Reimagining South African Cities- An Introduction

A story of Investment, Space and Equality

It can be confusing navigating the chaotic jungle that is the South African economy, both physically and theoretically. By this I mean to say that the economy of a country is a real tangible thing, and not a bunch of numbers spoken in depressive tones at the state of the nation. Our economy is an organism, and at the core of its being are our cities.

South African cities are a thing to be awe-struck by, not for their beauty, or keen architectural style (God No!), but rather because of the way in which they’re built. Anyone with at least thirty-minutes of classes on urban planning will tell you all about South African urban space planning and how its almost entirely defined by the Apartheid regime. Well, does that really make a difference? Profoundly.

If you squint hard enough you can see the invisible wall known as poverty 

In a generation that has been taken in by the wonders of the Internet and its ability to bring people closer together, South Africans are still largely far apart. Beyond the economics at play, South African cities were built with only one group of its citizens in mind. With the attempt to almost physically demonstrate the wealth gap in society.

And thus spins the long web of depressing tales that is daily life for SA’s working class. Those whom are awake at four am to get to a job that starts at eight am because their township might as well be built into another province (or country). Or the stories of those who live in areas that are harshly affected by aging or non-existent infrastructure forcing them to use bad hospitals, schools or housing.

But you don’t have to go far to experience this. You pass it on the highway from the airport, or on a drive to your favourite restaurant, or even on a trip to your family members farm. It’s engrained into our society that this is normal. And here’s how we change that.

Transport plays a large role in this, and rest assured it will be covered. 

If you follow the news closely you will have no doubt seen the massive amounts of money being spread around for new residential and commercial projects around the country. And even within an evidently hard time for our construction and banking industries, these projects grab headlines with their magnitude and grandeur. But what might surprise some is the location of some of these investments, inner cities and townships.

The Ponte building in Johannesburg (pictured here) has made some news for attempts made to transform it into a home for families in the city.

Indeed there has been a rush to refurbish and reclaim the inner city for all of those who might enjoy it, and I welcome this. Growing up the words “town” or “CBD” became synonymous with crime or danger, only to be ventured into by the brave or those on strict business.

And this will require investment into securing the city for families, as well as everyone else.

But this is where we have to apply caution to the rapid lust for walks down the inner city streets. In our attempt to make our cities newer, safer and cleaner, we shouldn’t ignore its inhabitants.

The aim of any movement, municipality or private investment firm should be to create inclusive environments in cities, and to form truly sustainable and enriching facilities that stand as a testament of the powers of equitable transformation. Too often we think of the impoverished of our nation as an obstacle to creating value in development and not as potential contributors.

Cities should aim to reflect a society, but more importantly, focus on reflecting its ambitions. Through our built environment we aim to express and affirm our volition as a collective, and for South Africa that calls to focus an especial challenge. The transformation of South African cities will encompass a more substantial physical commitment, as we engage with the structural flaws behind Apartheid architecture, as well as the solidified mentalities towards cities established in the 80’s.

This is how people should always feel in cities. Ideally without the selfies. 

It has never been more relevant to emphasize and encourage a sustainable approach to urban planning, architectural design and service delivery. South Africa has the tools and infrastructure to be considerably more impactful in its approach to innovation in cities than most of its African compatriots, but that does not promise success.

If we truly aim to create vibrant communities, meaningful human engagement, and purposeful and happy life in our cities we need to ask for more than to see economic freedom in our bank accounts. We need to see it in our streets.


Pictured above: Copenhagen and Vienna respectively. Two cities I admire for building for their people and not their things.

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