Report on urban areas a call to action

Posted On Monday, 31 May 2004 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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THOSE of us who live in SA's major cities (37% of us, according to a new report) know very well the dramatic contrasts which make up our large urban environments, but we seem to struggle to come up with new ways of thinking about where we are going.

Andrew BoraineA new report tries to stimulate new urgency and creativity in addressing our urban problems and, at least as important, our opportunities.

The report is by the South African Cities Network, which is made up of the six metropolitan councils (Johannesburg, Ethekwini/Durban, Cape Town, Ekurhuleni/East Rand, Tshwane/Pretoria, Nelson Mandela/Port Elizabeth) and three other local councils with significant urban concentrations (Mangaung/ Bloemfontein, Msunduzi/Pietermaritzburg and Buffalo City/East London).

The network is gradually becoming an important role player in the country, with strong relations with a host of powerful partners the provincial and local government ministry and the World Bank among them.

Its board chairman is Andrew Boraine, former city manager of Cape Town and now Cape Town Partnership CE.

From its offices high up in Johannesburg's metro centre, network CE Monty Narsoo former community activist and previously a senior official in national government looks out on an urban scene changing more and more rapidly.

Change touches and weaves together economic, social and political aspects of urban life. But what are the implications of such changes for future development?

In its first highly public move, the network published a report last week called The State of the Cities, which aims to answer that question. This book of 200 pages provides a statistical compendium on the nine cities that make up the network and looks at trends which the numbers reveal.

It goes on to examine how stakeholders in the cities are responding to those trends, and it speculates on how the trends are unfolding, with consequences for planning and action on the part of private and public actors in the cities.
Four features of the report stand out.

First, the report puts on the table a new picture of what is happening in the cities. The analysis by principal author Graeme Gotz, tested with a range of advisers, tells us far more than any other available source about the urban situation.

Such a coherent and readable book creates a platform for corporate actors and community organisations to engage in policy debate on where the cities are going, and raises tough questions for government and the big municipalities.

The findings support the view that much of the apartheid city baggage remains intact today. It graphically shows how poverty and vulnerability continue to accumulate at the peripheries of urban areas like the East Rand.

At the same time it details how much movement has been going on within the cities, as well as some of the changing patterns of migration. An important conclusion is that city growth continues and that populations are growing in permanence, albeit at different rates.

There are encouraging signs of economic growth but disturbing increases in vulnerability for many. Servicing and housing expand but not necessarily in ways which keep pace with the need.

Although there have been great advances in political inclusiveness, and governance is improving in some respects, there remains a huge amount to be done if the cities are to realise their promise of creating wealth.

Second, on the basis of this description, the report suggests that to deal more satisfactorily with the problems of exclusion, poverty and sustainability, the next decade of democ racy must see a systematic city transformation strategy.

Part of that strategy could involve what the report terms "bold interventions", for example in relation to publicly owned land and its use. How private sector actors and for that matter public sector organisations will react to such suggestions is likely to prove extremely interesting over coming months.

Third, to accomplish the concerted effort which it proposes, the report argues metropolitan government should seek to act as "city strategy leaders", able to align the efforts of a range of stakeholders from the public and private sectors. This notion would require far more inclusive vision-setting and goal pursuit than city development strategy has accomplished to date. The "how" of getting to such new city development strategy will need a lot more elaboration. New ideas of leadership are clearly called for.

Fourth, for the first time we have a national position from those in or close to authority which makes the claim that more, not less, urban bias is critical to our collective future. The report argues the cities, despite occupying less than 2% of the land area, provide much of the resource which can help to support a better life for all citizens. It also warns that urban poverty is growing fast.
So, to deal with vulnerability and to grow the wealth that can address the problem, the report at least implicitly makes a plea for devoting national resources to support urban economies. This is a controversial position to adopt in a country where many think of "rural" as the very essence of the nation. The answer is that rural development alone cannot create the wealth required to deal with the problem, and that the cities offer the best hope of doing so. But expect this point to be debated at length, in the media and elsewhere.
The increasing concentration of both wealth and poverty in our cities which the report depicts poses major challenges for SA. It will be interesting to see whether responses to The State of the Cities report will retread old paths, or be stimulated to innovative and creative approaches as the report intends.

Mabin is professor, Graduate School of Public and Development Management, Wits University, one of the African Network of Urban Management Institutes.

Last modified on Thursday, 22 May 2014 15:47

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