised transport, creating the typical American suburbia. It has taken us roughly 100 years to realise the headache we have built as a result. Environmentalists have listed the challenge for us as being a depletion of resources. The resources of the planet are being consumed to maintain our cities faster than we can replace them. The typical example quoted is how London would die as a city if the air and shipping routes were cut off. There would not be enough produce to keep the city alive and the city would die, being strangled by a lack of natural and processed resources.

However, the other half of that equation is missed in the green debate. The problem in a nutshell is that the pipes and cables and drains of cities installed 100 years ago are now decaying and in need of repair. Cities around the world require more and more money for maintenance and replacement of infrastructure to maintain services such as water, electricity, sewerage and garbage removal. And here’s the problem: without raising taxes in an unsustainable fashion, how do we replace that ageing infrastructure without compromising something else? Inevitably political decisions have to be made. Unrealistic increases are avoided and above-ground visible service delivery is compromised to replace the essential services below the ground that carry our water and so on.

This in turn results in dirty and unsafe spaces above ground as the funds for “clean and safe” get spent beneath our feet. Of course, in the US and Britain a new vehicle was devised to deal with that, called a City Improvement District. Property owners, both business and residential, have to resort to paying extra fees to clean up their “hood”. I remember my amazement years ago when it finally dawned on me that the CIDs in SA were not a result of business nodes needing to fix the funding gap caused by the current government in SA, (the need to siphon off funds for the townships where services had never been properly installed). I was walking back to my hotel in Manhattan from a church service one Sunday morning with my head down as it was snowing on Madison Avenue and as I picked up my head to look for traffic at the intersection, there was a man in an overall with a sign on his back “Madison Avenue Business Improvement District,” and the penny dropped instantly.

Cities have tried various means to deal with the big three issues – urbanisation leading to a growing housing need, limiting the insatiable increase in the need for service infrastructure and the growing safety and security needs that have arisen. One key solution has been to force high-rise instead of further urban sprawl, by legislating an urban edge to the city and preventing new developments outside that set perimeter. The City of Johannesburg approved such a perimeter some years back to loud applause from all parties.

However, the ink was barely dry when the city itself was forced to violate its own legislated urban boundary. Why? We have an added problem in South Africa. Many of our people still live in shacks and we have to provide access to affordable housing. That alone bedevils the equations. The limiting of urban sprawl makes the service infrastructure cheaper and simpler to maintain because many more individuals are paying towards the maintenance of one metre of pipe or cable if you go high rise, than if you spread out. However, building high-rise is also expensive and we are in a hurry. The ANC realises it is sitting on a ticking time bomb. If it cannot build sufficient low-cost houses for the poor in a short time, the country and the ruling party could face a Mubarak-scenario. The homeless may revolt and bring down the government – and not through the ballot box, which is the preferred method. When you are in a hurry to build low-cost housing for large numbers of rapidly urbanising underemployed workers, you can’t afford high rise. It’s just too costly and takes too long. End result – RDP housing. But how do you build RDP housing in cities like Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town, where the available land located close to the work opportunities is limited? You are forced to go further and further out to find more cheaper land.

This creates untold complications. Johannesburg had to violate its own urban boundary within 12 months of approving it. This made the commitment to high rise, meaningless. The cost of the new pipelines and electrical infrastructure had to be taken from elsewhere, usually from maintenance of roads, sewers, storm water drains, street cleaning, park maintenance and the like. Still not enough money – sell off the parks and open spaces. The Rosebank library and park in Johannesburg is apparently now quietly up for sale and an official reportedly told the local ward councillor, “it’s because the council needs the money”. Carefully add up how much parkland has been sold off in Johannesburg over the past 10 years and you will be amazed. The opposition is constantly fighting the sale of a park or open space because concrete jungles are not good for societies.

I haven’t even spoken about the transport nightmare this creates. If you build houses in Diepsloot or Zandspruit, or even Cosmo City (Thabo Mbeki’s flagship project) you soon realise there are no BRT buses, Gautrains or any other real public transport to feed those areas. Taxis take over and the environment takes a hammering because of the pollution of too many fossil-fuel burners on the roads. Then, of course, you have to widen the roads, build bridges for cars and pedestrians and you never really get to laying the pavements – the cost/benefit analysis kills you… every time. In simple terms, while you are laying the pipes in “Norweto”, the roads in Bertrams and security in Hillbrow collapse, not to mention the litter in Illovo or the uncut grass in Delta Park.

This is really just the introduction to the problem. The solutions are complex and the choices are difficult and mired in political will and electioneering mandates. However, we cannot ignore this looming crisis. If we do not take action soon, our cities will be unaffordable, both financially and environmentally, and as my new friend pointed out, we haven’t yet begun to deal with the skills shortages, the taxpayer versus social grant equation, the illegal immigrant question and those other legacies of apartheid. If the US and the UK struggled, we had better face up to our challenge soon. Hoping that populist politics is going to help, is like sticking your head in a smelly place. DM

Ollis is DA MP.


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