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Walking the walk of reforming South Africa’s cities : Interview with Barbara Soutworth | FUTURE CAPE TOWN




“More strategic leadership is what’s needed.” 

1742213213Urban designer and planner Barbara Southworth asserts the virtue of integrated planning that puts people first in remaking cities.

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The article was written by Michael Morris and published by Weekend Argus on April 9, 2016. Image credit: Bheki Radebe.

Apartheid planning and imported Modernist planning philosophies of the early 20th century set the scene for fragmented, hostile and sprawling cities that are costly to maintain and increasingly inefficient to use. Increasingly, society and the government found these diffuse cities alienating, wasteful and hostile, with municipal administrations battling to contain rising costs.

The ideas of planning luminaries such as David Dewar and architect and urban designer Roelof Uytenbogaardt began to come into their own, and not just in South Africa. Southworth was born in Zimbabwe, grew up and studied architecture in KwaZulu-Natal, and completed a masters in Urban Design & City Planning at UCT in the mid 1990s. She identifies among her “kin” in the extended family of like-minded Dewar/Uytenbogaardt advocates: the likes of South African urbanists Kobus Mentz, acclaimed for transforming New Zealand cities; Rob Adam, credited with changing the face of Melbourne; and Kelvin Campbell, who in England launched the “smart urbanism” movement.

These days, not least in Cape Town, everybody talks the talk: sustainable, liveable cities must be people-centric, more integrated, denser, and less reliant on cars if they are to be resilient enough to face steady urbanisation, climate and technology change, the rising cost of resources and socio-economic expectations. And yet, she observes wryly, there remains an often exasperating gap between the thinking and the doing. Southworth has much insight into public planning. Before venturing into the private space, she worked for the City of Cape Town, becoming director of Spatial Planning & Urban Design, and winning international awards.

She left the city in 2007 to set up her own consultancy, City Think Space, which in 2014 merged with architecture and urban design practice GAPP. In the two years since, she has remained engaged in the public sphere, most significantly in projects for the national Treasury, reviewing metro plans, and preparing design guides for catalytic urban precinct hubs in townships, and others in the preparation of the Provincial Spatial Development Framework (SDF) and the Drakenstein SDF. In these projects, finding “integrated” planning solutions is at the core of spending public money better in re-forming cities – especially in creating compact, mixed-use hubs that combine, say, clinic, civic facilities and transport interchanges in ways that are convenient, less costly to maintain, secure, and which attract people, stimulate investment and consolidate community stability.

Southworth has written elsewhere of sustainability “(starting) with people” and that “a truly sustainable city will put people first – prioritising collective needs over individual needs and long-term gains over short-term gains”. A telling stimulus turns out to be tax rands; under new planning law, the national Treasury disburses its hundreds of millions of rands in city-improvement grants only if cities can show through their detailed plans (Build Environment Performance Plan, or BEPP) that they are actively promoting urban integration and long-term sustainability.

Southworth also emphasises the importance of government departments collaborating in this hub-forming process, so that all public spending is aligned to the objective of supporting stable, sustainable communities.

“It’s not just about playing Big Brother to municipalities.”

“Capital investment by the public sector can be the catalyst for private investment and economic growth, but if it’s done wrong, it can create a downward spiral, with a huge impact on operating costs.”

“So, if you have a crèche here, a library there, a station further afield, and, somewhere else, a school, each has to be independently secured and maintained. But if the city is convenient and organised and services are located in a compact, integrated way, it makes things work better for people, and creates thresholds of support that make retail developments work, as it provides ‘feet to business’.”

Part of Southworth’s project with the national Treasury is writing a design guide so that the allocation of funding is aligned to new standards for, say, building a hospital that does not occupy a huge footprint, with parking area, fencing and the ensuing maintenance and security costs that go with them.

“New legislation, the Spatial Planning and Land Use Act, says you have to make it more urban; you cannot keep using all that land, and must contribute to the public environment, not undermine it.”

In her assessment, Cape Town has a lot going for it, with the emphasis on public transport and densification, and ongoing efforts to align spatial and infrastructure planning with transport routes and interchanges. Cape Town’s performance plan was “probably the best” in the country, and Southworth acknowledged that professional planning expertise in the city was unmatched. Some political decisionmaking, however, risked obscuring the commitment to integrated planning thinking.

Touching on the controversial Wescape mega-development proposal for the West Cape unveiled a few years ago, she added: “I wonder about the strategic vision, the idea of where the city is going, how we are going sustain its future for all? We need to be clear about whether mega-projects on the city’s periphery are viable in the long term?” For all the good signs in Cape Town of a meaningful shift to integrated thinking, many in the planning fraternity are anxious at what they perceive to be a contradiction in the privileging of private sector development rights and large-scale private projects – an implicit rationale that the market is always right – at the potential expense of opportunities to reform a fragmented and unequal metropole.

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“More strategic leadership is what’s needed.” 

GAPP’s work on schools asset maintenance for the provincial Transport and Public Works Department yields what she offers as an eloquent illustration of the opportunity. Drawing on a data base of provincial schools, it emerged that a quarter of the education maintenance budget goes on “external works relating to vandalism”. Schools were vulnerable, partly because of the way they were designed; isolated and fenced and difficult to secure. “Now, if you developed two sides of every school, using a mix of single, double and four-storey walk-ups, you would generate 56 000 units without having to build a kilometre of road, or any bulk service lines.”

Southworth added: “It will be argued that it’s more expensive to do microprojects of this kind, but they will not bankrupt the city in the long-term as big projects risk doing, schools will no longer have a security risk, vandalism costs will fall, and you create better, safer places for children and people in the community.”

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