The ‘African City of the Future’ : Johannesburg’s 2040 vision

Future Joburg (1)

by Tariq Toffa

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Launched in 2011, the Johannesburg 2040 Growth and Development Strategy (Joburg 2040 GDS) defines Johannesburg’s vision for the next 30 years, toward a vibrant, equitable, diverse, “World Class African City of the Future.” It consolidates various other City strategies, and included a wide-reaching engagement and feedback process (GDS outreach).

 Joburg 2040 responds to two contexts: continued transformation of the inherited Apartheid City, and the uncertainties of present and future challenges such as migration, globalisation, climate change, natural resource scarcity, and financial markets. Understanding these and other challenges of modern cites as resulting from complex and inter-related factors, key to the Joburg 2040 strategy is its cross-cutting nature, moving away from a narrow sectoral approach toward a more thematic approach to which all targeted City interventions can aim. To this end, three concepts were devised: resilience (the capacity to change and adapt), sustainability (development that does not destroy natural ecology) and livability (quality of life). The City has similarly also defined four inter-related drivers to achieve this: social, environmental, economic and institutional/political change.

One key issue identified, stated in the very opening sentences of the document, is the importance of ‘space’ in the reshaping of South African cities and society. Although Joburg 2040 seeks to “address spaces in a holistic manner,” “the spatial” and “design” are largely focused around “livability” issues of urban form, services, land-use functions, and cultural identity. The absence of spatial consideration in the majority of the document, however, means that when presumed ‘non-spatial’ interventions ultimately do take form in the urban landscape, they will subsequently exhibit the same lack of spatial articulation that is already much in evidence.

Packing an entire army of complex urban challenges into a concise conceptual package also demands a necessarily wide range of interpretation of the key conceptual terms, which are used liberally throughout the document. In Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo (JCPZ), for example, an arm of the City providing and managing environmental conservation and open recreational and burial spaces, this problem of translation from a high level to a local level is already evident.

The problems of translation and spatiality can be understood as essentially a problem of capacity, for high-level frameworks alone can never bring such a complex conceptual map into being.

JCPZ is framed by the constitutional mandate that “all spheres of government work together to address poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization.” It is also framed by the Joburg 2040 vision, which links environmental concerns to many other issues (poverty, technological innovation, public transport, food security, disaster planning, urban form, incremental development, and socio-economic infrastructure) (some of which are discussed in a previous article). In this context, environmental concerns in Johannesburg, and the global South generally, cannot be an uncritical projection of ‘first world’ norms and standards. In practice, however, and largely maintaining existing status quo sectoriality, at the local level in JPCZ we find a gross reduction of Joburg 2040’s nuanced understandings to the idea that “‘green’ relates to sustainability and resilience” only (waste, energy, water saving, low carbon, etc.).

The problems of translation and spatiality can be understood as essentially a problem of capacity, for high-level frameworks alone can never bring such a complex conceptual map into being. Rather, creativity is similarly and equally required in the translation of that vision at a number of levels. In practice, this also requires ‘translators’, capacitated intermediaries who can link, specialize, and work across sectors and narrowly defined stakeholder priorities (also discussed in previous articles on engagement and methodology).

If this vision for an “African City of the Future” is to avoid being labeled as a spectacular indulgence in jargons, then enabling environments of these kinds, which filter knowledge and imagination both ‘upwards’ and ‘downwards’, must be supported. If not, much will simply be lost in translation.

Fig. 1: 2011 launch. Fig. 2: Joburg 2040 paradigm. Fig 3-4: ‘GDS outreach’. (Photos by

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 This article originally appeared at on 15 September 2014.