The Crisis in South African Cities within the context of the entrenched dysfunctional relationship between Urbanists in the Public, Private and Academic Sectors

(This Paper was first presented on 5 August 2014 at the International Union of Architects – World Congress in Durban. – It was presented at the “Parallel Academic Sessions” after a lengthy process of abstract approvals and double blind reviews.)

Close to half of South Africans now live in towns and cities. There is no evidence of the slowing of this trend. The 2011 Census shows us that rural provinces like the Eastern Cape have a declining population while urban centres like Gauteng show massive growth in population at rates very difficult to plan or develop for.
The growth pressure on South African cities in the last 20 years has of course been the engine driving change in the country, because where there is growth there is a drive for transformation. This has necessitated a profound “re-visioning “and re-imagining of what were old colonial and apartheid cities. This urbanization pressure has created the perfect opportunity for change. Nowhere else on the globe since the rebuilding of Europe after World War 2 has there been a need for urban spatial transformation as here, in post-apartheid South Africa.  There are great obstacles to change including our limited resources, our old paradigms and our vested interests. Not surprisingly the process of spatial and physical transformation has been a flawed process.  No matter how you look at the current reality in South African cities, twenty years into democracy, all can still, without exception, be described using the terms “Town” and “Township”. (Those of you from outside the country are reminded of Apartheid spatial planning’s dictate that black residents be located outside of “town” in dormitory “townships”.)

All of our cities are currently characterised by:
Inner City areas facing decline, degradation, increased vacancies and deflated rentals.
Middle class suburbs remain crime affected and under siege from roaming criminal gangs.
Government subsidised housing is very poorly located, very poorly serviced and of very poor quality.
A lack of spatial integration (denying, particularly the poor and new urban immigrant’s access to critical urban resources and the urban economy).
In spite good policy documents, South African cities have continued to become massive sprawling, polluting, fossil fuel dependent, urban regions that experience high levels of crime because of shortcomings in the urban economy and the weak social infra-structure. These cities are in many ways monuments to inefficiency, social dislocation and environmental degradation.
To this day, our cities remain memorials to apartheid’s most visible and viscous social engineering projects; divided between rich and poor, black and white and well serviced and poorly serviced. But what is perhaps worse, is that far from turning around this inherited pattern, the forces acting on our model of development since 1994 have rather perpetuated and reinforced the failed pattern.
As we speak, this pattern is playing itself out in the city that has been home to my family and to my architectural career. The Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area will, in the coming months see massive new sprawling developments beyond Motherwell to the east and outside Sherwood to the west of the metro. The process is now well underway to obtain approval for a new R6 Billion “mixed residential” development beyond Motherwell, along the road to Addo and construction has already commenced on massive new regional shopping centre to the west along the N2.
Curiously this crisis in South African Cities continues at a time when there are skills and resources available in the public, private and academic sectors to address these challenges and in fact to transform our cities into vibrant models of  balance, harmony and sustainability.
It is therefore the position of this paper that the most significant obstacle to meaningful urban transformation in South Africa lies not in a shortage of academic “know how”, not in a shortage on public sector investment, not in a shortage of private sector mobilisation but rather in the entrenched dysfunctional relationship between these three sectors.
Each of these sectors operates increasingly as a “silo”, separate from each other with no mechanisms available for true collaboration. The public sector has become driven by a number of imperatives that require it to “procure” the “services” offered by the private sector in a standardised mechanism designed to “procure” other “goods and services”. The obvious fact that public and private sectors can best serve the urban crisis by contributing the best from their ranks to collaborate in providing, vision, leadership and direction is of no concern to the faceless authors of our public sector’s “supply chain management” procedure. The unavoidable nett result of this strategy is a contested, completely unproductive standoff between the public sector “urban silo” and the private sector “urban silo”.  No vision emerges from this standoff; no leadership emerges from this standoff.  Only “safe”, “compliant”, “cost effective” implementation.
In a similar way urbanists in the “academic silo” come under increasing pressure to focus not on the South African urban crisis, but rather on “purer” academic pursuits. A youngster with a Phd that deals with some arcane branch of architectural theory is much more likely to assume a professorship in Architecture than a practitioner with 20 years’ experience in city building. This trend seems unstoppable with a momentum developed from very high up in the South Africa’s higher education community.  Architects who teach are now actively discouraged from participating in private practice. Those from private practice, who give of their time to the university and share their experience generally, do so as volunteers. Academics offering to serve the public sector are treated the same as their private sector counterparts, as a commodity to be bought through a “procurement system” with the same resultant frustration.
While in architectural practices everywhere we find that the energies of the brightest minds are committed to pure commercial pursuits. Top Architects, in top firms dedicate a disproportionate amount of their time on bids, tenders and RFP’s. When the projects are moving, architects at the top of their game commit most of their valuable time and energy in “managing risk”, resolving conflict and ensuring cash flow. Very little time here for reading, studying, engaging or developing the perspective that we know is required to see the bigger urban picture.
In this way the silos grow more and more isolated and positions within them become more and more entrenched. Urbanists of otherwise impeccable credentials begin to withdraw into cynicism and isolation. Great ideas are shelved. Big visions parked. Energy diverted.
Is there any solution? Is there any alternative to these dysfunctional relationships? Is there any way out of this urban crisis? Of course there is. These challenges were made by people like you and I and they can be overcome by people like you and I.

