The Cities Collective is a collaborative partnership between Future Cape Town and Urban Times. Working across platforms and across countries, the Cities Collective seeks to create a platform for the discussion, investigation and exploration of cities and urban life around the world.
By Jonathan Manning
Johannesburg, Joburg, Egoli, Maboneng, Gauteng, Jozi; the many names given to Africa’s wealthiest city, a place to which people are drawn from across the country and the continent in search of a better life; the fabled city that never sleeps and place that is forever on the move. But Joburg is also the scene of immense inequality and incredible spatial distortion, bequeathed to us by our colonial and segregationist recent history.
A city’s soul, its character and its sense of place are often underpinned by its public realm. The streets, concourses, galleries, squares and parks, located between buildings are the vital negative spaces where experience is collective and where common identity is forged. These are the territories where sovereignty is shared. How then has it come to pass that much of Jozi’s public realm exists as a residual car-dominated wasteland; a fragmented, cluttered and unwalkable collection of unsafe and uneven spaces left-over between rivers of steel; a stage set for the arms race between law-breakers and the security industry; a twice daily heaving and writhing bed of serpent-like appendages linking disparate and distant extremities of a sprawling low-density urban footprint? Just where in this picture does room exist for places, the punctuation points in our movement dominated public space system, the spaces for face-to-face interaction and trade, for reflective pause, for shared experience, for enjoyable dwell time?
Casting a cursory glance across much of Joburg’s suburban hinterland, we seem over time to have gradually designed ourselves out of any sense of collective urban experience. All too often the concept of “place” in Johannesburg has been distilled down to its most primitive base; a momentary exchange of eye-contact between motorist and hawker through a car window at the traffic light market places that punctuate our major roads. Public transport, a haphazard, unreliable and at times unsafe proposition, is the refuge only of those who cannot afford to buy their own car. How is it that car-ownership has become the admission ticket to Joburg’s commercial and cultural life? Why have Apartheid buffer zones been replaced by high walls, electric fences and razor wire, halting the urban poor at the boomed gates of prosperity? Is it fair that some amongst us live in the middle of the city on a hectare of land with a swimming pool and tennis courts, while others of us spend three to four hours a day travelling between work and tiny homes 40km out of town? Why has Joburg has become a city of two speeds, and “mobility” become the new Apartheid?
If predictions that Gauteng could grow into a mega-city of more than 22 million people by 2055, absorbing Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, prove to be accurate, a shift to a denser and fairer urban model is imperative. The current skewed inequitable model has to change. It will become politically unsustainable as the decades roll by. It will become a physical impossibility in a mega-city of 22 million plus people. A move away from private modes of transport towards a well-integrated public transport system is essential if we are to achieve a more equitable and efficient city form. Commuter rail, Bus Rapid Transit and other modes of public transport hold the key to this transformation, through the increased capacity offered and reduced space required to move people around a future mega-city.
In the relatively short time since Gautrain and Rea Vaya have been operational, some incremental changes are already discernable. Pedestrian traffic is drawn in and released onto streets, sidewalks and squares like an adrenaline shot in the arm for Joburg’s beleaguered public realm. Many of the precincts surrounding stations like Rosebank, Sandton and Park are beginning to adopt a form that includes the vibrant fine-grained mix of street vendors, buskers, leaflet droppers and soapbox orators that is familiar to passengers who emerge from the Sao Paulo Metro, the London Underground and the Hong Kong MTR.
The collective experience of mixing, interacting and sharing experiences with strangers from all walks of life and all strata of society, what is often euphemistically referred to in South Africa under the banner of “nation building”, has sadly become an infrequent novelty to many of us. Activated by new public transport services, public spaces in many station precincts are now starting to exhibit normalised conditions of congregation and collective identity. Parts of Joburg are starting to feel like a different city, the kind of city that many of us yearn for.
With the new Rea Vaya Phase 1B route linking Soweto to Newclare, Auckland Park and Parktown opening this week, and a new Naledi to Mamelodi Gautrain link also in the pipeline, we can begin to hope that these changes will start to spread across Joburg. Higher density development along public transport corridors offer an answer to the challenges posed by the legacy of Apartheid planning models that placed the poor at the urban periphery and the wealthy within a soft low-density core. Through densification, Joburg Mayor Parks Tau’s “Corridors of Freedom” offer the chance to accommodate more Joburgers within easy reach of workplaces, to shorten our travelling distances, and to improve our access to commercial and cultural amenities. A more compact city will also make delivery of education, healthcare, welfare, recreation, and policing easier, cheaper and more efficient.
A change in the way we design our built environment also needs to be enacted. We need to start designing buildings that actively address, frame and interface with the public realm, through ground level shopfronts, balconies and permeable facades. We must promote the model of the 24-hour city, through the encouragement of a vertical mix of business and residential uses within buildings, and in doing so facilitate greater efficiencies of the transport system through all day use and contraflow.
As designers and planners, we must increase our efforts to prioritise and design for pedestrian movement. It is essential that we take time to observe the way people move through public spaces, to identify lines of desire and respond to them. The creation of discrete pockets of space, of varying grain and geared to the needs of different uses and users, with a view to creating multi-layered activity and attraction of a diverse base of users is also vital. A little like a stream with a fast flowing centre bordered by a series of eddying pools, public places need pockets of different sizes and speeds to simultaneously encourage through-movement and dwelltime.
Lastly, and perhaps most pertinently, society’s poor need and deserve the same level of design rigour and attention to detail as do the wealthy that are typically the mainstay benefactors of our design professions. Public space and transit projects are precious opportunities to try and design for everyone. Design is an intensely political act. Through the stroke of a pen, or these days a mouse, one can delineate exactly what people will see, hear and feel, how and where they will move. Within the context of the inefficiency and inequity of today’s Joburg, it is incumbent upon all of us who are engaged in shaping our built environment, including policy makers, planners, engineers, and designers, to challenge existing paradigms. We cannot think merely in terms of the way things have always been done and what has gone before, because these ways of thinking are behind much of what is wrong today.
It has been a little over three years since South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup. As we count the cost of building stadiums that we now struggle to fill and roads that we cannot agree how to pay for, the greatest legacy of the 2010 World Cup may well turn out to be a new found comfort with shared mass transport and public space, a reawakening of our urban consciousness, and a rekindling of the desire to mould the kind of city that brings us together rather than tears us apart, just as happened for a short time as we queued for buses and trains during the World Cup. Might it be possible to make 2010’s temporary transformation a permanent reality, to move away from the segregated city of yesterday and the fragmented city of today towards a Joburg United?