“Rapid urbanization, particularly over the past 20 years, has contributed to the current housing crisis that is being felt worldwide.”
The Housing Forum saw some of the brightest minds and most dedicated participants in the affordable housing arena tackle the question of ‘spatial inequality’ in our country.
The article was written by Celeste Perin and published by SA Affordable Housing on May 16, 2016.
Rapid urbanization. Crisis. Those words were repeated over and over as community leaders grappled with the question of how best to provide affordable housing to hundreds of thousands of needy, and deserving, people in South Africa. Guy Briggs, Director and Head of Urban Design at the firm dhk Architects, opened the forum with some familiar but nevertheless startling statistics: Rapid urbanization, particularly over the past 20 years, has contributed to the current housing crisis that is being felt worldwide. At home, the Western Cape alone is holding an urban population of 5.5 million, expected to rise to 7.8 million city dwellers by 2030. The current delivery backlog on approved houses for the province’s poor stands at an estimated 490,000, and one is left to ask the question: Does the answer lie in quantity or quality? Briggs pointed to some of the underlying problems in housing delivery, namely the scarcity of available land, available finance, and current delivery models.
Alfredo Brillembourg, Co-founder of Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) and also Chairman for Architecture and Urban Design – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETHZ), is known for his forward-thinking Empower Shack solution that has been installed within the BT-Section of Khayelitsha. In addressing the notion that cities have to be successfully created, Brillembourg suggested that the general reluctance to share private space is a major underlying problem and that the power to make cities should be transferred from pundits to the actual people who want to live in them. He gave an example in Mexico where a housing development was nothing more than an “island on agricultural land,” and how the people themselves changed that and altered their space by adding markets, shops, green spaces, etc.
To crack this nut we’re dealing with, Brillembourg said, all involved parties have to come together, with the architect playing a fundamental role in creating a workable solution. With the architect at the core, and the goal being affordable housing backed by proper infrastructure, integrated collaboration is needed with government, non-governmental organizations, supporting organizations, and residents.
Who are we building for?
In a panel discussion that explored set goals in a social context, Gavin Silber, Board Member of Ndifuna Ukwazi, emphasized that there is real power in design. He said the design function can be used as a tool to negotiate real change, and he urged architects, urban designers and engineers to figure out how best to collaborate to effect a participative design process. Silber continued on to say that communities themselves know best how to solve their problems, and that designers should focus on their skills and stick to design – design that responds to needs as expressed by the community. Khalied Jacobs, Founder of Jakupa Architects and Urban Designers, reiterated that the lack of sufficient housing is beyond serious, calling it a “crisis of spatial injustice.” Acknowledging that there are also political problems at play, he suggested there are enough architects around who are committed enough to be part of a real solution, and that we need more people input. In response, Alderman Marian Nieuwoudt, an audience member who is a councillor at the City of Cape Town, lamented that settlements continue to be built for the poor without asking the poor if that is what they want. Who are we building for? she asked. She also said that architects who claim to be committed to the cause should be offering their services for free.
The Founder of Ikhayalami, Andy Bolnick, agreed, saying that we should constantly push the agenda of the poor, or else their voice is not heard. Bolnick also talked about the role of the architect and designer as facilitators of change, and how the design function should be flexible and be able to change in response to the needs of different communities. Bolnick also said there is a need to shift away from an “entitlement” attitude in order to make way for an enabling environment.
Role players’ roles
Briggs made the overt statement that most people cherish their private space over shared spaces and that it’s often the case that affluent communities will not let in social housing. This sparked debate on the role of other stakeholders: Brillembourg was emphatic that government should not delegate its responsibilities to developers and let them decide on important matters like the size and even cost of homes. Instead, government should take full ownership of a development, and appoint qualified researchers, urban designers and architects to finalize all aspects of the settlement before finally opening projects up to developers to build. The discussion continued around the fact that, regrettably, municipalities (the government arm that is closest to the people on the ground) have the least power as they function on a non-funded mandate. It is the national government that passes down funding and approvals to regional government, who then authorizes local government to proceed. In addition, it was acknowledged that government does not have unlimited funds to devote to housing, and that it can only do ‘so much,’ resulting in the reality that developers do hold a significant amount of power over developments, even if it is not a popular position with every other industry player.