In light of the above, we put it to this conference that the following are now accepted as “common cause” by the three “sectors”; academic, public sector and private.
Firstly, progress in addressing the crisis in South African cities is significantly dependent on the effective collaboration between “Urbanists” located in the public, private and academic sectors.
Secondly, effective collaboration is substantially obstructed by current public “Supply Chain Management” procedures.
Thirdly, effective collaboration is significantly obstructed by current Higher Education human resource management practices.
Fourthly, the burden of Research and Development required to address the Urban Crisis is not shared in any helpful way by the Architects located in the private sector.
If the above can be taken as consensus, then this paper then makes the following propositions which it calls on the conference to debate:
Proposition Number 1
This paper argues that Architects in private practice have a meaningful role to play in developing vision and solutions to many of the challenges that face our rapidly growing cities. It is further argued that practicing architects are, as a by-product of their professional practice, daily exposed to up to date, complex data that informs and frames the questions and challenges that make up the urban crisis.
The limiting challenge however is that a formalised structure to support and facilitate the assimilation, processing and sharing of this data does not exist to the same extent as this exists in South Africa’s Universities. Universities all have a long established, structured set of incentives that promote research and debate.
Architects in South Africa are organised, primarily though the South African Institute of Architects. A number of programmes are run by this voluntary association to ensure the “Continuing Professional Development” of its members. In its turn, the regulating authority, South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP) determines what is deemed to be an adequate amount of “Continuing Professional Development” in any given 5 year cycle. Within this environment, very little emphasis is placed on ensuring that research outputs of the profession are captured in any meaningful way.
The proposition put forward in this paper is therefore that:
The South African Institute of Architects is best placed of all institutions to formulate a systematic research process that captures the collective wisdom emanating from the work of practicing architects in the rebuilding of South Africa’s cities and that it will be failing in its mandate toward “Architects and Architecture” if it does not develop programmes to address this challenge.
Proposition Number 2
This paper points to the uncontested fact that University Architecture departments through the country have displayed a “drift” away from professional emphasis toward a greater academic emphasis. This is evidenced by the growing proportion of junior and senior teaching staff at Architecture departments with little or no professional exposure or credibility. This weakness arises from the fact that Architecture departments are located within universities where they experience significant pressure to conform to “uniform standards” which align the seniority of teaching posts with equivalent academic achievement. There exists no framework at any South African University to equate professional achievement with appropriate post-graduate qualifications meaningful to selection panels considering applications for teaching posts in Architecture departments around the country. While the South African Council for the Architectural Profession is mandated to accredit schools of architecture, no part of its directives to schools of architecture include the need for teaching staff to have has any contact or exposure to the profession of architecture.
The proposition therefore put forward in the paper is that:
The South African Institute of Architects is best placed to ensure that The South African Council for the Architectural Profession, develops expands its guidelines for the accreditation schools of Architecture to include minimum levels of professional experience for various categories of teaching positions.
Proposition no 3
While some architectural services procured by the public sector are of a routine and basic nature, others call for the Architect to provide significant leadership and vision. No evidence or research has been presented by the public sector at any conference or in any publication to suggest that leadership and vision can best be obtained from private sector architects using the current supply chain mechanisms uniformly adopted by Local, Provincial and National government departments. In fact, the documented evidence of Architects failing to provide adequate leadership in public sector projects grows as procurement process dictated by National Treasury become more uniformly employed.
This “supply chain” practice continues in spite of a number of workable examples where leadership and vision is procured by the public sector using free, fair and transparent processes. These examples include the long list of Director’s General, Municipal Managers, Chief Financial Officers and CEO’s of development agencies who are all procured in interview and shortlisting procedures without the need to submit a competitive financial offer.
The proposition therefore put forward in the paper is that:
There is no institution better placed than the South African Institute of Architects to commit to a comprehensive research project to test the hypothesis put forward in this paper that:
“Current South African public sector supply chain management processes, do not match the best Architectural skill and talent with the tasks that most require these skill and talents.”

Conclusion
This paper calls on this conference to debate the above three propositions with a view to accepting, rejecting or refining the position. The intention is then that this paper, in its refined form, becomes a call to action for South African Institute of Architects, to step into a leadership position in the task of ensuring that the energies of South Africa’s architects are best directed to the growing Urban Challenge facing this country and this continent

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Author: buildingfreedomtoday

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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