November 09, 2007

JOHANNESBURG MAKEOVER: New Light

Jo’burg is confident it can remodel itself, backed by private-sector developers. Johannesburg has begun the most dramatic makeover of its 120-year history. A Jo’burg metro project is under way that will see the city spend between R3bn and R4bn a year over the next five years, and generate about R30bn from private-sector property developers.

Built around a new bus commuter transport network and integrated with the R27bn Gautrain project, Jo’burg is planning a city dominated by wide boulevards lined with landscaped pavements, multi storey flats, offices, shopping and entertainment.

These mixed-use boulevards will connect a series of high-rise business districts, like Sandton’s CBD where skyscrapers of 40 floors and higher will be common, and 20 floors or higher in Rosebank and Randburg.

This dense new urban fabric is the meat on the bones of a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, which Jo’burg wants to introduce in April 2009. About 330 km of BRT routes will be built throughout the city – a project to which the bulk of its R3bn-R4bn yearly infrastructure budget will be dedicated.

WHAT IT MEANS
Jo’burg to spend R4bn/year on transport infrastructure
Commuter transport and flat living key to new model

Work has already started on the first phase of the BRT system, which will run from Soweto to Sandton via the CBD, Parktown and Rosebank. Much of initial BRT investment will service the requirements of visitors to the city for the 2010 soccer World Cup. (See The big spend begins”.)

By 2020 this system will be within 500 m of most people’s front doors and a large proportion of those front doors will be in rental or sectional title flats. By then Johannesburg will be as dense as London with estimates of about 4 500 people for every km².

Metro officials are already encouraging property owners in Rosebank to bulk up their offices and add residential units on top of them. Standard Bank will soon be announcing a 50 000 m² regional office on Oxford Road, one of the prime new boulevards. Officials would like developers to build to 20 floors or more.

Johannesburg has adopted transport-orientated development (TOD), based on successful projects in South America that started in Curitiba, Brazil, in the 1970s and have been adopted in other cities, including Bogota, Colombia. All but three of the US’s 30 biggest cities have adopted TOD.

Johannesburg officials say they will offer developers opportunities to build a dense urban fabric within walking distance of each bus station and reward them with incentives, including leveraging Johannesburg’s flexible new ratings policy to give them substantial tax relief. But the developers will have to drastically reduce the number of parking bays in their new buildings so as to encourage residents to use commuter transport – and pay for the extra power, water and other infrastructure needed.

TOD will solve four of Johannesburg’s most intractable problems.

Firstly, cheap land with no natural boundaries has made Jo’burg a sprawling city with one of the lowest population densities at 2 500 residents per square kilometre. Even catching up with London is not much compared with Cairo’s 36 000/km² and Mumbai’s 34 000/km². But developments around the new bus stations will be three to four times more dense than they are now.

Secondly, Johannesburg lacks a cost-effective transport system that could improve productivity and social integration by bringing poorer people closer to work, as well as improve the environment and reduce noise by replacing cars with public transport.

Thirdly, it will help fund much of the infrastructure that the city currently lacks. (See “It’s better by bus”.)

And fourthly, metro officials might have found a formula that can dismantle the spatial and social legacy of apartheid by integrating rich and poor, black and white in the residential quarters of the new Johannesburg.

The greater property densities and heights should offer the city’s property owners and developers profitable growth opportunities. But the city will set a few conditions: in order to maximise the amount of lettable or saleable space, they will have to build affordable housing into each project. It is working elsewhere. New waterfront projects in Britain’s posh coastal city of Brighton are required to have 30% affordable housing.

The new Johannesburg is following global urban trends.

“Global city regions” have overtaken nations as the organising economic units of the world. The biggest, stretching from Boston through New York to Washington, with 55m people, is equivalent to being the fourth-biggest economy in the world. US city expert Richard Florida wrote recently that “China, as an economic unit, is virtually meaningless. What matters are its megacities: Shanghai to Nanking, with 50m people; Hong Kong to Shenzhen, with 40m; and greater Beijing, with 36m.”

As the heart of the Gauteng that premier Mbhazima Shilowa wants to turn into a global mega city, Johannesburg is central to his bid to make the region globally competitive. “Gauteng will be a global city region, whether we like it or not,” says Shilowa. “The question is, do we lead it in the direction we want it to go, or follow it?”

Gauteng is projected to be the 12th- biggest of 20 global city regions, with 14,6m people and a growth rate of 8%/year by 2014. To meet the economic needs of the rising population, it has to be attractive for business, investors, tourists and, crucially, its more wealthy and skilled residents.

