‘we should introduce residential informality in the city. But I know that this will be perceived as madness’
Sizwe Mxobo has been awarded the Young National Planner of the year award in South Africa. Rashiq Fataar sat down with Sizwe to hear more about his vision for Cape Town, the projects he has been working on and why planning has failed the city and its people.
Interview by Rashiq Fataar, Editing by Pamela Hellig and Gareth Davies
Listen to his interview here:
Meet Sizwe Mxobo, the recent recipient of the Young Planner of the Year award. His original ideas on informality and achieving ‘social cohesion’ in his city have caused a stir in the urbanist community and are making even the most laidback Capetonians to sit up a little and listen to what he has to say.
Sizwe has been working with the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) for the past four years, providing technical support, consulting with the City of Cape Town on service delivery challenges, and assisting informal settlements with development plans and capacity building. Future Cape Town caught up with the passionate and inspiring Sizwe to find out more about his envisioned ‘new era for planning’.
Rashiq Fataar: You talk about planning being about people more than space; that we need a new era of planning. Can you elaborate on that Facebook status?
Sizwe Mxobo: When I looked at most South African cities (or in the townships where I grew up), planning always considers the space and how citizens fit into the space. Yet with informality, citizens create the space that they want. They tend to build roads, creating pathways where they did not previously exist. Human intuition leads to citizens creating a space in their own mould.
However, it appears that planning itself has failed, by considering the space and not the citizens. Citizens therefore have to adapt the spaces. Township dwellers tend to take over, laying a claim on a particular plot and making a new pathway, regardless of whether the state wants it or not. Planning needs to take into consideration citizens by actively engaging with the targeted group of the development. Planners need to listen and understand more about what the space means for this group and how they would like to function around it. This is a better approach than an authoritarian way of planning that silences public participation.
RF: Do you think that informality makes citizens tend towards ‘unplanning’?
SM: Not really; people do plan, but they plan in their own way. Citizens require an education in planning, by, for example, encouraging them to observe the latest informal settlement, Marikana in Cape Town. The space is well-planned and functions well, everyone has their own yard space. Unlike in other informal settlements, there’s the sense of creating one’s own space. There’s functionality in the design. Although it may not be on paper, or the way we traditionally view planning, people do direct each other and implement planning.
RF: What is this “traditional view” of planning in the democratic South Africa?
SM: I think since 1994 planning has been overshadowed by a ‘you [the government] need to provide housing’ attitude, and that alone has created a big problem. When you look at pre-1994 townships such as Delft and Samora, they have the main focus of providing residential provision and educational facilities. These are key elements that citizens need to function. However, when you look at it more closely, it’s a grey space that lacks character. You witness this lack of vision on any RDP housing project in the country. There’s nothing new, no character or anything that differentiates it. The focus is providing residential units. I understand that the state made a promise and has to deliver on it. It has to show that people are welcome in the cities, especially since urban population growth demonstrates that citizens increasingly want to live in the cities. But after twenty years of democracy, we need to rethink how we accommodate each other in the cities. We need to ensure that we have more character and more liveable spaces. We need to move away from creating undesirable spaces that people will aspire to quickly leave.
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RF: When you’re walking through Samora or Delft, what do you see and what don’t you like about it?
SM: The typical long roads, lack of character and interaction between the people. If you take away the residents that live there, what is really left? You do not feel that you’re in a welcoming space, it’s not just about the architectural style of the houses and the roads. You feel as if you’re in a space where you enter and depart, the space itself fails to offer a vision. These areas are simply where commuters sleep, they’re not functioning communities. There’s no focus on what makes it a community, you have to ask: where’s the common space in these areas? Where’s that connection from one house to another?
RF: Are we making progress in some direction?
SM: I do think that the dialogue is changing. Citizens are beginning to realise that informal housing will not simply disappear, it’s a reality that is here to stay. Therefore we need to spend time looking at informality. Last year the informal settlement department received around R280 million to look at upgrading informal settlements. There’s more acceptance of what informality is and improving what already exists.
What is re-blocking?
“Blocking-out” and “re-blocking” are interchangeable terms the ISN and support NGOs Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) and iKhayalami use to refer to the reconfiguration and repositioning of shacks in very dense informal settlements in accordance to a community-drafted spatial framework. The aim is to better utilize the spaces in informal settlements to allow for better service provision. Moreover, re-blocking is done in “clusters” identified by the community, and after implementation, “courtyard” are created to ensure a safer environment for woman and children via neighborhood watches (all shacks face the courtyard), productive places (such as washing lines, food gardens), and generally provides space for local government to install better services.
