Turning the tide on urban decay


Image via This Big City

by Dodo Meijer, Clementine Chazal and Adam Scholtz 

In early 2012, the City of Cape Town tasked the Mayoral Urban Regeneration Programme (MURP) with resuscitating areas which had suffered under years of urban decay through efforts focused on improving safety and security, quality of life and rectifying various socio-economic ills left in the wake of apartheid. It would endeavour to do so through an active partnership with local communities focused on maintaining and ameliorating public infrastructure, law enforcement, tenant management, informal trade management and enhancing community engagement processes.

Ten targeted areas, chosen because of their strategic location and characteristics: “mini-CBD that are close to transport corridors”, such as Nyanga/Gugulethu, Harare and Kuyasa interchange precinct, Bellville transport interchange precinct and Voortrekker Road corridor and Macassar among others. It is hoped that this would establish a sustainable platform on which to encourage further public and private investments of pursuing the stated objectives. More recently the City again issued an update of the various improvements, anecdotal and evidential, it says are a direct result of its efforts.

For example, in the Bellville Transport Interchange/Voortrekker Road Corridor, “informal trading kiosks have been upgraded, with 90 structures handed to informal traders” and “CCTV cameras to the value of R3 million have been installed in the CBD”. In Manenberg/Hanover Park, schools will be reconstructed from early 2014 onwards for a total cost up to R67 million, and a “further R22,2 million will be spent on upgrading walkways, squares and parks”. Finally, in the communities of Nyanga/Gugulethu, the Department of Community Safety helps to create “targeted crime prevention plans” in partnership with the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading initiative and the South African Police Services.

Turning the tide of urban decay?

While it would seem the programme has been successful in identifying and implementing various projects spanning the spectrum of its objectives and incorporating communities in the process, little attention has been directed at the idea itself. Does public infrastructure investment lead directly to improvements in the areas the MURP has been tasked with improving? Furthermore, if so, is it enough and should the framework be expanded into incorporating those other aspects the organisation has missed.

Sifting through the rhetoric, it would be prudent to say that what the state is trying to accomplish is a broad spectrum of development rather than one geared towards simply putting more money into people’s pockets (as a more narrow view might propose). Consequently, it aims to make people happier in their surroundings. How to achieve this development effectively is however up for debate across disciplines.

The developmental economist will talk of savings and investment. The lawyer will push for a stable legal framework in which to operate. The engineer and urbanist will likely pick investment in infrastructure and the politician will cry out for a stable political system accountable to some sort of impartial body. Ultimately, the accepted wisdom is that the answer lies in a collaboration across disciplines. Correcting for society’s imperfections through intervention that is the least distortionary as possible.

An urban regeneration route?

 Which route works best tends to be sector specific. Johannesburg’s wealth and development was born out of the discovery of gold and consequently had little to do with The City of Johannesburg’s efforts. Hollywood is a by-product of LA’s lovely climate and the aviation sector in Dubai is largely down to its location connecting east and west. Consequently, the academic evidence would suggest that in order to effectively develop an area, a man-made infrastructure – be it legal, physical or any of the others, would have to be combined with an accurate assessment of what certain area’s are particularly suited to. The Mayor is on the right track because of her inclusion of the communities in the process and by designating area specific policy (the Community Action Plans), but the question remains whether these measures are sufficient.

It is in this area where MURP  may fail. It assumes that public engagement on improving the physical infrastructure of an area will automatically lead to safer streets, more private investment and more economic opportunities for locals.

Making development work?

To begin with, creating an environment for development is ineffective when there is no one to take advantage of it.

The framework through which these proposals are implemented, must be close to the people so that the money actually is invested where it is needed. In this way the Area Coordinating Teams are a good initiative in that direction, since smaller teams are less prone to flawed transmission of financial resources but also susceptible. It is worth noting though the ills associated with coordination across platforms. Teams have to be big enough to be able to make effective decisions but small enough to matter. Furthermore, issue surrounding graft need to be addressed in order to give credibility to the system as outlined by international organisations such as the OECD, World Bank and IMF. To this end, any development proposals should be as implicit to the situation as possible.

A collaborative effort?

Collaboration of all stakeholders should be a key part of process. Both current and future. Pushing public investment into things like roads and telephone boxes is not a panacea when the things future stakeholders such as the private sector want is more open space and broadband. This also lessens the potential for graft as there is a broader spectrum of accountability.

So ultimately, while the MURP may appear full of rhetoric and nothing more than political positioning just before an election, the direction in which it is moving is fair if not incomplete. As the subject of reversing urban decay is an issue which many cities struggle with, the process is going to be phased. It should be coherent enough to clarify direction but flexible enough to incorporate new challenges. In order for it to be truly effective though, it will have to be incorporated into a much broader array of social, economic and political policy.