Joburg’s spatial transformation: a grand vision

It is evident that 20 years into our democracy, South African cities are fundamentally unequal in many respects. The full brunt of apartheid was often felt most in South African cities, and yet despite this the South African government has done little to spatially transform our cities.

This was the thinking, broadly, behind the Spatial Transformation of Cities Conference held in Johannesburg from 4 to 6 March 2014. Spatial transformation was articulated as a theme because it is seen as imperative that cities are spatially transformed and restructured in order to address the legacy of apartheid urban planning.

Over a series of parallel sessions, breakfast sessions, case study sessions, and ‘how-to’ workshops, a range of themes relating to the city were discussed. At the core of discussions was a focus on the city of Johannesburg as a laboratory.

In particular, focus was given to the role of both transit oriented development (TOD) as well as bus rapid transit (BRT) as a way of both incentivising high-density development along specific growth corridors, but also as a way of stitching together the various economic nodes of Johannesburg that are disparate and separate from one another.

These ‘stitches’ are known as ‘Corridors of Freedom,’ of which Johannesburg has identified six and which the focus, currently, lies on two: Empire-Perth and Louis Botha. The latter is seen as key in bridging the spatial, economic and social gap between Alexandra, Sandton and the Joburg CBD. The former is seen as key in bridging a similar gap between the Joburg CBD and Soweto, and also in connecting Joburg’s two largest universities.

It is positive that the City of Johannesburg is thinking more broadly about Johannesburg’s spatial development in a manner that has some coherency towards it. By labelling the vision quite clearly under the term, ‘Corridors of Freedom’, Joburgers are better informed of how the City sees the spatial future of the city, and why this is the best way forward. Indeed, as Professor Michael Parkinson from the University of Liverpool remarked, an intelligent city has a very clear idea of the kind of development it will and will not tolerate.

It is difficult to know where to start in analysing Corridors of Freedom, perhaps because in many ways much of the development is still in its infancy and subject, essentially, to the approval of residents before it can be implemented properly.

What is clear, though – and what emerged from the two-day conference – is that there is a need to maintain a focus on the details of these grand visions implemented by cities. This is because it is easier to determine these grand visions than it is to analyse their implementation and fix problems that may and do arise. It is also because it is often more attractive to determine these grand visions at the outset – they come replete with shiny presentations, big buzzwords, and praise from the outside world. But it is often not easy to admit that a system a city has placed so much hope in may not work in certain respects for the particular city.

For example, Professor Edgar Pieterse of the African Centre for Cities posed a potentially unconformable question when he wondered whether Joburg had not overdesigned its Rea Vaya Bus system. He questioned whether the system was sufficiently affordable to the majority of citizens. I would question whether dedicating lanes only for Rea Vaya buses is that practical. Others have questioned whether placing stations in the middle of the road is too much, and that, instead, a simple bus stop would have sufficed. Answering these questions may produce uncomfortable results that could potentially throw the wisdom of the entire system into jeopardy.

Rea Vaya bus stop. Thomas Coggin.
Rea Vaya bus stop. Thomas Coggin.

Spatial transformation is therefore as much about ‘thinking big’ as it is about thinking about what exists, as well as understanding the details of a particular vision within the context of a particular city.

Crucially, though, it is also about maintaining what has been put in place because in maintaining what exists in addition to implementing new visions, people are able to transform themselves in a spatial landscape that is grounded primarily in reality rather than merely in visions for the future.

Thomas Coggin is the founding editor of urbanjoburg.com, a blog that aims to understand Johannesburg through a rights-based prism. An attorney by training, he currently runs an urban law consultancy providing research, writing and training to a variety of non-profit, profit, local and international organisations. Follow Tom on twitter: @tominjoburg

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