RF: Is reblocking the new way of creating cities and communities?
SM: Informality has been proven as a way for citizens to accommodate themselves in the cities. I think that in the event of not being able to develop new accommodation at the speed that we want, reblocking is a key element in upgrading housing for those in the cities. Reblocking is also healthier than informal housing as the latter lacks basic services such as sanitation.
Electricity must be prioritised as the most important service for residents. The basic needs would be water and sanitation. Reblocking also focuses on preventing flooding and fire risks, creating safer homes for residents. In tandem with the Density Syndicate in Lotus Park we have been able to say that true reblocking embraces high density. Therefore, in some areas the mentality is beginning to shift beyond single-storey structures towards multi-level residential buildings. They are willing to develop communities within the existing fabric.
RF: Tell us about your most recent project.
SM: My most recent project was Flamingo Crescent, this was the second largest reblocking project we have completed.
I’m a major supporter of such projects because I live and grew up in an area where you have to walk long distances for water because there was no sanitation. The use of taps and toilets in homes is a major advance in my eyes as I grew up without such luxuries. There’s a sub-divided area but residents still have to use chemical toilets. Therefore I value the importance of being able to bring a sanitation system closer to the residents of informal settlements.
Flamingo is home to 104 families that previously lived under bridges in Claremont and Wynberg. They were relocated to a major public space in Lansdowne during the government’s preparations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. They were housed in tents at Lansdowne and told to wait three months with the promise that they would be included in a Pelican Park housing development. The settlement mushroomed from 70 to 104 families.
The area also became rife with drug abuse and poverty. On our first day of mapping, we had to finish early because of gunshots in the local vicinity. We were being targeted because we weren’t trusted. The drug barons of Flamingo regarded themselves as protectors of the community. Therefore it was very difficult to gain the trust of the community. However we succeeded through the leadership of three amazing women.
Now all units have been reblocked and the road has been paved. The houses all have working electricity now. The residents are also working with a group of American students to build a crèche.
RF: What’s been most challenging aspect of the reblocking projects in which you’ve been involved?
SM: We talk about communities wanting to do things for themselves, but when you’re in that field you have to ask if communities are ready to do things for themselves. There has been no culture of doing things for themselves after 1994. This presents a major challenge.
Being involved in various projects, I’ve realised that you need at the support of least 25% of the community leaders in order to make that change. Yes, people are excited about the design element and if that is done correctly, you’ve got everyone’s participation. But when you get to implementation it becomes a different story. This is because people suddenly have to do things for themselves. They have to reconfigure new shacks. This is new knowledge. Everything is politicised in communities, especially when it comes to development.
The promise that everything comes for free makes it difficult to work and do any upgrading projects in communities. People are used to upgrading from a shack to a formal or semi-formal township where they have a RDP house with a plot. In the Western Cape, the DA has been strong in saying that we have to find other ways, and that we can’t keep giving RDP houses serving only a few when we could serve more with the same budget. Yet communities are not willing to accept this and do things for themselves. That’s creating a challenge. On whatever community project we work on, that promise in the background of ‘we’ll give you free housing’ is difficult to work with. This mentality is more difficult to contend with than understanding planning rules or any other rules.
RF: You speak about things that you would change, what would make your work easier?
SM: There are two main points: understanding how the planning profession works and how it relates to people; and increased public participation.
Planning is supposedly the one profession that bridges the gap between spatial territories and citizens. Therefore, planning needs to focus on this element of citizens and space as inextricable in the design process. Intelligent planning needs to consider citizen interaction before and after the implementation of new projects.
My biggest problem with Cape Town is the lack of social cohesion, coupled with the racial background and boundaries that exist. Even though I was born and raised in Cape Town, there are spaces where I have no right to as there’s nothing common about those spaces that I can relate to.
There are parcels of land being sold around Cape Town, so at conferences I ask why some of these areas in the city could not be given to informal settlements. In my opinion this would be a step towards social cohesion. So perhaps we should introduce residential informality in the city. But I know that this will be perceived as madness and will not be accepted in the current climate.
For more information about Sizwe Mxobo and his project, click here.