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Thinking

Realities confronting urban transformation in South Africa

A woman and child in front of a shack in an informal settlement

In this article, we consider research insights on four dimensions related to urban transformation in South Africa: urban population growth; access to opportunities; spatial planning models and climate change.

Urbanisation and the Demographic Shift


South Africa’s official unemployment stood at 25% in 2015, and the expanded definition that includes discouraged work seekers at 35% of the 35.7 million working age population. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs World Population Prospects 2010 report estimates that the working age population will rise to 38.9 million by 2030 with urbanisation rising to 71%. The combination of unemployment and rising urbanisation rates will place increasing pressure on cities to deliver jobs as people leave rural areas and the country’s youth grows up.

Source: Derived from UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2010, World Population Prospects
World population prospects 

Access Perpetuates Discrimination


Education and access

The World Bank Human Opportunity Index (HOI) is a measure of the absolute coverage rate of particular services essential for better life opportunities, adjusted by how equitably the available services are distributed among groups differentiated by circumstance. Between 2008 and 2012, education was the single largest factor affecting access to the formal (non-agriculture) job sector. The education factor of formal residential areas remained stable at 60%, whereas in townships and informal settlements, it increased in importance as a contributing factor to accessing formal job opportunities, accounting for just over 80% of the weighted factors in 2008 and rising to approximately 90% in 2012.

The background burden

When considering the total full-time job market which includes informal business, age was an even larger factor affecting job market access: more so in townships and informal settlements than in formal residential areas. The reason for this is that coming from a township or informal settlement, being of a young working age and not having had access to education opportunities, creates extremely unfavourable circumstances for finding any kind of work opportunity. The inequality experienced as a child of limited access to key opportunities such as early childhood development and finishing primary school are mostly the result of growing up in a township or informal settlement and the education level of the household head.

Breaking the cycle

Breaking the cycle of inequality and discrimination is therefore based not only on providing better education but on breaking the overall effect of location on access to development opportunities. Cities have to be more inclusive in overall access to services such as early childhood development programmes, adequate housing, safe water and access to electricity. Finding solutions to youth unemployment and addressing adult education levels will also be important to breaking the inequality cycle.

Source: Derived from World Bank South Africa Update, 2012, Focus on Inequality of Opportunity 
Key sources of inequality of opportunity 
 Contribution to circumstances to overall inequality

Economic Growth and City Spatial Planning


Post-apartheid South Africa inherited cities characterised by segregation and based on American models of single-function land-uses with decentralised neighbourhoods linked through personal car-based transport. The result is cities characterised by urban sprawl, spatial exclusion and growing traffic congestion.

Our current spatial models are based on the concept of creating compact cities by applying conceptual frameworks of nodes and development corridors with the aim of creating  densification and development infill. These nodes and corridors are located on assumptions about how people and goods will move, how employment will be generated and located, and what people need to improve livelihoods.

Planning as an economic driver

Cities are the centrepieces of consumption, production and added-value. How they are spatially planned, how resources are used, and how they are governed, together with where and what infrastructure investments are made, are local economic drivers that can significantly increase how conducive cities are for job growth, make cities more efficient and increase economic competitiveness.

Lack of enforcement of spatial plans and inconsistent linkages to infrastructure planning, combined with a lack of deep understanding of economic potential and the drivers of growth, has left most South African cities with unchanged development patterns, more dictated by large developments and road infrastructure than future planning.

What is the best solution?

Identifying solutions to spatial planning issues frequently involves debates surrounding what constitutes good location. There is an assumption that a utopian high density central location of mixed incomes is the outcome we should strive towards. However, this might not always be desirable in broad application and to all income groups and household compositions. Current high density inner city models wouldn’t be able to provide the supplemental income many households rely on from backyard dwellers, or provide enough access to land for subsistence farming, or provide sufficient community linkage to community support systems.

In fact, all visions of what an inclusive city should look like need to be challenged, contemplated and rethought so that our solutions improve the lived reality of our people, what their needs are and what they want to experience.

Having the skills for the task

In achieving good planning, mindful of the reality of our urban social and economic needs, we must also ensure that the appropriate skills are available in sufficient quantity. Our planning of schools’ curricula is evolving but is still based on western models. The African Planning Association 2013 The State of Planning in Africa report compared registered planners between a selection of developed economies and 15 African Planning Association countries. While fairing far better than most other African countries, South Africa has only three registered planners per 100 000 people compared with 13 per 100 000 in the United States.

Climate change


An intricate web of interactions links climate change, resilience and risk. By understanding how climate change will impact a city, especially the resilience of both its most vulnerable communities and its infrastructure assets, the planning of tomorrow’s cities should include strategies to mitigate environmental risks.

A single degree increase in temperature can affect an entire agri-industry, increase the prevalence of diseases, impact water resources, impair air quality and increase fire risk. A recent World Bank report entitled Shock Waves – Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty highlights the interlinkage of poverty and climate change and the need for rapid inclusive development to mitigate the effects of both. Climate change can push people back into poverty through the destruction of assets, loss of livelihoods and increasing prices for climate affected basic needs.

City investments and development patterns must be planned to avoid creating new vulnerabilities and along with targeted adaptations such as upgrades in flood defences or more heat-tolerant crops, to mitigate what we expect from future climatic conditions. Cities are also vulnerable to climate change in rural areas, or even other countries, as climate migrants affected by loss of work or resource scarcity seek livelihoods and shelter within cities.

Source: World Health Organisation 2006: Global environmental change 
 Global environmental change

Laying the foundation for transformation in city planning


The vision of the South African government’s Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) document is to create ‘Liveable, safe, resource-efficient cities and towns that are socially integrated, economically inclusive and globally competitive, where residents actively participate in urban life’. Focusing on how to put this into effect, Aurecon is a founder and strong proponent of the Our African City dialogue. In essence, the starting point is to bring key stakeholders to accept that traditional ways of planning and developing our cities are not sustainable and a fundamental  transformation in approach is required.

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