The ability to rejuvenate SA’s inner cities and vastly enhance their appeal and liveability will be crucial to future development


There were no coffee roasteries, no artisanal eateries, no quirky art shops, no hipster vibe… hell, no craft beer in Woodstock, Cape Town, when the Tough brothers moved their furniture business to Albert Road in September 1997. There was, however, affordable property and plenty of street parking.

‘About 10 years after we bought and renovated our building, the government declared the area an urban development zone and offered tax incentives to developers,’ says Angus Tough, owner of Dexter Project, a company that specialises in custom-made wardrobes and kitchen joinery. ‘The Old Biscuit Mill in Albert Road was the catalyst that triggered the regeneration of Woodstock.

‘Over the years it has gradually changed the working-class character of the area into something that appeals to trendy, young people and overseas visitors,’ he says. ‘But the renewal is a double-edged sword because it has pushed up property values and driven out local tradesmen and families who lived here for generations.’

In 2005, the conversion of the derelict Pyotts Biscuit Mill into a ‘creative retail space’ (which also houses the globally celebrated Test Kitchen restaurant as well as the weekly Neighbourgoods Market with its organic food offering) alerted property developers to the possibilities of Woodstock. A particular drawcard is its convenient location: only a few kilometres from Cape Town’s CBD, well connected by public transport and within easy reach of two universities, the V&A Waterfront and most amenities.

‘The suburb boasts an abundance of historical buildings, many of which have already been skilfully upgraded to incorporate contemporary elements without forfeiting their original character,’ says Chad Shapiro, senior commercial broker for Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty. He cites the former Bromwell hotel, Salt Circle Tollgate House and Woodstock Exchange as successful examples.

‘We are currently working with local and international retailers and commercial companies looking to strategically place themselves in the Woodstock-Salt River-Observatory precinct to take advantage of the area’s distinct benefits, all of which are sure to pique consumer interest,’ he adds.

Without private-sector investment, Woodstock’s well-documented transition from ‘gritty’ and ‘run-down’ to ‘vibrant’ and ‘creative’ would not have happened. Its effect is spilling over to adjacent suburbs, which are also experiencing renewal and growing investment. This commercial interest is driving development in the CBDs and satellite business nodes across the nation.

‘The majority of the built fabric of South African cities is essentially developed by the private sector,’ says Rashiq Fataar, director and founder of Our Future Cities, an NPO that promotes more equitable, progressive and liveable cities.

A 2016 World Bank report on inner-city regeneration (which includes Johannesburg as a case study) echoes his statement, calling private-sector participation ‘the single most crucial component in rejuvenating decaying urban areas’. This also extends to new building and greenfield projects.

For a more equitable approach, Fataar advocates a public framework and neighbourhood plans with clear tools and mechanisms, such as tax incentives, that lay out how the public can benefit from private sector-led development. ‘This would be a way to provide guidance to private developers to invest and maintain public spaces, public transport infrastructure and more mixed-income residential projects within the neighbourhoods in which they work’, he says.

‘Based on our review of case studies globally, some cities require investments in major public infrastructure by the private sector if a development is of a certain scale and, in other cases, accelerated approvals and reduced red tape if a residential development includes a percentage of more affordable units.’

Innovative solutions are necessary to keep up with rapid urbanisation, redress the apartheid burden of spatial segregation and direct SA’s cities towards a path of sustainable growth. This is crucial, because the country’s urban population is forecast to grow by 10% every two decades, reaching 70% by 2030 and almost 80% by 2050, according to the NDP.

Already, just 14% of the population lives further than 20 km away from a town or city, as stated in the 2016 State of South African Cities report, which also reveals: ‘While the cities are still confronted with pockets of deep deprivation (some 24% of the urban population is estimated to be living in poverty), employment rates – including youth employment – and incomes are generally higher in urban than in rural areas.’

The future world order is likely to be built on cities, not nations or regions. A McKinsey report titled When Cities Rule the World puts it like this: ‘Cities are humanity’s real building blocks because of their economic size, population density, political dominance, and innovative edge. They are real “facts on the ground”, almost immeasurably more meaningful to most people in the world than often invisible national borders.’

In SA, cities will only become more meaningful and liveable once planners fully understand their historical context and ‘think two, three, even four decades ahead’, says Fataar. ‘Anticipated challenges of the future, such as water shortages and food security, are actually challenges of the present. It’s no longer as simple as planning on the map within a silo or government department. Urbanists – whether they’re planners, designers or policy-makers – have to be aware of the interconnected nature of resources, infrastructure systems and natural landscapes, as well as climate change and social cohesion.’ There also needs to be deeper understanding of financial viability and the cost of red tape and bureaucracy.

