Advice and Opinion

Private and public sectors firmly establishing urban sprawl

Professor Edgar Pieterse, the South African Research Chair in Urban Policy and founding director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, addressing the Green Building Convention 2017
Professor Edgar Pieterse, the South African Research Chair in Urban Policy and founding director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, addressing the Green Building Convention 2017.

If private- and public-sector land investment in our cities concentrates on keeping the haves away from the have-nots, urban sprawl will be encouraged, Professor Edgar Pieterse, told Green Building Convention 2017 delegates at Century City in Cape Town last week.

Words such as ‘security’ and ‘exclusive’ that are used to advertise eco-estates living basically mean that they are situated as far from the poor as conveniently possible,” Pieterse, the South African Research Chair in Urban Policy and founding director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, told green building champions from across the country.

Urban inefficiency creates ‘pockets of poverty’

Citing Cape Town as an example to illustrate Pieterse’s point, City of Cape Town Councillor Brett Herron, Transport and Urban Development mayoral committee member said that cheap and abundant land on the urban outskirts of the city has encouraged sprawl. He added that it becomes clear that Cape Town is an inefficient city when one travels, especially during peak hours.

This inefficiency creates pockets of poverty on the outskirts of the city. In South Africa’s push to provide 4.5 million new homes since democracy, we have compromised on location. So, families are forced to commute too far,” said Herron. “They typically live in a 40m² home, 40km away from jobs, and spend about 40% of household income on transport. It’s clear that where people live matters. The spatial planning injustices of the past have a bearing on their future,” he said.

The National Treasury has obliged metros to use the Built Environment Performance Plan, to show how they will reverse the apartheid form,” Pieterse explained. “The assumption is that transit-orientated development improves mobility, it will accelerate the speed of change and break with the past.

Cape Town authorities have focused investment on the Metro South East area. “We are looking intensively at location of housing so that the families benefit by receiving it,” Herron said.

Too “gatvol” for real estate driven pace of change

However, Pieterse points out, the current model will take between 20 to 30 years to lay the basis for real estate driven urban integration and reconfiguration. “How will the profound development challenges of the city be resolved through this approach?” he challenged.

Our zeitgeist is summed up in one word: Gatvol,” Pieterse continued. “We are gatvol. Look at the amount of social protest, the rise of anti-racism sentiments and movements. And, our economic- stagnation means that [social] movement is stuck in neutral.”

South Africa’s townships’ dysfunctional education and health systems have turned them into spatial traps. “The paradox is that the investment in public housing is capped by state spending. The more we redistribute to try and get the poor into the city, the more we reinforce spatial inequality. What we need to recognise is that the challenges we face get more acute with each public- and private-sector rand invested,” Pieterse said.

The country’s current urban sprawl trend maintains spatial divisions and the resulting township poverty traps forced on their populations, he said.

Cape Town ‘lucky’ to have a housing problem

The housing crisis can drive the economy and we need to stimulate the market – especially as there are not many other feasible options, Rob McGaffin, founding member of the UCT Nedbank Urban Real Estate Unit, told delegates. Referring to the Cape Town example, McGaffin noted that it is fortunate to have a housing problem.

However, to realise the opportunity, housing must move from a social to a commercial concern. “We’ve got about a 320 000 housing unit shortfall,” he said, and therein lies the demand.

McGaffin says that the rental market catering to the 70% of Capetonians earning less than R20 000 per month needs to be catalysed, so that rent for family living spaces can be below R5 000 per month. “We need to build more homes within the city footprint, and closer to jobs and economic opportunities,” he said.

Is there a market in the gap?

It is hard to achieve this in our current context because the value verses cost equation doesn’t work, and developers can’t cover the costs,” said McGaffin.

As cost is key, the sizes must be reduced. Therefore, stop focusing on new builds as, with land production costs of land acquisition, infrastructure and regulatory approval, they are the most expensive type of development and only represent 1% of total stock, advised McGaffin.

Uber reworked the existing stock of available cars, and this same trick can work in the housing market,” said McGaffin. Single storey homes are increasingly being converted to double-storey across high-rental yield areas. City authorities need to bring this trend to a tipping point, which will result in effective localised wealth redistribution, create an economic pillow to pinched homeowners and, with very little new infrastructure or regulatory processes, close the gap on housing shortfall across the economic spectrum, he said.

‘Uberise’ the taxi industry too

We must embrace ‘homebru’ public transport solutions tailored to our low-density, sprawled urban form,” Pieterse said, pin-pointing an active industry providing employment to young, black men – a demographic that typically struggles to find work.

E-hailing and mobile applications will allow minibus taxis to be more efficient during peak times, and their digital accounting systems will allow them to provide other demand-responsive services like school buses and courier services during off-peak, Pierse mused.

The problem isn’t the ideas, but often the bureaucracy as to why we can’t do them,” noted Dr Geci Karuri-Sebina, Executive Manager: Programmes, SA Cities Network. “We need to do what we know, and urgently find solutions to what we don’t know. Municipal bureaucracies must realise that our context is more Jazz than Classical. Innovative, spontaneous solutions should be allowed to contribute to solving old problems”.

We speak a lot about participation but not broadly enough to understand the range of solutioneers, and so harness their efforts,” she said.

Jodi Allemeier, Programme Lead for the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership added that to be exposed to new, innovative urban policy perspectives that will enable South African cities to heal from past, structural divisions, municipalities must be more inclusionary in their planning.

We must realise that many of the groups that should most be represented in policy discussions are not appropriately capacitated to add their voice. The burden is on them to influence policy and design, but they’re focusing on struggling to make ends meet every day.

Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA) CEO, Dorah Modise, noted that the organisation is pleased to have provided a platform for these in-depth debates, and views these development dynamics as key building blocks towards innovative solutions for a sustainable future.