Note - this reflective piece is part of a series of blog posts written further to the visit of the UK Team to South Africa in April
Contrasts and opportunities
It is common knowledge that the post-apartheid period in South Africa led to a succession of large-scale regeneration projects buoyed by increasingly confident investors and developers. On the one hand, walking through Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront development, for example, replete with its bars, restaurants and cafes serves as a powerful reminder of the benefits of regeneration and placemaking: it is space that contains vitality, movement, and a range of different sights, sounds and smells. At the same time, though, this space bears many of the hallmark features of other large-scale urban regeneration projects. Clearly, as with other cities across the world, the design and overall ambience of the waterfront area reflect official attempts to control contemporary risks of crime and disorder, and enhance the quality of life of certain urban dwellers. In this sense, the area is also imbued with a particular set of socio-cultural values that support economic gain, consumerism and tourism.
Cape Town also continues to attract large numbers of people looking to benefit from the recent redevelopment initiatives and projects like the V&A Waterfront create much-needed employment opportunities for those looking to move to the city. Hence “informal” dwellings appear in townships like Khayelitsha and Langa; these settlements accommodate people migrating to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape and from other parts of Africa. The contrast between the regenerated V&A Waterfront and the townships is very stark. After visiting some of these settlements, you can not only begin to appreciate some of the housing, education, employment and other land use challenges facing planners, but also the many different social, cultural, structural, and legal contexts in which “informality” plays out across the townships.
Amid a climate of political corruption in South Africa, there have been recent well-documented displays of public outcry over the slow pace of change since the end of apartheid. Clearly, many challenges lie ahead. But there is hope. Visiting “unplanned” Langa, for example, allowed me to appreciate the kind of alternative practices and “different” modes of governance that, in their different ways, give the area so much of its life, colour and vitality. This point resonates with wider debates, of course. Perhaps most fundamentally, visiting the informal settlements reminded me that further and urgent lessons can be learned from exploring the kind of experimental and resilient modes of urban governance that have emerged in different parts of the world in response to a range of economic, social and environmental challenges.
Spatial planning, as many theorists and practitioners would attest, can also play an important role in helping to address some of these challenges. Planning education also has a role here, of course, and future planners will have to find ways to wrestles with the issues of urbanisation, informal settlements, poverty, spatial and environmental justice. The recent adoption of Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act (Act 16 of 2013) (adopted in 2015) presents an excellent opportunity to learn the lessons of the past, and help create integrated spheres of governance that deliver better land use decisions and manage the different changes facing society.