Toward the compact green cities of our future

Toward the compact green cities of our future

(This piece first appeared in The Eastern Cape Herald on 4 May 2012)
 If big private capital, has its way Nelson Mandela Bay will, in the coming months see massive new sprawling developments beyond Motherwell to the east and beyond Sherwood to the west. The multi-billion rand Baywest shopping centre along the N2 toward Humansdorp, this month obtained environmental approvals from the MEC, while the process is now well underway to obtain approval for a new R6 Billion mixed residential development beyond Motherwell, along the road to Addo.
The question, I suppose is: Have we, as a community, stopped to think what it is that we are allowing to happen here? Are we happy that our city continues its low density sprawl endlessly, like a tumour, consuming the landscape? Government support for these two proposed developments seem strange and confusing, especially since it has become generally understood that the economy can no longer afford to keep building environmentally destructive sprawling cities the way we have been building since the World War 2. Government policy documents since “breaking new ground” to the first drafts of the National Planning Commission documents are clear that South African cities need to be accessible, compact and break away their divisive spatial and physical past.
In spite good policy documents, South African cities have continued to become massive sprawling, polluting, fossil fuel dependent, crime ridden poverty traps. These cities, in which 50% of our population now live, are monuments to inefficiency and environmental arrogance. To this day, our cities remain memorials to apartheid’s most visible and viscous social engineering projects. But they are also reminders of another massive mistake of recent history! The mistake, with which we must now rapidly come to terms, is that South African cites have been designed under the false assumption and the lie that cheap fossil fuels would be available in perpetuity. This is now proving to be a colossal and expensive mistake.
The International Energy Agency have told us that global oil production has continued to increase year on year, since oil was first extracted from the ground in 1859, but that production has now peaked. In fact the consensus is that oil production peaked sometime in 2006 already. In other words, each and every year since 1859 the world was able to meet the increased demand for fossil fuels by simply finding new oil fields or drilling deeper in old ones. But now, supply is rapidly declining, while demand continues to grow unchecked, most notably to meet the needs of the growing Chinese and Indian economies.
While the implications of peak oil are now broadly understood, what I would prefer to focus on is what this means for how we approach the design of our cities looking forward. Firstly, I would suggest, let us concede that we have got it all horribly wrong up until now. South African cities are of a very low density and have sprawled very widely. The brutal truth is that the general public are going to have to pay a very heavy price for this design error. It is soon going to become unbearably expensive to move around in private motor vehicles. It is going to become unbearably expensive to distribute food and goods within our sprawling cities It is going to become unbearably expensive for police to patrol and for municipalities to collect refuse. Even if our cities suspend their sprawling today, it is still going to be very tough!
Secondly I would suggest that we do not expend any energy in trying to apportion blame for these design errors. We must understand and forgive our Town Planner friends motivated by a fee structure that for years encouraged hectare upon hectare of free standing sites in mundane suburbia and featureless townships. We should understand and forgive our Civil Engineer friends motivated by a fee structure that for years encouraged kilometre upon kilometre of suburban roads, sewers and storm water systems. To vilify these professions and the government departments that briefed them would be futile. Rather let us turn these skilled and committed thinking people to the task of imagining the new compact green cities of the future. Cities where people can walk to work or use public transport. Cities that produce their own food, cities that create vibrant live hoods and cultural diversity.
But thirdly, and most importantly we need to put an immediate stop to the popular myth that profit motivated big developers “know best” about what is good for us and our city’s future. The fact that a big JSE listed developer has acquired cheap land of the periphery of our city and can fill it with government subsidised housing or thousands of square meters of retail clothing stores we don’t need, does not mean that it is good for our city. It does not mean it is good for our economy. It does not mean that is good for our people. In fact, all it means is that our city becomes more sprawled, more distorted and more likely to trap ordinary citizens in an unbearably expensive future where no one wins. We cannot afford to allow this myth to continue any longer.
What I do know for sure is that our generation is equipped and capacitated to change all this, but what I am not so sure of is whether we have the courage to confront or the commitment to stay at it.
We will see.
Tim Hewitt-Coleman 20 April 2012

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

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