Restructure our cities to become sustainable
• While Umhlanga Ridge development shows how things can work, Sandton’s planning is stuck
Ihaven’t always been in love with cities: in my younger, Mother Earth phase, I was anticity. We, quite rightly at the time, subscribed to the Club of Rome Limits to Growth thinking and it was clear in the late ’60s and early ’70s that we were disappearing up our own fundamentals to the extent that it was likely that we weren’t going any further.
This is a recurring theme for modern humanity and the planet, which often manifests in a swing to neoprimitivism and a back-to-the-land agenda.
We are all now again so keenly aware of this and yet are so clearly reminded of that most frustrating thing of all: humans as a collective have such an extraordinary capacity for insight, intellect, design and vision and yet, all met in the same place and at the same time, they show such an incredible, apparently fathomless depth of stupidity, arrogance and self-interest.
In a known history of at least five mass extinctions of life as we know it, we now seriously face and are well into a sixth.
And yet the most “powerful” nation on earth just pulled the plug on the Paris Accord. So, while I imagine that the planet is not at real risk — at least not for another few million years or so — humanity and life as we know it most certainly are.
I daresay, though, that the planet will probably shrug with relief when we finally, stupidly and myopically kill ourselves off as we make the planet increasingly incapable of sustaining our kind of life.
The extraordinary thing about the human condition is to take ourselves seriously enough to care: to worry about how we shelter, clothe, employ and nurture humanity and its cultures. The care and nurture of humanity in community is a noble pursuit: a good enough reason to get up every morning or keep me from my bed at night.
What I hadn’t understood when I subscribed to the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth was that cities aren’t, as I thought then, a global cancer that will envelop and strangle the world.
Far from it: they are marvellously efficient organisms that take vast numbers of people and put them, at density, on relatively tiny pieces of land and in so doing, release most land for higher and better arable and ecological purposes.
The UK is acknowledged to be 95% urbanised and yet has 85% of its landmass officially designated as “rural”; the US is 85% urbanised and yet has nonurban land to the tune of about 95% of its total.
Jacob Brownowski, in the wonderful BBC TV series, The Ascent of Man, which later became a book, regards the city as humanity’s greatest act of community and its most creative and enduring act.
We live at scale and density like this, not because we necessarily like each other and not only because that was how people found defence and shelter from marauding hoards. We live like this because, no matter how placeless we become technologically, we are still, as humans, place-bound because we are, above all, consumers.
The need to consume brings with it the discipline of overcoming distance and is subservient to a physical world in which goods can only be produced, marketed and consumed efficiently at scale and within limits defined by propinquity. Living in cities is how we consume efficiently and, in the process, reduce our land footprint relative to the size of the population now inhabiting the globe.
The size of that population still grows too quickly, but it is slowing relative to what we were projecting in the ’70s, not only because of birth control (and certainly not pestilence, famine, plague and war) but, notably, because of the process of urbanisation. Whereas traditional rural economies are “bottom up”, meaning the factor of production is people and you breed a lot of them to support the system (younger people supporting older people), the urban economy is “top down”, where the factor of production is knowledge and parents provide educational resources to fewer below them: they therefore breed fewer offspring.
I came to see the value of cities and what I thought to be an initial innocent romance grew into a full-blown and life-long affair in which I have realised that cities are our greatest cause for optimism.
I believe there is a profound need to rethink and restructure cities to make them sustainable. Cities generate, as Jane Jacobs wrote, the wealth of nations.
Gauteng is a good illustration. Its population of 12.5-million is largely urbanised, which is cause for optimism.
The problem is that it is hugely sprawled. Even though this population takes up just 27% of the province’s area, the actual extent is vast and, in urban terms, extremely baggy, inefficient and unsustainable.
In trying to meet the challenge of a megacity growing to about 30-million people over the next 40 years or so, the approach must be how not to increase this footprint but rather to consolidate that footprint to avoid more people becoming disempowered and disenfranchised from the very city that is meant to support them.
The public environment of the city was not delivered democratically and this situation remains. The approach to transport remains rooted in inappropriate car-based thinking and the very extensive rail system has yet to be drawn from the mire into which it was allowed to devolve as road-based planning was pursued.
It makes no sense to spend millions on sprawling road infrastructure and housing outside of the urban edge when only 17% of the population owns cars. SA is still following the American highway code and an antiquated road system that was designed under apartheid.
We need to recommit to public transport and rejuvenate our metro rail system.
Housing is also being built to satisfy “delivery quotas”, regardless of whether the urban system is being distorted even more in the process.
While a focus on housing is obviously necessary, the manner in which the housing is being planned is not helping anyone and it needs to be seen as an integral aspect of urbanism as a whole, rather than as an isolated segment.
Rather than just focusing on problems, I feel it is time to see through the problem and talk about what we can do. The new Umhlanga Ridge development provides a textbook example of how things can work when city development is not kept private, but delivers results to the city.
This is, however, an isolated example. One only has to look at Sandton to see just how far back we are in the starting blocks. If SA continues in the same way, its cities are merely going to limp along and underachieve.
The concept of incrementalism — of adding value — should be understood.
The deep-seated mistrust of property developers in the public space should be overcome so that solutions can be provided that are not at odds with the city’s purpose and economic growth can be promoted.
Property developers need to start thinking out of the box and think of themselves as “city builders” that think, design and plan within the energies of the city. Local and provincial authorities need to appreciate the unintended consequences of unchecked development.
THE EXTRAORDINARY THING ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION IS TO TAKE OURSELVES SERIOUSLY ENOUGH TO CARE
Wood, a director and founding member of GAPP Architects and Urban Designers, was nominated by the Urban Design Institute of SA to deliver the Roelof S Uytenbogaardt Udisa Memorial Lecture. This is an edited version of his speech.