Crisis is an opportunity to heal South Africa’s divided spatial geographies

South Africa is in crisis as the country plunges into alarming levels of chaos, looting and vandalism. The spatial realities of our cities must be the focus of our discussions more than ever. Apartheid is still having an insidious influence on what we are experiencing today; we live within the confines of what the apartheid architects created for us. The built environment is not neutral – buildings and landscapes matter. We must proceed as systematically and courageously as the apartheid planners, guided by values ​​such as justice, access and dignity. Do we understand the urgency now? Or does it take more destruction to understand that apartheid will only be recorded in the history books when we have successfully dismantled its inherited structures, including their spatial structures?

The structure of our cities has been carefully planned to help a minority and keep cheap black labor close to the city, but not part of the city – it was no accident. Hundreds of laws were passed to uphold the structures that served the intentions of the then ruling party and the value systems underlying them, and many of these laws related to the built environment. We need to enact hundreds of laws to achieve a different vision and a different way of life. Our vision must be powerful, inspiring and actionable. It has to be translated into tangible and tangible realities in people’s daily lives.

How? Reward and finance innovation; punish a continuation of the status quo. Tax the walls; reward projects that introduce mixed-functional edges – replace the walls with residential, commercial and communal services. Make roadside activation a condition for building permits. Insert the housing into these edges. Provide “eyes on the street” to curb opportunistic crime and make our neighborhoods safer.

Punishing monofunctional developments such as housing estates and office parks; Reward developments that include affordable housing and other services within the project locations. Yes, within the same sites – corporate social responsibility shouldn’t be based on something done elsewhere. Educate the general public to become spatially competent. Be creative in finding affordable housing and make it worthwhile for developers to innovate. Make multi-family rental apartments desirable. Increase the densities to ensure the success of small and medium-sized businesses and to have functioning transportation systems.

Innovatively integrate enclosures into our existing landscapes. Recreate all settlements as mixed income, mixed function and mixed typologies in which affordable housing (with everything necessary to maintain it) becomes an integral part of the city. Include affordable housing as part of existing commercial buildings. Add affordable housing to any Menlyn or Sandton and office park. In parallel, encourage economic activity in the townships (not in the form of huge shopping malls serving the same business elite; we’ve seen them the prime targets of looting and vandalism in recent days).

Build economic development on existing businesses. Get creative with informality in all its forms, design spaces and structures that support the daily resilience strategies of communities. Redesign townships as desirable living environments for everyone. Create an environment where youth can thrive and the urban fabric allows us to cope with high unemployment.

Dehumanizing dormitory townships, cookie cutter houses and single sex worker hostels in a sea of ​​emptiness should keep the black population submissive and dependent on the rich elite. Townships served the white city without economic centers of their own. The settlement of monofunctional and inexpensive living space with low density on the periphery of our cities in the form of single houses on individual plots reinforces the spatial pattern of apartheid – however well a single residential unit may be designed. The social housing program (well located, subsidized rental housing) failed to deliver on a large scale. It is also being stigmatized as people see it as a stepping stone to ownership options. Dismissing informal activities as illegitimate is short-sighted.

This crisis is an opportunity to heal our divided spatial geographies. If municipalities and cities need practical recommendations, I have a few more:

* Revision of the building laws on urban planning and building control instruments, as these determine the shape of our environment;

* Discourage monofunctional land use and revise government subsidies to fund only the neighborhood level and not individual homes;

* Providing a catalytic infrastructure that provides just enough to stimulate further investment by the private sector .;

* better articulate what culturally appropriate and dignified environments are in reality and what these concepts mean in terms of design and implementation;

* Recognize that technological innovations without spatial transformation cannot solve the dysfunctionality of our current environment;

* Use technology to “retrofit” existing township areas as well as existing commercial developments.

This is not a problem for the poor! That’s everyone’s problem.

Despite all these possibilities, the same professions that served the apartheid government claim today: “We are professionals in the built environment; we are technocrats; we are trained to design and deliver the built environment; we don’t want to be too political. ”But all professions operate in a political space, and this space was created by politics – there is no getting around this reality. Some will still argue, “We work at the site level, so we can’t make policy changes”.

The built environment professions continue to serve the affluent minority, supplying the majority with inferior design, arguing that this is what people can afford or within the framework of financial constraints. Specialist institutes, councils and authorities need to get involved in a concerted, conscious and targeted manner in order to change politics and motivate spatial practices that will change the lives of the majority of residents in cities.

Apartheid planning was powerful, efficient and persistent. Large parts of the population still spend hours and a significant proportion of their meager salaries on transportation, while the children remain at home unattended. Many walk or cycle in the early hours of the morning through the gaps in the urban fabric, through the industrial areas, next to dangerous high-speed traffic and over busy motorways – the routes of which are never recognized, paved, maintained or celebrated – to do their menial work and then at dusk the same way back; others watch this daily hike from the comfort of their car.

Covid-19 has further exposed our privileges and disadvantages. Apparently some of us have succeeded as many have lost their jobs and businesses. These spatial separations are undoubtedly deeply tortuous. Many communities are robbed of their dignity, not recognized and made invisible. This makes our condition unstable and fragile, which allows some to take advantage of a political dilemma and cause utter chaos.

As social unrest escalates and the country falls into deep distress, we feel ourselves in a state of apartheid, with many watching the chaos on their television screens behind high walls and tight security measures. In fact, increased securitization appears to be the solution. Dialogue and long-term visions are more sustainable approaches.

That will happen again! It is important to think carefully about it and envision a future in which such disasters can be contained. If this vision does not speed up and become a reality, we will only calm the situation while we wait for the next outbreak of violence and anger.

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