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Creating efficient, liveable cities

An Africa city

Large mixed-use developments are gaining traction globally as the property industry realises that developing efficient, liveable cities requires the all-important integration of diverse functions such as residential accommodation with transportation and commercial opportunities.

In this interview, Deon Pretorius, Aurecon’s Land Development Services Leader in Cape Town, describes some of the barriers to creating efficient cities as well as current trends and the solutions and innovations Aurecon is leveraging to help our clients ‘get it right’.

What are some of the challenges inherent in large, mixed-use developments?

• Knee-jerk responses to development needs

Whereas many European cities have historically followed an organic growth pattern which has occurred over a relatively long period of time, today’s cities are required to respond extremely quickly to the needs of a burgeoning population for additional housing, transportation and business premises, amongst others.

Unfortunately, these ‘knee-jerk’ responses often occur in isolation and there is little integration in terms of function. The concept of an ‘inter-disciplinary’ response, particularly throughout the developing world, is still fairly new and as a result, disparate development abounds.

Customers, governments and local authorities are, however, starting to notice the pitfalls of this sort of reaction to development. Within this scenario, developments with no access to economic opportunities entrenches poverty and is thus a recipe for long term socio-economic failure.

• Very little cross-disciplinary integration

Coupled to this is the fact that governments and local authorities tend to be very structured in terms of the different services that they provide. This is largely due to the vastly different budget and performance requirements of different departments. Within these structures, departments seldom consider the benefits of ‘cross-faculty’ integration, i.e. the creation of more efficient developments.

• Access to finance

Even more concerning is the fact that developers used to be able to market property developments ‘off-plan’ which created an income stream during the early stages of property investments. The global financial crisis has resulted in an end to this ‘speculative’ development model, with stricter financial control being applied. In simple terms, this means that developers can’t easily access finance for their developments without investing ample upfront work in terms of both design and tender processes to obtain accurate construction costs.

Service agreements with authorities are also required to be in place. This requires extensive upfront planning and design work to determine future financial responsibilities.

What are some of the most prominent emerging trends in terms of large, mixed-use developments?

Integrated development

It is still common for authorities to only function in a specific area of responsibility. Many public transport interchanges were developed as transport facilities only, for example, without looking at the economic opportunities that are inherent in places where footfall is concentrated.

Today, however, there is a move amongst private sector developers toward the integration of land uses, driven by economic opportunities, and thus requiring an integrated team of multiple professionals.

Engineers who, like Aurecon, are able to offer the entire range of engineering services are preferred due to their ability to act as a single point of contact for the client, simultaneously minimising the risk and challenge of managing multiple service providers.


Urbanisation comes with developmental advantages as well as serious challenges and problems. Among these advantages are the potential benefits for creating resource efficiency (infrastructure and services) and economies of scale. There are also multiple issues which arise along with urbanisation, including urbanisation of poverty, food insecurity and the proliferation of informal settlements.

Previous identification and studies suggest that the major problems and challenges are; resource inefficiency, negative impacts on the natural environment, unsustainable practices regarding municipal infrastructure and community expectations regarding the type of services governments can supply.

• Large-scale sustainability

Sustainable infrastructure, too, is a key trend. We’re gradually moving beyond the concept of ‘green buildings’ to that of creating ‘green precincts’ in which we address sustainability in a wider context, i.e. the performance of an entire precinct. We’re starting to ask: ‘What about the space in-between?’, and thinking of novel ways to ensure that space is protected, preserved and utilised in a way that doesn't harm the planet.

Sustainability at a city level is a major challenge, requiring visionary thinking that takes transport, infrastructure and economic aspects, as well as rapidly developing communication technologies, into consideration.

The Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEADP) appointed Aurecon to undertake a study to investigate the options for sustainable infrastructure provision in the Western Cape and the sustainability of the application thereof across its lifecycle. The potential of this innovative, resource efficient and sustainable solution is to be facilitated through the development of two innovative “Integrated Sustainable Settlements” in Mossel Bay and Swartland respectively.

