As the population of Earth nears the 7 billion mark, and urban sprawl hangs like a smoggy spectre over the planet, the availability of land is a pressing yet volatile issue. This is a paradox, if not plain stupid given how much wasted land is available right in our cities.
I have to fly to Parliament almost every week and as the ageing BA jet flies over Johannesburg and Cape Town, it gives one a bird’s eye view of the large quantities of wasted resources represented by our land use in both cities. Up there in the air you can’t see the by-law restrictions, the hectare or square metre cost, the inadequate bulk infrastructure services and the distance to transportation links.
But there is one thing you can see is… Land! There is lots of it. Most of our cities are spread out due to urban sprawl caused by the cheap fuel prices of the 1950s and 60s and apartheid’s special planning. We should never have let our cities sprawl out. It has made transportation expensive and added to air pollution. But there is another way of looking at things.
Up there in the clouds when you look down, you see the large swathes of unutilised or under-utilised land. We have reprocessed mine dumps, polluted lakes and dams, abandoned schools with sports fields (in the middle of Soweto), unproductive small holdings and industrial land lying vacant. It’s a shame really. That land could be put to better use. When you then consider that city councils are trying desperately to find enough land for shack dwellers in places like Alexandra, the N1 City Development, Delft, Umlazi and so on, it seems a shame that we have hectares of readily available land lying “fallow”. To say that there is a shortage of land is simply nonsense – there is plenty, if you care to look.
The problem is that much of the land is in the wrong hands. National and provincial governments own lots of it. The metro councils and state-owned enterprises own some as well, and then there is disused industrial and mining land, which is privately owned, often abandoned or disused in city centres. In each case, this land could be redeveloped to provide accommodation and work in economically active parts of our cities. What it takes is some lateral thinking and a very cooperative government working in concert at all three tiers to succeed and Tokyo Sexwale’s housing headache could be wiped out, probably in 10 years or less, along with serious long-term job creation. Let me sketch out a few examples:
East London, city of my birth, now known as Buffalo City. The old Railway Workshops, where my father spent the better part of 53 years remanufacturing steam locomotives lies derelict, adjacent to another piece of land also owned by Transnet and leased out as a small business hive. This land represents probably the largest piece of unused urban real estate in Buffalo City and is strategically located in the run-down CBD of East London. Of course, Transnet puts a high value on the land and won’t part with it for love or money.
It could, however, be transferred between national government and the local or provincial government for redevelopment at almost no cost. It is a prime piece of real estate that could be used to revitalise the downtown area of East London by providing housing in two- or three-story apartments, similar to the Newtown area of Johannesburg for previously disadvantaged residents currently living far from the city centre. The piece of land is so large that it could also house a brand new shopping mall, opening up the city centre and providing work and a customer base in one development. Couple that with a redevelopment of the central train station and you would have a revitalised city with the largest new development and private capital formation in its history… if only Transnet would part with the unused land (They probably want a huge cash payout making it non-viable).
In Cape Town we have a similar situation. The military owns large tracts of land, also in some cases under-utilised. Wingfield, Youngsfield and Langebaan – all have air force applications. But how many air force installations do we really need in one small geographical corner of the country? The city has, on several occasions, tried buying one or other of these installations to build low-cost housing for the thousands of under-privileged South Africans, but the air force wants Rands – lots of them.
When you add in the cost of bulk infrastructure, the job becomes prohibitive. However, again, the land is already owned by the state and under-used. There are several other pieces of land owned by the military in the greater Cape Peninsula and again they are mostly underutilised. Can the military not rationalise its operations (it can barely afford the jet fuel in any event) and inexpensively transfer at least one of these land parcels to provide a few thousand new homes to the homeless in Cape Town? The city would be only too glad to pay for the water, electrical and sewerage services if the land wasn’t costing an arm and a leg, one assumes.
In Johannesburg, there are many parcels of land also, which have already been identified – Frankenwold (partly owned by Wits University) and adjacent to a squatter settlement (in Alexandra) and the Gautrain station. But there are others. The re-mined land to the left of the N3 (southbound) highway and at the entrance to Germiston, provides an ideal opportunity to re-invigorate the aging and obscured CBD of Germiston. It’s a sizable piece of land, of course, currently unsuitable for human habitation without some serious earthworks and environmental rehabilitation, but it can be done. Again cost may be a limiting factor, but the land is in a prime position and much closer to work and shopping opportunities than the Far East Rand townships. In fact, there is much industrial land, and many small-holdings in the greater Germiston area that are unused or underutilised. It takes political will, thinking out of the box and new kinds of urban planning. Nelson Mandela Bay has similar tracts of underutilised land as do Durban and Tshwane.
Yes, these and other cities would find these projects very large ones to undertake, but we have a large housing problem and a large jobless population that could be assisted. Instead of building RDP settlements on the fringes of cities, in each of our metros we have ample land, if we can get the politics and bulk infrastructure sorted out – together with some environmental issues. But please, let’s stop pretending we have a shortage of land or an absence of ideas – just get in a plane and fly over our cities if you can’t think of any options. DM
Ian Ollis is a DA MP. You can follow him on Twitter at @ianollis.
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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!
When threatened the Central African Horror Frog will break the bones in its toes and force them through its skin Wolverine-style to create makeshift claws.