While we wait
As the panel reviewed international and varied examples of human settlements, Sizwe Mxobo, Urban Planner with CORC (Community Organisation Resource Centre), reminded us of the very real problems of flooding and fires that threaten the informal settlements in South Africa. His proposal for a solution puts the concept of an ‘inclusive city’ at the centre, supported by women leaders, further augmented by the functions of data collection and information exchange, as well as a savings concept, and slum upgrades with the backing of qualified partners to effect a successful result. Mxobo drove home the point that direct dialogue with the people/community is needed in order for the professionals to be able to solve the community’s problems, which include basic needs while people are waiting on housing. He gave an example where a 450-person informal settlement was served by only 2 cold water taps and 14 chemical toilets, and said that authorities’ decisions are not always the right decisions if they are not made with input from the people who will be impacted. When people have an actual say in actions that are being taken on their behalf, and things then start to improve, they buy into that positive change and make further improvements on their own, he said. He gave another example, where the community worked with authorities on a re-blocking project. After completion, people started painting their spaces, adding balconies, and even building up.
On the fringes
The panel discussed limited success with re-blocking initiatives, but also raised the problem of building affordable housing developments on city fringes. This approach can be very problematic if not fully supported with infrastructure. (E.g. the very long time taken to commute to-and-from inner cities.) Other issues include the fact that there is such a long turnaround time on applications, said Deon van Zyl, Director at AL&A and Chairman of the WC Property Development Forum. He suggested that the huge developments being planned rather be broken down into ‘chewable chunks’ that can be implemented quicker. Bovain Mcnab, Founder of SHAC – Suburban Housing Action Campaign, also raised the point that we have to find a way to move from informal title to formal title and put a workable policy in place.
And then there is the government
Willem Steenkamp is Advisor to MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela, the Minister of Human Settlements – Western Cape Government. Steenkamp took the opportunity to explain that, firstly, government focuses on the poorest citizens and aims to provide them with essentials like toilets and other infrastructure or services that will immediately add some dignity to their lives. Then only does affordable housing follow. He further raised the issue of introduced policies that could unintentionally cause delays in housing delivery, like the newly added requirement for a water licence that could take 300 days to satisfy. Steenkamp also admitted that, within government and partly due to government’s limited coffers, there are occasions and situations in which granting finance does not take priority. There is not always a shared sense of urgency within all government divisions.
As the forum concluded, Dr Luyanda Mpahlwa from DesignSpaceAfrica made the valid point that the serious issue of providing affordable housing to South Africans is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and that a true solution will only be found through true engagement with the people who need it the most.
In summary, some final take-away thoughts and ideas the panel shared include:
• We need more professionals specifically educated and trained in housing delivery to cope with this crisis.
• We should apply what we learn…only by ourselves living in an existing affordable housing ‘solution,’ will we know what affordable housing really should be delivering to our citizens.
• We should focus less on redress and more on innovation.
• We need a ‘networked university’ for the city. We should cohere the separate aspects of design, finance, build, etc.
• We should decentralize and break our cities down into small blocks so that, on a neighbourhood level, each block can develop itself.
• We should work on the ground, in and with communities. We should travel the road less travelled.
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Read more about the future of housing:
- Housing in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Challenge of Opportunity?
- Why informal settlement upgrading and partnerships are working : From Nairobi to Cape Town
- Why architects must do more to improve the future of housing
- MEDIA RELEASE: Experts call for new direction to tackle South Africa’s housing crisis at Future Cape Town Housing Symposium