“Building a city from scratch sounds like a mammoth task, and for good reason”
Joseph Spring interrogates the Modderfontein Smart City, a massive 1600-hectare piece of land now owned by Chinese development firm Zendai, juxtaposed with the Modderfontein Nature Reserve.
by Joseph Spring
Building a city from scratch sounds like a mammoth task, and for good reason.
The world has seen it happen, in places such as Dubai and in some form across Africa, but we have also seen how long it can take. What makes an African mammoth, if there were such a beast, even more imposing is the limited confines of where it is going to be placed.
Gauteng hardly seems the ideal place for an expansive development such as a whole city – we already have three, with corridor development having turned the province nearly into a contiguous conurbation. However, the spatial development framework shows an area that is largely undeveloped, to the South-East of Midrand. It is a massive 1600-hectare piece of land now owned by Chinese development firm Zendai, juxtaposed with the Modderfontein Nature Reserve. With the acquisition of the land, Zendai inherited the city building project from previous contenders Heartland, and the master plan for this area has gone through a number of developments in the past decade.
Modderfontein Smart City
The current iteration of the 45-year plan is being presented to the public, and stakeholder consultations are underway. (Read a full project update here )
With a structured plan of five phases (an initial five years and four decades thereafter), the firm and their consulting partners, Atkins, envisage the gradual development of a city that is geared away from vehicular transport, toward public transit, cycling and pedestrianisation. This intention is reinforced by the plan to extend Marlboro drive just short of Allandale Rd, only making that connection if it is really needed in 2050-2060.
In the short term, this has the potential to increase the burden of traffic on surrounding roads, rather than aiding the interconnectivity of the wider area. If the plans go ahead, it will be interesting to see how much uptake there is from the initial 5000 households when it comes to ditching the car keys and opting for trains and other forms of transport. More than just the simple questions of where people will need to commute to, the difficulty of which should not be underestimated. Cycling infrastructure and good public systems will facilitate the to move away from the unsustainable culture of many individual motorised vehicles, but there will need to be strong public engagement and promotion to ensure that the critical first residents set a trend.
“Modderfontein must be a place of intense, productive and vibrant uses with good social integration.” ‐‐ Liana Strydom, COJ: Development Planning
According to the Financial Mail, around 50ha of a total 180ha land parcel behind Linbro Park, known as Long Lake, will be launched for residential, retail and warehouse developments within the next six months. The development is expected to eventually house 100 000 people and have a completed value exceeding R84bn.
Sustainable transport model
The importance of the shift towards public transit and non-motorised transport gained international prominence last week as Johannesburg hosted the Eco-Mobility Month and conference by closing down parts of Sandton, the economic heartbeat of Africa. Thomas Coggin in a recent article described this month as “a critical exercise” because it “places public transport and the spatial environment of our cities at the forefront of what is important.”
“The question that needs to be asked is whether public transport and the spatial environment are as welcoming to the commuter and pedestrian as the motorway is to the driver and car. It demonstrates that our preoccupation with the private motor vehicle is not only unsustainable, but that it creates an isolated and divided city. Although using a private motor vehicle is clearly a matter of personal choice, we nevertheless do not interact with each other within the spatial environment when we make this choice. Instead, we stay locked in our ‘tracked motor vehicle’ commuting between our high-walled suburban home and our secured office park.”
Apart from transport networks, the developers also need to plan out utilities and public-private services, all of which need to be developed alongside the residential, commercial, and industrial areas which have been mapped out. The number of schools will need to support a large new population (30,000 households in Modderfontein), as well as overflow demands from areas such as Waterfall, where residents are eagerly awaiting a second school to relieve the waiting list from the 4-year old Reddam Waterfall. Likewise, will the clinics and police stations be sufficient, and more importantly – can Zendai develop these at the right pace so that they are neither too early and disused, nor too late and immature when really needed?
The risk, of course, is a chicken-and-egg situation, whereby the first residents may not provide the necessary demand to keep the fledgling systems running.
Planning the future city: a 45-year plan
The 45-year plan is necessarily fluid, to account for multiple futures that may come true. Thinking about multiple futures means adapting to what direction things might take – will there be a boom in a certain industry, a move towards home-schooling, a new mode of transport developed? The developers will need to adjust according to the city’s demands as well as the changes in culture and technology. Fluidity is an asset to wise planning, but we should also remember it can be an excuse for accountability.
The plans are promising, with improvements to ecology and economy, but the balance needs to be maintained and priories need to be set, with any number of possible futures. In order for the stakeholders to buy into the development, trust and sincerity are required: with them, this could be an amazing implementation of good philosophy; without them, it could be a missed or spoiled opportunity.
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