Careless, unexamined expansion threatens cities

THERE is growing momentum within government behind the idea of megaprojects to accelerate the delivery of human settlements, yet a surprising absence of public debate about the approach and its implications.

A forceful human settlements minister with a sense of urgency appears to have struck a chord in these uncertain times. Bold housing initiatives are bound to attract many discontented voters trapped in miserable shack settlements. The prospect of a decent home in a secure environment must have powerful appeal in the midst of hardship and frustration.

First announced by Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu in her budget speech last year, the simple logic behind megaprojects is reasonably clear, although crucial details are hard to come by and the apparent lack of a policy framework, prior planning and technical preparation is striking.

The premise is that there is a growing housing backlog of between 2-million and 3-million units. This is attributed to an expanding population coinciding with a decline in house building.

The supply of new housing has fallen over the past decade because the government’s RDP and Breaking New Ground (BNG) programme has run into the sand and private construction has been hit by the economic downturn.

The housing shortfall is largest in the big cities because of urbanisation, constrained municipal capabilities and problems in obtaining land for development.

Ms Sisulu and her colleagues believe that the best way to ramp up the supply of housing is through big schemes. She has appealed for a Marshall Plan to deliver an unprecedented 1.5-million homes over the next five years.

South African cities clearly need more affordable housing, but are these assumptions correct?

Is this the right time to be launching a mass housing drive?

How will it be financed, and is housing the right sector to lead the economy out of recession?

What are the implications for the structure and viability of our cities and towns?

We know backyard dwellings are included in the backlog number. But in many places they should be regarded as part of the solution rather than the problem, since they have created a useful market for low-income rental housing.

THE megaproject promise is to cut unit costs and fast-track delivery at all stages of housing provision by streamlining administrative procedures. Combined with the lack of preparatory work, this increases the risk of problematic outcomes.

Could vital social, environmental and financial safeguards be com-promised by overhasty processes?

South African human settlements have suffered in recent years from poor co-ordination within the government. Megaproject procedures suggest centralisation of control at national level. Yet the National Development Plan (NDP) and subsequent legislation assigned responsibility for spatial planning and land-use control to municipalities so as to improve integration.

The provinces and private developers have come forward with 77 proposals for big urban expansion schemes, about 40 of which are in Gauteng. Each contains 15,000-60,000 housing units — a mixture of RDP/BNG houses, subsidised bonded houses, rental property and serviced sites.

THE commitment to mixed neighbourhoods is commendable, along with the desire to train young people, support women enterprises and tighten contractual relationships with building companies.

A major concern is the weak economic foundations of the megaproject model. These schemes seem to tackle one dimension of urban development only. Shelter and liveability objectives overshadow the need for economic growth and social transformation.

A housing agenda intent on speedy delivery could threaten the long-term prosperity of our cities.

The single-minded focus on boosting the quantity of housing necessitates large amounts of cheap land that is easy to assemble and quick to build upon. This implies free-standing greenfield sites on the urban periphery, where there is little competition from other land users, and no prospect of objection from nearby communities.

This will weaken the fundamental basis on which successful cities are built, namely proximity. Above all, cities are economic entities that generate jobs, which is why people migrate to them. Urban prosperity depends on intense interactions between people and firms.

ECONOMIC growth in cities is driven by productivity and the efficient use of land. Density and concentration reduce transport costs and promote human interaction. They also limit the costs of bulk infrastructure and public services. This is vital for national economic competitiveness, as well as for social inclusion.

The NDP made it crystal clear that SA’s legacy of sprawling, fragmented and segregated cities requires a concerted effort to promote more compact and integrated human settlements.

Megaprojects may deliver some procedural efficiencies for the government, but at the expense of long-term inefficiency for households through lengthy journeys to work, and a brake on the productivity of the economy from sprawl and traffic congestion.

The fiscal sustainability of municipalities is also at risk from the extra costs of installing and maintaining dispersed infrastructure networks in the new housing estates, on top of the package of free basic services to poor households.

Thinking of a way forward, the government needs to position its investment in better human settlements in a broader citywide agenda that pays heed to issues of urban transformation, competitiveness and jobs, alongside shelter and liveability. In short, the country needs a Marshall Plan for building better cities, not just more houses.

• Prof Turok is acting executive director, economic performance and development, at the Human Sciences Research Council



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