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Rising Fuel Prices Should Induce Conscious Urban Planning for Cities in South Africa


The urban explosion is gaining momentum, and with it comes undesirable sprawling of cities, largely precipitated by auto-dependence and equally complicit planning policies and practices.

Simply put, sprawl can be described as the expansion of human populations into previously unoccupied areas away from the urban core into often self-contained, multi-nuclei suburbs.  Sprawl is a culmination of planned or unplanned and organic outward dispersal of populations and settlements.

It is estimated by the United Nations that more than 68% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050.  This is by no means a far-fetched estimate, it is a real possibility that is likely to find many cities, especially in the developing world, underprepared.  South African cities will be equally affected, as they are, to a large degree, a microcosm of the global urbanisation trend.

The Gauteng city-region is without a doubt the melting pot of this phenomenon, although other regions like Durban and Cape Town are showing signs of urbanisation induced distress. Urbanisation is one area of urban planning that has been studied and dissected in detail, with a number of scholarly articles written, papers presented, and books published on the subject. And despite academia being a space open to contestation of ideas and theories, there are very few academics, commentators, and thought leaders alike who share contrasting views on the future urbanisation trajectory and the associated implications, risks, and opportunities.

There is a social cost associated with urbanization, and that is sprawl, which has been a feature in cities since the advent of cars.  Even though cars – gasoline powered with internal combustion engines – have been around since the late nineteenth century, it was only between 1940 and 1960 that car-induced sprawl became palpable, mainly in American and Australian cities.

The same period, unsurprisingly, coincided with a significant rise in car ownership levels, which precipitated new, auto-dependent suburbs.  The proliferation of cars meant people could live anywhere as they, for the first time, no longer had to be concerned with living within a walkable distance.  As a result, multitudes of people fled the high density urban core for less dense, peripheral suburbs.

In hindsight, it would be plausible to assume that it is exactly at this point that the utopian, human scale, and pedestrian-friendly city dissipated.  The car single-handedly transformed the spatial morphology of cities, regions, and countries in a way that had never been previously imagined.  It dispersed populations infinitely, beyond any threshold and scale thought to be possible and manageable at the time.  Planners followed suit by designing cities around a car, underpinned by a hierarchy of roads, wide reserves, parking spaces, and later dual carriageways.  At the time, presumably, the overarching rationale was that the car would be the future of mobility.  It is apparent that Planners and Architects alike did not, at the time, foresee that there would be a point in human civilization where the car, not only maintains, but accelerates spatial and social inequalities.

Traditionally, cities grew from a central point, and grew incrementally outward, even more exponentially subsequent to the automobile era. The late 20th century did, however, see a new trend gaining prominence, and that was the multi-nuclei form to city development. This spatial form allows for the city to grow from several independent points, what is nowadays referred to as nodes.  Each point acts as a growth centre, anchored by a particular land use, or a mix of compatible land uses.  This kind of approach has proven to be a success in many parts of the world, but only in cases where governments are prepared to take deliberate, and at times, unpopular actions to invest disproportionately in underdeveloped, poorer areas.

By investing expansively in former black townships, governments can create independent economic nodes of employment generation.  In this way, poor communities will not be subjected to travelling long distances to work as is currently the case.  The current state where township nodes are dominated by consumption driven developments such as shopping malls is not only undesirable, but unsustainable.

Notwithstanding the many positives, auto-dependent mobility has not only altered the urban morphology undesirably, but it has also contributed, albeit inadvertently, to high levels of poverty, inequality, and race based class segregation.  It has further increased transportation costs and created an additional cost burden on governments with respect to providing additional road and supporting infrastructure.  This is because the more populations disperse, the longer the public road network that is required, and this comes at a cost to the taxpayer.  Furthermore, as the government supplies other utilities such as water and electricity over a wider, less dense geographic area, return per capital is diminishes, energy is lost due to distance, resulting in large scale cost inefficiencies.

With this in mind, the higher fuel prices should therefore serve as a reminder as to why cities should be designed for people, and not cars.  Gone are the days of designing cities as if the car is the only mode of transport.  South African cities should be retrofitted to be more compact, pedestrian-friendly, walkable, and multi-modal.  Cities all over the world are beginning to comprehend the social cost of urban sprawl, and are promptly responding with more viable and sustainable alternatives, in most cases using the planning principle of targeted densification – which refers to the intensity with which land is occupied – as one of the enablers.  They understand that by creating higher densities, along public transport corridors to mention a common example, it is possible to induce walkable distances which will, in turn, reduce transportation costs and lay a solid foundation for just socio-economic transformation.

The recent fuel increases, as catastrophic as they may be, offer a much-needed incentive for city governments to consider alternatives to orthodox and context lean land management and spatial planning methods.  The sprawl-induced distances are no longer sustainable, let alone affordable.  The current approach of infinitely expanding the geographic footprint of cities and regions should be abolished in favour of a more compact, socially inclusive spatial structure.  If such reforms are not introduced in earnest, those at the bottom end of the wage spectrum will continue to bear the brunt of spending a sizeable portion of their income on commuting to and from work.  This is in addition to the spatial, economic, and social exclusion they’ve had to ensure due to the inherent exclusionary spatial planning policies.

The current government has a unique opportunity to rethink city planning in relation to scale, design, efficiency, and long-term sustainability.  In doing so, use its prerogative to disproportionately direct resources to previously marginalized black communities.  More purposeful spatial reconstruction, smarter and responsive urban planning can mitigate the negative effect of fuel increases and the associated high cost of living and commuting.

For far too long black communities have had to endure unabated social, spatial, and economic exclusion as a result of morally repulsive spatial planning policies of the apartheid government.  Spatial reconstruction will not only bring about redress, but its collateral effect will lead to ordinary people living closer to areas of employment, enjoying improved living standards, and spending less on fuel and commuting.

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