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Cities must make the poor feel at home

July 21, 2013

destined to undergo major changes as migration forces planners to accommodate ever-growing urban populations.
This was the common thread cutting through speeches delivered at the 11th Metropolis Annual Conference in Sandton on Wednesday.

Held under the theme “Caring Cities”, the four-day conference seeks to find solutions to the presently unplanned and enforced growth of major urban centres.

It is the first time that Africa has hosted the conference since its founding in 2001. It was attended by 42 countries and 78 cities across the globe.

Speakers appeared to endorse elements of the City of Johannesburg’s Vision 2040: Growth and Development Strategy, whose primary objective is to bridge the distances between where residents live and their places of work.

In Johannesburg’s case – and the whole of South Africa for that matter – the distances between the homes of people and their places of work was a deliberate apartheid creation.

In terms of apartheid’s spatial design, blacks were not regarded as an integral part of the city but only there to provide labour.
Johannesburg Executive Mayor Parks Tau has said that at the core of Vision 2040 is the creation of “Corridors of Freedom”, a concept underpinned by the building of inclusive high-rise transient mixed-use developments that would result in the reduction of commuting times and a significant cut in transport costs.

Quoting Census 2011, Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel told the conference that urban populations in Africa had almost trebled in the past 50 years. Johannesburg has had to deal with an additional 1.2 million people between 2001 and 2011.

Manuel said this growth, the largest among the country’s cities, was a signal of a trend rather than of the uniqueness of Johannesburg.

“Most of the urbanisation takes place in informal settlements or slums. For example, South Africa today has almost the same number of people living in informal settlements as it did in 1994. This is in spite of the fact that the government has provided nearly three million houses during the period.

“What this means is that people who migrate to the cities find city life alienating in all forms. They cannot find suitable formal accommodation in the cities closer to places of employment and they cannot actually find formal jobs. People thus resort to informal activities on the physical and economic periphery of the city.”

Manuel said an increasing smaller percentage of new arrivals were able to afford city life.

Even people who held formal jobs battled to live in cities – the poor tended to live on marginal land and in unplanned areas that were consequently poorly serviced.
The experiences of dislocation and alienation are very real in the lives of the urban poor.

Statistics show that 15% of households in South Africa have access to mortgage finance, whereas 60% qualify for state provided housing. The balance find themselves in limbo as they qualify for neither.

The bulk of the people in this category are public servants and the overwhelming majority of them belong to trade unions.
Because this category included “so many people who have an organised voice, there is an increased risk of social upheaval,” said Manuel.

He said in South Africa, the numbers of people categorised as poor were now considerably larger in urban rather than in rural areas.

Manuel said South Africa had a fair idea of what the future ought to look like but admitted that the transition from the present to the future was “incredibly difficult”.

As a way of getting started on the project of redesigning South Africa’s cities, Manuel proposed putting together “effective” land use management systems.

“We need land use management systems that allow mixed uses; that make poor people feel they have a right to the city; that capture the appreciation of land value for the benefit of the public; and that promote the sustainable use of land.”

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