Opinionista James Speirs 7 December 2017

South African architecture precludes jobs

We need to turn the national dialogue away from owning “land” to owning “property”. The former is a rural conception: owning soil and the notions attached to that. The latter is a modern, urban idea that leads to real economic gains. With two-thirds of the population living in urban areas, what South Africa needs is urban reform.

South Africa faces two substantial problems: high unemployment and inadequate housing. These problems are intimately related. The World Bank and UN have both researched the effects of urbanisation and the conclusion is clear: cities combat poverty. China’s economic miracle, lifting millions from poverty in the last 20 years, was powered by transforming an agrarian nation into a modern, urban society.

Urbanisation alone, however, will not eradicate poverty. In 1960, only 16% of China’s population lived in cities. Today that figure is 57%. Comparatively, South Africa had 47% of its population urbanised while today that stands at 65%. China’s rapid urbanisation was built, in part, on high density state-owned housing schemes. This ensured that people moving to cities had access to adequate housing: the first step to building a middle class.

South Africa, conversely, has failed to provide adequate housing for those moving from rural areas. New arrivals in cities are greeted with inadequate housing and a scarcity of employment opportunities. Rampant poverty, social inequality, and the inability to cultivate an urban middle class in South Africa are over determined. Any one of the causes is sufficient: historical and systematic oppression, vast corruption, or the inept leadership the people are burdened with.

There is, however, an often-overlooked aspect of urbanisation and economic development. South Africa’s urban form is preventing economic growth. Our architecture, particularly that of the expanding lower middle class, excludes the commercial space required for businesses to flourish. If governments want to facilitate employment they need to build these jobs into the fabric of the city.

In South East Asia, for example, the shop house is a common architectural style. The ground floor of the building is commercial space while the two or three floors above are residential. This ensures sufficient accommodation while providing ample space for small businesses which drive the economy and uplift communities. Such mixed-use urban form has many benefits from reducing commute distances, ensuring goods and services are accessible, and even lowering crime by ensuring eyes on the street.

Mixed-use architecture is notably absent in South Africa while single-use, low-density residential housing is all too common. Such land use planning, or lack thereof, perpetuates manifold urban issues. Low density areas increase the cost of service delivery – rubbish collection trucks drive further to serve fewer households. The same is true for electricity, water and sewage reticulation. Bringing people together and optimising density, however, decreases the cost per household. Further, it can make public transport feasible by placing more passengers in the catchment area. It has a similar effect on small businesses: spaza shops thrive as numbers of customers in the area increase.

These same shops, however, need to be included in the architecture of the neighbourhood. They need to be planned for an accommodated. Historically, this has not been the case. Stand-alone RDP housing has been one of the most substantial misallocations of resources in our democratic history. The desire to provide each family with their own house was an admirable objective, however, it was short-sighted. These communities could have been substantially improved were they multi-story developments providing space for small businesses. A denser urban form would have shortened the distance to schools, clinics and public spaces such as parks and playgrounds. Crucially, it would have placed employment opportunities in these communities.

Around 65% of South Africa’s population now live in urban areas – some 36 million. Our national dialogue, however, over emphasises the rural agenda. Agrarian reform has not proven a successful tool to alleviate poverty anywhere in the world. We cannot continue to invest heavily in failing land reform programmes. We need to turn the national dialogue away from owning “land” to owning “property”. The former is a rural conception: owning soil and the notions attached to that. The latter is a modern, urban idea that leads to real economic gains. With two-thirds of the population living in urban areas: what South Africa needs is urban reform.

We need to talk honestly about how to provide dignified housing and meaningful employment. The metros are facing a massive housing backlog. Many residents live in informal settlements which are difficult to restructure and provide services to. Further, land prices in larger cities are often prohibitive for government housing programmes. Smaller cities, however, may be the perfect location for urban reform. While 60% of the urban population reside in the eight metros, 40% are found in the Mthathas, Pietermaritzburgs, Mbombelas, and Kimberleys of the country. These smaller urban centres, with cheaper land prices, could be targeted as areas for urban reform.

The poorest urban communities tend to fall on the outskirts of cities, where land prices are lower, resulting in ever-expanding peri-urban sprawl. Often this occurs on land with high agricultural potential. In a dry country with little arable land, this process needs to be halted. We cannot afford to build low density townships on high potential farm land. Food insecurity is growing as prices continue to rise hitting our poorest citizens hardest.

Furthermore, people on the outskirts are far from employment opportunities. They spend much longer commuting and are forced to spend a high percentage of their monthly income on transportation. In some cases, people are so estranged from employment opportunities that unemployment becomes accepted and unchallenged. It is time to change the urban landscape. We need to bring people into city centres and we need to bring employment opportunities to the periphery.

Twentieth Century zoning with its CBD and suburbs is not a sustainable or sensible organisation of today’s cities. Mixed-use development needs to be championed as a solution. Housing developments must include space for jobs. Multi-story construction needs to become the norm so that people can live closer to jobs and services. We cannot continue to grow our urban footprint and keep those living on the periphery excluded from the formal economy. DM

James Speirs is an urban researcher based in Kuala Lumpur

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