Co-creating the future of housing in South Africa : An event review | FUTURE CAPE TOWN

“We have a spatial justice crisis, not just a housing crisis”

IMG-20160316-WA0019On the 16th of March 2016, Future Cape Town in partnership with Urban – Think Tank, DesingSpaceAfrica and dhk Architects and Urban Designers hosted a Forum on Housing in South Africa on the top floor of the Media 24 building in Cape Town. Here are our impressions in a nutshell:

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On the 16th of March 2016, Future Cape Town in partnership with Urban – Think Tank, DesingSpaceAfrica and dhk Architects and Urban Designers hosted a Forum on Housing in South Africa on the top floor of the Media 24 building in Cape Town. The forum, entitled co-creating the future of housing, hosted an array of experts on the topic from South Africa, Colombia and Venezuela. The forum was presented in two sets of speakers and panel discussions focussed on the firstly framing the issues around housing and secondly investigating possibilities for better housing delivery. Here are our impressions in a nutshell:

The first speaker of the evening was Guy Briggs, the director of urban planning at dhk Architects and Urban Designers. He introduced some of the issues regarding the topic and  described Cape Town’s housing situation as a crisis. He highlighted the 3 main issues at the core of this crisis as; Land, Finance and Delivery Models. Briggs, pointed out that although there are large parcels of well-located land in Cape Town, many of them are owned or state-owned, and seems inaccessible to collaborative development between public and private sectors. In terms of finance, South Africa has had the second biggest governmental housing programme in the world, per capita over the last 20 years. Despite this, it’s hardly made a dent in the housing shortage. It’s clear therefore that government financing alone will not solve this problem. Briggs stated that the area where we can make a drastic improvement is in rethinking our delivery models. What we need, says Briggs, is a mindshift away from simply delivering quantity, to a focus on an enabling environment that allow citizens to easily create their own housing.

The second speaker, Alfredo Brillembourg, a founding member of Urban Think-Tank and the Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETHZ) stated:

“We have to transfer the power of making the city to citizens themselves!” He further stated that the decisions made by professionals are often informed by misconceptions about the ways in which people are actually living. Brillembourg introduced the concept of “Incremental Development to Compliant Zoning”. This concept is a means of enabling bottom-up development of our cities – something Brillembourg is passionate about. Instead of sterilised, top-down, developer-led, master-planned communities that we are currently creating, Incremental Development to Compliant Zoning is an approach which would involve relaxing the many zoning, subdivision and other regulations which stifle the supply side of the built environment. He further explained that people should not rely on property developers to solve the housing shortage problem. Brillembourg used the Tokyo model as an example. The post-war development saw higher property taxes coupled with relaxed subdivision and height restrictions. This encouraged ordinary landowners to sell off unused land and to build multiple storeys, creating a compact, and dynamic city in the process.

The first set of presentations was followed by the first panel discussion. This panel was moderated by Guy Briggs and the panel dealt with framing the ideas around the goals that we wish to achieve.

The panel consisted of Andy Bolnick; the founder of Ikhayalami, Gavin Silber; a board member of Ndifuna Ukwazi and Khalied Jacobs; a founding member of Jakupa Architects and Urban Designers.

The panel started out with a discussion around the importance of design and a powerful tool to navigate difference. It was determined that within the process of participatory design, there an important role for each stakeholder to play.  Community members steer designers towards viable solutions, while designers should actively play their role by utilising their skills and form spaces of quality. The panel determined that architects know how to design and the community understands how to solve their problems. There is thus a need to negotiate the balancing act within this process. Andy Bolnick stated that, “we need to learn from informal settlements.” Gavin Silber stated that the concept of mixed-use developments should be implemented in our cities. He further added that the issue at hand is not a housing crisis, but that it is rather a crisis of spatial injustice. The goal is not just understanding the role of design within the crisis, but to view the issue holistically. The panel agreed that the goal of these processes is to achieve spatial justice within the city and to expand public knowledge. The vision needs to make sense to the communities and citizens.
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The second set of presentations kicked off with the Colombian urbanist, Francesco Orsini. He is the Head of Consulting for the Centre for Urban & Environmental Studies at EAFIT University, and is currently based in Medellin. Orsini highlighted the differences and similarities between the political environments of Colombia and South Africa in the context of human settlements. One of the key similarities is the severe backlog of housing in both countries and a resulting focus on quantity of housing units delivered rather than the quality of the environments we are creating. Orsini concluded with a few examples of housing interventions from Colombia and added that within this crisis, there is also opportunities for hope and innovation.

Housing examples from Columbia

  • “Housing consolidation in Juan Bobo river creek”
  • Housing re-settlement project – “Urbanizacion Miraflores” in Bolombo, Antiqua.
  • Inner city social housing project “La Playa” in Medellin, Colombia.

The next speaker, Sizwe Mxobo an urban planner from CORC, discussed the role of the urban poor un upgrading housing. Mxobo started his presentation with a bold question: “How many people here would love to see an informal settlement in their own backyard?” He proposed that in order to avoid the production of exclusive spaces that generate issues of segregation, and that we need to look at the contributing factors that make up an inclusive city. Mxobo continued by stating that we should be building a strong social movement and build people up and granting communities a sense of ownership by involving them in the design processes so that they may build the environment in which they want to live. Continuing with the main theme highlighted by the previous speakers, Mxobo made it clear that to tackle South Africa’s housing crisis we need to stop focusing on providing houses and have to start focusing on informal settlement upgrading.

The final speaker, Bovain Macnab, the  founder of Suburban Housing Action Campaign (SHAC) explained the importance of strengthening emerging urban property markets. Macnab’s presentation emphasised the concept of formal title over informal title and the understanding of the term ‘title’ by community members in informal communities. He further stated that even though many communities have become familiar with this term, it still remains imperative for policies to be put into place to switch from the practice of creating an ‘informal title’ to creating a formal one. Macnab illustrated that strengthening emerging markets, one can create new opportunities.

The second panel discussion following this presentation was moderated by Andrew Boraine, the CEO of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership. He opened the discussion by asking his panelists: “Why do we have yet to find an effective way of housing delivery?”

The panel consisted of Deon van Zyl; chairman of the Western Cape Property Development Forum, Zama Mgwatyu, a programme coordinator at Development Action Group (DAG), Luyanda Mpahlwa, the director of DesignSpaceAfrica, Willem Steenkamp, the advisor to the Minister of Human Settlements, Western Cape Government and Alfredo Brillembourg.

Van Zyl suggested the promotion of a shorter turnover time in the planning and approval stage of developments and to remove the red tape that developers face. He further proposes that by approaching housing in “more chewable chunks”, the issues will become more manageable, as we will not be dealing with solving the entire housing backlog but rather one intervention at a time. Mgwatyu, agreeing with this comment added that what was also needed is an understanding of real partnership with real people. Steenkamp emphasised that we need to have a better differentiation of housing markets, and in all markets provide dignified human settlements. Mpahlwa reaffirmed this need in his call for the urgencies of communities to be defined on an ad hoc basis. The discussion drew to a close with the panelists agreeing that we are still learning and evolving.

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