The development plan is accompanied by new controls over quality and aesthetics that could finally bring to an end the coarse projects that currently pollute the suburbs. The city’s director of forward planning, Herman Pienaar, says Jo’burg is setting up a forum that will control building aesthetics and the relationship between developments.

But here is the first serious concern: if the council eliminates architectural blights on Johannesburg’s landscape, will it merely replace these with blandness?

City bureaucrats appear to be succumbing to an old planning fault. Getting the detail right but missing the big vision. They emphasise consensus more than vision and leadership.

Critics says the city missed an opportunity by not expropriating the areas around the Gautrain stations, redesigning and increasing their density and selling them back to the private sector. Such projects could have helped pay for much of the city infrastructure around the Gautrain. The model for this is the London Docklands Development Company, which had both planning and expropriation rights, according to Leszek Dobrovolsky, director of transport interchange design at international designers Ove Arup.

“This model has been successfully adopted elsewhere,” he says. “But SA planning officials don’t seem to understand how to leverage the private sector to maximise TOD. Developers get a fantastic deal in SA and an easy ride. They fund most of the public development elsewhere.”

City consultant Neil Frazer believes the BRT system will have a marked impact on future development. “It will bring amazing changes to the city. But where’s the vision? Where’s the Rogers or Foster or Gehry [the world’s top architects] to build great architecture.”

Dobrovolsky agrees: ” Unfortunately too much emphasis on consensus can lead to committee decisions and blandness.” Arup has opened an office in SA, which is already advising the Western Cape government on a TOD plan to integrate its main urban centres.

Wits University professor Francois Viruly worries that city officials are not doing enough to ensure that essential non commercial services like schools, parks, libraries and clinics are developed along with the high residential density. “If there is no planning for the services to be integrated into the TOD nodes, the areas could deteriorate into the slums of Hillbrow and Berea,” he warns.

The problem is that city officials and developers have no experience of such major developments. Johannesburg’s development planning & urban management chief, former Wits professor Phil Harrison, says the city would love to have a world-famous architect to lead the development plan. “But we don’t have the budget and must rely on the private sector to do the development,” he adds. Harrison says he and his officials have the vision and it’s “sustainable transport-orientated development that we hope the private sector will take up”.

But he says officials will make sure the necessary social services are integrated into the development areas. Harrison believes consensus among Jo’burgers is critical to the success of the project. Consensus will not be automatic with many northern nimbys (not in my back yard) and bananas (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything) fighting densification.

Nor will they get developers immediately throwing money at the project. They and their architects remain wounded creatures after 30 years of struggle to make ends meet in a declining property market dominated by institutions. Most are too timid to buy a swathe of boulevard or build a huge architectural focus. They are concentrating instead on the risks. (See box.)

Officials are allowing for a slow start to actual development and, says Pienaar, estimate that at first only 15% of people will live within walking distance of a BRT bus station.

Nevertheless, the change in lifestyle should be dramatic. Higher density will not only make the bus system practical, but should also lead to more retail development as well as a greater variety of entertainment and other services.

If Jo’burg follows global trends, high-trading densities will also turn the city into a series of villages that can have their own individuality enhanced by different racial and economic integration – and actually reduce the need to travel.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is safety. Most Jo’burgers find it impossible to conceive of a safe city. “Colombia and Brazil have major crime problems but the BRT systems in Bogota and Curitiba are safe,” says Harrison. “We should be able to achieve the same.”

There is also little doubt that the city’s political leadership, mayor Amos Masondo and urban management mayoral committee member Ruby Motaung, have the political will to make the system safe. They have committed Jo’burg to vastly improved urban management to keep streets and parks beautiful, safe and suitable for walks. The first signs of this should be appearing in CBDs next year as pavements are upgraded and patrolled by bobbies on the beat.

But the scale of the BRT-linked developments and the speed at which planners intend approving projects raises questions of the officials’ ability to cut red tape and approve projects quickly and to control the many property developers who are used to ignoring the rules and getting away with it.

Peter Coetzee, director of special projects in Jo’burg’s infrastructure & services department, says the Gautrain has sucked vital and scarce skills from the council, which cannot compete with private-sector salaries.

Another concern is the lack of supporting infrastructure. Projects in the Randburg CBD have already ground to a halt because developers can’t get electricity and other services. How will Jo’burg cope?

Then there is the problem of support from provincial and national government, which must supply security, education and many other key services and infrastructure. For instance, most of the new residential stock – ultimately it could total more than 100 000 flats – would be rented. But the latest proposed amendments to rental legislation by the department of housing could reintroduce rent control, which deters investment.

But Shilowa says government at all levels is on board. “A city region that can compete effectively in the global economy is the key to SA’s growth, as well as our ability to address poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment,” says Shilowa.

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