Post-Covid cities can only be saved by reinvention and transformation
As the pandemic empties city centres and alters work and travel patterns, planners must redesign them for new needs, functions and economies
● With the prospect of a third wave looming larger, it is worth remembering that Covid-19 is not the first disaster to strike South African cities, nor will it be the last. Rather like the resilient fynbos that President Cyril Ramaphosa referred to in his state of the nation address, cities have always recovered from crises because of the valuable role they play in the economy and society. But they have not emerged unscathed.
The crucial question is how they will be altered as the recovery gets under way and gathers steam. Will there be a simple rebound to business as usual or will the urban landscape be changed in profound ways?
The longer it takes to roll out the vaccine, the more likely it is that the economic fallout will endure and have more fundamental urban impacts. There is no guarantee that these effects will be beneficial.
Professionals and managers retreating from crowded central business districts to work in neighbourhood offices will complicate the travel-towork patterns for most service workers, cleaners and security staff who live in the townships.
The shift to online shopping and entertainment could displace thousands of entry-level jobs in shops and restaurants, only to replace them with more precarious positions in delivery and warehousing. Much economic activity in tourism and hospitality will take years to recover from the coronavirus shock.
The disproportionate loss of jobs and livelihoods among low-paid workers will intensify the housing crisis as people are forced to prioritise food over rent. There has already been an upsurge in unauthorised land occupations by people who can no longer afford their rented backyard dwellings.
Given these uncertainties, it is important to consider ways of rethinking and refashioning cities to be more inclusive and efficient. The recovery should offer a more hopeful future and not simply reinstate previous flaws and inequities. Old practices and policies ought to be questioned and space created for novel ideas and experimentation. Urban planners and developers need to rediscover the benefits of urban density through more diverse and vibrant environments for people to live, work, study and play in.
Instead of separating offices, shops and residential areas into sterile zones, mixed-use precincts should be designed for greater convenience and social interaction. A more compact-built form will reduce the need for cars, encourage more walking and mean more eyes on the street to lower crime.
The current crisis offers multiple opportunities to reimagine the form and function of the inner cities.
There are valuable lessons to be learnt from a previous crisis that affected many of SA’s central cities. A new study by the Human Sciences Research Council titled “Restoring the Core” shows how city centres
weathered serious setbacks during the 1980s and 1990s. They managed to recover by incubating new ideas and adapting to the altered circumstances.
The capacity of these places for renewal and reinvention varied between the cities depending on the severity of the shock and the stance taken by private- and public-sector actors. Tumultuous changes in the transition from apartheid caused an exodus of property owners, investors and occupiers to the suburbs. Buildings decayed, infrastructure collapsed, public health and safety deteriorated and governance was disrupted by unlicensed activities.
Yet the value of proximity re-emerged within a few years in the form of pent-up demand from younger households and emerging entrepreneurs to live and work centrally. Pioneering small-scale developers with an appetite for risk recognised the winds of change and used the opportunity to repurpose old buildings and derelict warehouses for new uses, especially affordable housing. Small workshops and other business premises were also created.
Despite the widespread neglect, the pace of renewal and adaptation gathered momentum as other investors and developers followed suit. Municipalities also came on board by upgrading public spaces, improving safety and fixing the basic infrastructure in these heavily used places. It is important to learn from the past by recreating the spirit of reinvention and transformation. The process of acquiring under-used property and converting it into affordable housing, work spaces, education and leisure spaces should be simplified. It is vital for public administrations to respond flexibly to such changes and to avoid putting in place arbitrary rules and procedures. Municipalities need to focus above all on health and safety matters
rather than minor and cosmetic features.
This was the exception rather than the rule during the flight of capital from the CBDs to the suburbs in the 1990s. Outdated planning regimes, unreasonable car-parking obligations and unresponsive public services accelerated the exodus instead of encouraging the reuse of redundant buildings.
Local governments also ignored the decline in security and the worsening physical environment as litter piled up, potholes appeared, pavements got damaged and buildings were defaced. They struggled to micro-manage places that experience very intensive patterns of use.
The situation was slightly different in Cape Town, where a partnership between business and the municipality anticipated the crisis and prevented its worst effects through hands-on management of public spaces. The downside was rising property prices, which precluded social diversity via affordable housing. Nothing was done to persuade property developers to help safeguard the public interest by making a contribution from upmarket projects to cross-subsidise cheaper accommodation.
The clear message for post-Covid cities is that the government must work more closely with private actors to identify and nurture the economic activities most likely to emerge from the pandemic. The core functions of central cities need to be revisited in ways that make sense today. Experimentation, adaptation and learning should be the order of the day.