Opinion: shaking the foundations – time to change the structure of our cities

It is easy to fall into the doom-and-gloom trap of how
Covid-19 will forever change the face of cities and how the very foundations of
urban planning and architecture will have to adapt to a new human reality.
Rather than adopting a reactive stance on envisaging how cities might change
and looking beyond the pandemic, why not focus on how cities should
structurally change?

Inequalities have become starkly apparent recently,
providing a new lens through which to view the world. Armed with this deeper
realisation, there is an opportunity to focus on humanity. Collectively, can we
seize the moment when commercial and residential property values and declining
rental yields have been accelerated to help drive structural change?

We have been gifted with the chance to change our cities
into more human spaces and more equitable places. Can the usage of assets
transform society, through collaborative provision of inner-city clinics,
schools, libraries, and other community centres to foster hubs capable of
spurring on the generation of inner-city housing?

Society has a significant responsibility to ensure that the
provision of housing and community space is not a numbers game. Providing
standard units in mass will never translate into the making of individual homes.
A cramped space to sleep, eat, cook, and shower in, which is far from work and
amenities, is not a quality home which our cities are crying out for:
neighbourhoods in which individuals are nurtured in homes, not bleak repetitive
housing without any form of social amenity.

Can we seize the moment?

Government has a massive opportunity to embed inclusion into
its cities. For years, the City of Johannesburg and most of the other
metropoles have been taking over properties where landlords are in arrears or
failing to maintain their properties. These buildings have been released to the
market for housing. As the economy continues to be pressured, more
opportunities will doubtlessly emerge, giving government initiatives such as
the Joburg Inner City Transformation Programme further fresh opportunities to
fulfil its transformative mandate and to build neighbourhood clusters and
government precincts that favour a human-centric approach to living and
working.

With property prices likely to dive due to the economic
carnage and the new remote working concept, we can expect to see an accelerated
decline in inner city property values. By applying a longer-term vision,
government could seize the opportunity to set new facilitative policies that
would encourage dramatic change. Key to the success of this approach would be a
greater collaboration with a property sector who is eager to realise the
potential of its underperforming assets by providing inner city communities
with better urban environments.

Are we ready as a nation, to use this crisis to open
discussions about the current models in place to develop our cities? Are we
prepared to dramatically change how we work and to put human beings at the
heart of what we do? Can we measure our success through a legacy of successful
neighbourhoods and cities, rather than the sheer number of units provided?

‘Project Speed’, a recent accelerated infrastructure
spending experiment in the UK might hold some valuable lessons for South
Africa. The concept, as the website ‘Inside Housing’ explains, is simple: allow
developers to bypass normal planning applications when it comes to the
provision of housing on vacant land and in empty or underutilised office and
retail buildings, provided that the intention is to build new homes or civic
facilities.

The announcement made in July this year was effectively an
extension of the 2013 permitted development rights move which aimed to make it
easier to convert commercial and office buildings into housing without the
requirement of planning permission.

It was evident that there was a willingness on the part of
government officials in the UK to seek new and innovative ways to deal with the
housing shortage in the British capital and to fast-track the conversion of
unused infrastructure into residential housing. The experiment worked to a
certain extent, although some developers abused the situation by exploiting
people with the provision of substandard living. This would be critical to bear
in mind should South Africa institute similar policies.

Incentivise fresh thinking

Just before Covid-19, we saw examples of this type of
thinking in several projects by Africrest and the conversion of the former ANC
Shell House headquarters in Plein Street, Johannesburg into a 536-unit
residential development with facilities including homework rooms, play areas
and an outdoor gym.

South Africa needs to incentivise more developments of
this sort, aimed at a range of LSM brackets and offering not just a room but a
compelling urban experience. There is tremendous potential in unused or
underutilised commercial property in the CBDs and major satellite areas and the
conversion of underutilised real estate represents a massive opportunity which
must be seized by both hands. If all levels of government work together with
the property industry, we could rapidly and successfully transform our cities.

It would not cost a fortune to undertake myriad
transformative projects. However, care should be taken to ensure that each
element works towards a central goal and vision.

A role for urban visionaries

Urbanists, urban designers, and architects play a vital
role in establishing the vision for transformed environments and in the
conversion of existing and unused spaces.

Projects handled through idea-based competitions could
inspire innovation in thinking and execution. This is a welcomed departure from
the approach which government has favoured in recent years where the cheapest
product and ‘cookie-cutter’ approaches have been favoured in order to show
numerical growth in housing but without acknowledging the power architecture
vision and good design have in the creation of functional communities.

Cities have their own pulse. They grow and shrink, and
they constantly evolve. While these spaces are going through a sudden and
traumatic moment, their repurposing – when it happens – will be quick. Without
astute intervention now, the evolution of our cities will be driven by economic
necessity and opportunism and not the result of a deliberate transformative
strategy that puts the human experience at the centre. Policies and strategies,
including incentives, which can bring the public and the private sectors
together in a shared vision, should be priority.

Incentivising developments which cater to human
considerations such as the need for social sharing and places in which human
beings can interact, leaves less room for developments driven by a purely
financial motive. It is this mindset shift that should be at the centre of our
current thinking.

To some degree we have already been sensitised to this
new way of thinking. The rapid digitisation of the economy had already begun a
process which affected the fabric of our cities and Covid-18 has significantly
accelerated this disruption to the standard property development model.

With this uncertainty, comes the extraordinary opportunity to disrupt. The social exclusion and dislocation caused by Apartheid-era planning and, in more recent years, gated communities and mega shopping malls, could be replaced by an inclusivity ignited by reprioritising the pedestrian and re-activating our streets.

Covid-19 has highlighted the need for these shared, communal spaces. Maybe now is the time to focus on all that is positive in how we interact, and factor social sharing into our architectural and planning models.

By Patrick McInerney, Christoph Malan, Catharine Atkins and Malika Walele, Co-Arc International Architect.

Source: Propertywheel.co.za | https://propertywheel.co.za/2020/09/opinion-shaking-the-foundations-time-to-change-the-structure-of-our-cities/

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