Ultimately, a sustainable city is a more equitable city, which serves all its people – from the poorest to the wealthiest, according to Alison Groves, sustainability consultant and regional director at WSP Africa. ‘Our cities need to be re-drawn and re-imagined, because social justice and environmental sustainability go hand in hand. Cities must become more people-centric, away from the monolithic exclusionary concept of the past,’ she says. This also means away from gated residential security complexes and office blocks, exclusive shopping malls and greenfield precincts that cater only for the middle and upper classes.

‘We need to bring people into the streets so they live, work, shop and play in the same space,’ says Groves. ‘Being self-sufficient like this reduces carbon emissions, because people won’t need to drive anywhere, and also makes it easier for them to love their environment, so they will take greater care of it.’

She explains that Johannesburg is on the right track by converting disused inner-city offices into affordable residential apartments to bring lower-income earners into the city. ‘By rejuvenating the CBD and developing brownfield sites, city planners are diversifying the space and reducing the urban sprawl to the north,’ she says. ‘This retains the personality and history, while also building a city that lives and breathes all the time, not only from nine to five. Reusing existing buildings is the ultimate stamp of sustainability.’

Locally, the most obvious repurposing example is Johannesburg’s Maboneng, where a single developer (Propertuity) has turned old warehouses and decaying offices into a collaborative hub of culture, business and lifestyle. The carefully curated precinct features innovations such as DriveLines – affordable rental accommodation in upcycled shipping containers. The trendy multi-level structure was built on the site of a former car repair shop.

Across the M1, a new residential complex with studio lofts and upmarket penthouses is being developed in a red brick building that once housed the original post office. The Exchange Lofts, in walking distance of Wits and Johannesburg universities, are ‘thoughtfully recreated’ to benefit from the ‘prevailing presence of Jozi buzz’.

Jonathan Edkins, CEO of Durban’s Vusa Collaborative and retired head of eThekwini City Architects, stresses the importance of ‘ecological regeneration’. He has presented a concept paper based on the premise that sustainability can only be achieved within the context of a balanced ecology. Here ‘ecology’ is defined as a regenerative system that includes nature, people, culture, history, economy and community. ‘Principles for developments with nature, developments with culture, and boosting the ecology are established to prioritise the “densification dividend” and enable innovative approaches to development and regeneration, in pursuit of the “caring and liveable city”, which prioritises social benefit and a people-centred approach to development,’ writes Edkins.

His plans for Durban’s Spice Quarter illustrate how ecological regeneration can work. The Vusa Collaborative intends to revitalise the streets and public spaces around the Spice Emporium in the eastern CBD, one block from the beachfront, and turn the historic area into a nationally known precinct – funded, maintained and managed by the developers.

The plans include a weekly spice market with crops harvested from inner-city roof gardens as well as a possible extension of a nearby canal, and linkages between the Spice Quarter and Rivertown. Edkins sums up: ‘The objectives of universal access, integrated urban farming, sustainable redevelopment, incremental precinct regeneration and broad social participation in the project remain at its core.’

Not far from the precinct, at the uShaka side of the beachfront, the R300 million promenade extension towards the harbour entrance celebrated its sod turning in March. It’s paving the way for Durban’s Point Waterfront, an ambitious R35 billion project that will include residential, hotel and retail developments, a new loop-road, high-tech commerce and business centre, and possibly a link to the planned cruise terminal. While affordable housing doesn’t yet feature, city managers are applauding the potential for job creation and economic growth.

In Cape Town, property developer Blok is piloting an inclusionary 80:20 housing project in the Bo-Kaap, on the slopes of Signal Hill. The model will see 80% of the new apartments cross-subsidise the remaining 20%. This will make inner-city living affordable for ‘missing middle’ income earners. The new building, Forty On L, features shared spaces, including a pool and gym. Some of the area conventionally set aside for parking is exchanged for the affordable apartments – following global urban efforts towards prioritising public transport, cycling and walking over car ownership.

‘You drive sustainability through design,’ says Groves. ‘When I tell urban developers they don’t need to put in parking, they generally don’t believe me. But it’s how we use the city… If there’s no parking, people will rely on public transport, which as a result will improve.’

Back in Woodstock’s Albert Road, the developers of a new mixed-use apartment block already promote this thinking. The 10-storey WEX1 is close to a cycle track, bus and rail connections, and potential buyers are advised: ‘Don’t want to buy an optional parking bay? We’ll give you a bike.’ What sounds like a gimmick now could in fact be a glimpse into SA’s cities of the future.

By Silke Colquhoun
Images: Gallo/Getty Images

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