Why our cities are in the mess they are in

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Every morning millions of mainly black workers travel using public transport from the peripheries of the cities to their places of work in industries, offices and domestic homes. They travel between 1 and 3 hours, often switching between bus, rail and taxi with fairly lengthy walks on each end. Many women expose themselves to dangerous areas, often unlit and unwatched by security personnel or surveillance cameras. Children are left for long hours, trusted to get themselves to school and back and look after themselves in the afternoons.

One of the great puzzles of the democratic era since 1994 has certainly been why urban apartheid has not only persisted, but it seems to have been strengthened and extended. Certain middle class areas in some cities have slowly integrated, but the living conditions of the poor black majority have hardly changed. Why? And what are the alternatives?

About 66% of South Africa’s population is now urbanised. The large bulk are concentrated in the major metropolitan areas (Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg-Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and East London) , but there is a strong hierarchy of secondary and tertiary urban centres. Of the 66% urbanised population, between 25% and 30% live in shacks most of which are unserviced.

Despite the fact that the bulk of the South African economy is based in the major cities, and despite the fact that South Africa is the most urbanised African country, an urban development policy framework has never been formally adopted. Instead, since 1994 it has been housing policy that has driven the urban development process. This has had negative consequences that only began to be recognised around 2002.

The housing policy that was implemented by the first Minister of Housing, Joe Slovo, was largely formulated by experts employed by the Urban Foundation – a business-funded urban policy think tank. At the core of this policy was a housing subsidy to be used to finance housing provision for the urban poor. Although there were changes of emphasis over time, the core logic remained the same: the subsidy would cover as far as possible the cost of the house itself (mainly a core structure), services (water, electricity, sanitation, roads) and  the land. The subsidy, however, was not allocated to the end-user but rather to the developer. This was seen as a way of harnessing the capacity of the private sector to deliver to the urban poor.

Although the urban poor occupied land as close as possible to their places of  employment, developers tried to maximize what they could do with the subsidy. Given that building and infrastructure costs are determined by the market, the only cost that was reducible was the land cost. Because the subsidy included the land cost, it was inevitable that developers would buy up the cheapest land to deliver on the requirements at the lowest cost to themselves. The only place where this was possible was on the peripheries of the cities. So what started off as a good idea (and unprecedented in Africa) – a capital subsidy to house the urban poor provided  the National Government via the Department of Housing – ended up solidifying the basic structure of the apartheid city.

The irony is that by keeping the capital subsidy low and including the cost of the land, this meant massive increases in the costs of transporting workers to work. Bus services in South Africa are heavily subsidized by the National Government via the Department of Transport – without these subsidies workers would have to be paid a lot more. But as the average journey between  home and work got longer, so the budget for bus subsidies mushroomed. Some studies have calculated that in some case it would have been cheaper for the state to pay workers to stay at home than transport them to work.

Besides increasing the cost of bus transportation, as the cities sprawled out, so it became increasingly necessary to extend the urban infrastructure system. Vast new extensions to the water, sanitation, roads, stormwater drainage and electricity networks needed to be built. These costs, however, were not carried by National Government but by Local Governments drawing on their increasingly strained local tax bases. Over time, National Government has been forced to increase subsidies of the capital costs of infrastructure, but this still means that Local Governments have to cover the operating costs forever.

There was, of course, an alternative that could have triggered a much more sustainable development orientation for South African cities.  The capital subsidy from the Department of Housing could have been  much higher; the large quantities of well located government-owned land could have been used at no cost for high density socially integrated housing developments; urban sprawl could have been prevented thus saving on infrastructure costs; and the Department of Transport could have invested much earlier on in integrated multi-modal public transport systems for everyone.  All of these options were articulated, but mainly by community-linked NGOs and leftwing researchers who were largely ignored in favour of business think-tanks who seemed to be saying much simpler more easily understand technocratic things that the new bureaucratic and political leadership could understand.

By 2002-2004, the inherent problems with Joe Slovo’s housing policy were recognised and the missed opportunities acknowledged. A new policy framework was formulated known as Breaking New Ground (BNG). This policy framework envisages the creation of “integrated sustainable human settlements” financed via a multiplicity of financial instruments that take into account the wide range of different housing needs. Without ruling out so-called “greenfield developments” on the urban peripheries, BNG has emphasized the need to intervene in urban land and property markets to ensure that the poor are incorporated into these markets. It has  recognised the importance of upgrading informal settlements rather than demolishing them, and it has recognised that inner city residents, backyard shackdwellers, and people interested in renting should also be eligible for subsidies.

The Department of Housing has also recognised the importance of incorporating sustainable resource use criteria into housing projects that benefit from state subsidies. This means finding ways of socially integrating richer and poorer communities, as well as introducing new urban technologies such as energy efficient design, renewable energy, recycling and re-use of solid and liquid wastes, higher densities and appropriate building materials. In January 2009 the Department appointed the Sustainability Institute to act as advisors for three years on how to implement this approach on a national basis.

There are also signs of greater integration. The Department of Transport has taken major decisions to subsidise new large-scale public transport systems; the National Department of Public Works and Provincial Public Works Departments are working on ways of bringing public land into play; and Local Governments have begun to find ways making sure that transport, housing and infrastructure decisions are integrated into long-term strategic plans embedded in their Integrated Development Plans (IDPs).

There is, therefore, cause for hope. Rapid learning from many mistakes has resulted in courageous new approaches. It remains to be seen whether the new Government led by Jacob Zuma will allow this learning from mistakes to continue so that officials, local politicians and communities can effectively negotiate their way through to what will hopefully be a much more sustainable set of outcomes than the ones that Joe Slovo initiated after the first democratic election in 1994.