Liveable cities

• Future-proof design

Future-proof design is also gaining traction. Consultants should be looking to understand how buildings will interact with their surroundings in future by asking questions such as ‘What changes are expected to occur with regard to public transport, communication and Information Technology systems?’ and then designing their buildings in response.

Design wise, what sort of innovations is Aurecon offering its clients in this arena, and why are these crucial?

It is vital that the services of an experienced consultant are called upon when it comes to mixed-use developments. It is vital that the services of an experienced consultant are called upon when it comes to mixed-use developments. Much of Aurecon’s strength lies in our ability to provide clients with a multi-disciplinary approach to sustainable precinct design and the various infrastructure and planning elements that contribute to a development that embraces sustainability.

Experts in the fields of water provision and distribution, energy generation and demand management, transport planning and solid waste management are increasingly being utilised in a streamlined approach that enables the project team to have access to some of the leading thinkers in these fields. This has also assisted with breaking down the ‘silo mentality’ of looking at each infrastructure service individually – the sustainable precinct approach enables the team to investigate potential cross-pollination benefits and the ability to exploit bi-products of one element within the operations of another. What has also been very encouraging to see is the increasing interest in sustainability driven mixed-use developments in both the private and government-funded sectors.

Aurecon is currently engaged in work in both of these sectors, where the explicit request of the client has been to design around sustainability as the core principle, rather than having it as an extra add-on at the end of the planning/design process.

• Proving commerciality

Having been involved in a wide variety of these kinds of developments globally, Aurecon understands first-hand the importance of conducting thorough pre-feasibility studies before undertaking any large-scale development.

Pre-feasibility studies offer an opportunity to test the commerciality of a development through considering variable inputs such as size, location and cost before any actual investment is made in terms of development.

• Expert master planning

Master planning is where planners and engineers can add real value, including the ability to consider both current and future demand as well as the need to accommodate a phased approach to construction which is flexible and responsive to market fluctuations.

Early investment in planning ensures that the right things are done at the right time, saving significant downstream costs and minimising unnecessary expenditure.

A great opportunity exists during the early precinct planning stages to set goals which contribute to the reduction of our carbon footprint towards achieving carbon neutral solutions, and then to implement these through the planning, design and construction stages.

A combination of strategies is to be considered at various scales of new developments. Aurecon has achieved much at individual building level with regard to energy and water efficiencies, having received various awards for the implementation of Green Building technologies.

On a broader scale, Aurecon is also developing solutions at a precinct level in partnership with learning institutions. Design and simulation tools are used to model and assess the effect of various interventions, from land use, density and typology variations, to waste generation benchmark ranges and transportation mode targets to achieve energy efficiencies as well as socio-economic benefits, all aimed at achieving sustainable development solutions.

• Modelling of engineering solutions towards WOLAM

There is immense value to be gained in modelling the technical solutions selected by a client using 3D software. The ability to represent these solutions graphically offers the added advantage of not only allowing a client to ‘visualise’ technical solutions proposed and selected, but also understand and evaluate the entire life-cycle of these services with the view to successful whole of life asset management planning (WOLAM), including the operation and maintenance components of these services.

• A tailored approach

Throughout the developing world, in particular, it is common for the requirements on mixed-use developments undertaken in historically sensitive areas to require a highly tailored approach to engineering design as opposed to simply following the known blueprints, called ‘minimum standards’ or ‘best practice’.

Aurecon recently undertook work in the Lahore Walled City in Pakistan, a location known for its extremely dense population, heritage buildings with narrow transport and pedestrian alleyways. The client requested that we devise unique solutions applicable to this particular environment. As such, Aurecon was required to produce infrastructure designs tailor made for each individual alleyway as well as ensure that the new infrastructure did not harm the historic fabric of the ancient city.

In terms of creating liveable cities with economic opportunities and ample access to public transport, it is key that brave decisions are taken to ensure that developments of the future are liveable and sustainable.

There is a danger in aiming to simply meet the targeted numbers set for infrastructure, but missing out on the opportunity to create sustainable developments.

Never has this opportunity been as vital as it is now in South Africa and in Africa.

This article appeared in Constructon World, October 2013.

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