Advice and Opinion

Opinion: shaking the foundations – time to change the structure of our cities

When streets are for people not cars, Essaouria, Morocco.
When streets are for people not cars, Essaouria, Morocco.

It is easy to fall into the doom-and-gloom trap of how Covid-19 will forever change the face of cities and how the very foundations of urban planning and architecture will have to adapt to a new human reality. Rather than adopting a reactive stance on envisaging how cities might change and looking beyond the pandemic, why not focus on how cities should structurally change?

Inequalities have become starkly apparent recently, providing a new lens through which to view the world. Armed with this deeper realisation, there is an opportunity to focus on humanity. Collectively, can we seize the moment when commercial and residential property values and declining rental yields have been accelerated to help drive structural change?

We have been gifted with the chance to change our cities into more human spaces and more equitable places. Can the usage of assets transform society, through collaborative provision of inner-city clinics, schools, libraries, and other community centres to foster hubs capable of spurring on the generation of inner-city housing?

Society has a significant responsibility to ensure that the provision of housing and community space is not a numbers game. Providing standard units in mass will never translate into the making of individual homes. A cramped space to sleep, eat, cook, and shower in, which is far from work and amenities, is not a quality home which our cities are crying out for: neighbourhoods in which individuals are nurtured in homes, not bleak repetitive housing without any form of social amenity.

Can we seize the moment?

Government has a massive opportunity to embed inclusion into its cities. For years, the City of Johannesburg and most of the other metropoles have been taking over properties where landlords are in arrears or failing to maintain their properties. These buildings have been released to the market for housing. As the economy continues to be pressured, more opportunities will doubtlessly emerge, giving government initiatives such as the Joburg Inner City Transformation Programme further fresh opportunities to fulfil its transformative mandate and to build neighbourhood clusters and government precincts that favour a human-centric approach to living and working.

With property prices likely to dive due to the economic carnage and the new remote working concept, we can expect to see an accelerated decline in inner city property values. By applying a longer-term vision, government could seize the opportunity to set new facilitative policies that would encourage dramatic change. Key to the success of this approach would be a greater collaboration with a property sector who is eager to realise the potential of its underperforming assets by providing inner city communities with better urban environments.

Are we ready as a nation, to use this crisis to open discussions about the current models in place to develop our cities? Are we prepared to dramatically change how we work and to put human beings at the heart of what we do? Can we measure our success through a legacy of successful neighbourhoods and cities, rather than the sheer number of units provided?

‘Project Speed’, a recent accelerated infrastructure spending experiment in the UK might hold some valuable lessons for South Africa. The concept, as the website ‘Inside Housing’ explains, is simple: allow developers to bypass normal planning applications when it comes to the provision of housing on vacant land and in empty or underutilised office and retail buildings, provided that the intention is to build new homes or civic facilities.

The announcement made in July this year was effectively an extension of the 2013 permitted development rights move which aimed to make it easier to convert commercial and office buildings into housing without the requirement of planning permission.

It was evident that there was a willingness on the part of government officials in the UK to seek new and innovative ways to deal with the housing shortage in the British capital and to fast-track the conversion of unused infrastructure into residential housing. The experiment worked to a certain extent, although some developers abused the situation by exploiting people with the provision of substandard living. This would be critical to bear in mind should South Africa institute similar policies.

Incentivise fresh thinking

Just before Covid-19, we saw examples of this type of thinking in several projects by Africrest and the conversion of the former ANC Shell House headquarters in Plein Street, Johannesburg into a 536-unit residential development with facilities including homework rooms, play areas and an outdoor gym.

South Africa needs to incentivise more developments of this sort, aimed at a range of LSM brackets and offering not just a room but a compelling urban experience. There is tremendous potential in unused or underutilised commercial property in the CBDs and major satellite areas and the conversion of underutilised real estate represents a massive opportunity which must be seized by both hands. If all levels of government work together with the property industry, we could rapidly and successfully transform our cities.

It would not cost a fortune to undertake myriad transformative projects. However, care should be taken to ensure that each element works towards a central goal and vision.

A role for urban visionaries

Urbanists, urban designers, and architects play a vital role in establishing the vision for transformed environments and in the conversion of existing and unused spaces.

Projects handled through idea-based competitions could inspire innovation in thinking and execution. This is a welcomed departure from the approach which government has favoured in recent years where the cheapest product and ‘cookie-cutter’ approaches have been favoured in order to show numerical growth in housing but without acknowledging the power architecture vision and good design have in the creation of functional communities.

Cities have their own pulse. They grow and shrink, and they constantly evolve. While these spaces are going through a sudden and traumatic moment, their repurposing – when it happens – will be quick. Without astute intervention now, the evolution of our cities will be driven by economic necessity and opportunism and not the result of a deliberate transformative strategy that puts the human experience at the centre. Policies and strategies, including incentives, which can bring the public and the private sectors together in a shared vision, should be priority.

Incentivising developments which cater to human considerations such as the need for social sharing and places in which human beings can interact, leaves less room for developments driven by a purely financial motive. It is this mindset shift that should be at the centre of our current thinking.

To some degree we have already been sensitised to this new way of thinking. The rapid digitisation of the economy had already begun a process which affected the fabric of our cities and Covid-18 has significantly accelerated this disruption to the standard property development model.

With this uncertainty, comes the extraordinary opportunity to disrupt. The social exclusion and dislocation caused by Apartheid-era planning and, in more recent years, gated communities and mega shopping malls, could be replaced by an inclusivity ignited by reprioritising the pedestrian and re-activating our streets.

Covid-19 has highlighted the need for these shared, communal spaces. Maybe now is the time to focus on all that is positive in how we interact, and factor social sharing into our architectural and planning models.

By Patrick McInerney, Christoph Malan, Catharine Atkins and Malika Walele, Co-Arc International Architect.