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The changing city, part one
30 April 2007

Far from being a recent problem, the decline of the inner city had its roots way back in the 1950s, and some short-sighted decisions were made by the council of the time..

Neil Fraser
About Citichat

NEIL Fraser is a partner in 'Neil Fraser & Associates trading as Urban Inc', an urban consultancy dedicated to the revitalisation and regeneration of cities and of the inner city of Johannesburg in particular. He can be contacted on 083 456 0242 or 011 444 4895 or by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Citichat is a free weekly publication concerning cities generally and Johannesburg specifically. Please forward Citichat to your colleagues who may wish to be placed on the subscription list. To subscribe please contact us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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I HAVEN'T wanted to pre-empt anything that might be part of the Mayoral Inner City Summit and Charter, now just a few days away. That's quite difficult, as over the past few months my whole life - and this last month in particular - seems to have revolved around various aspects related to the summit, with little to no time to concentrate on any other issues.

However, one issue that I thought I might share with you is that of the changes that the inner city is undergoing. This week I want to look at some of the basic reasons for the decline of the inner city. Then, next week, I'll look at the responses to the changes brought about by the decline - almost as an introduction to the summit, which will commit to appropriate action over the next five to 10 years.

Let's start with the reasons for decline, many of which are dealt with in detail in Keith Beavon's excellent book Johannesburg, the Making and Shaping of a City.

As I have often said, a number of people like to blame the decline of the city on the 1994 change of government. Nothing could be further from the truth. After decades of explosive growth, the "seeds of decline" actually started in the 1950s and were compounded each decade until the actual decline "took root" in the 1980s. By the 1990s urban decay "blossomed" and it wasn't until 2000 that an axe was firmly taken to start cutting away the rot and new growth started to appear. So it's back to the1950s.

The 1950s

The decision to relocate the City council offices from the CBD to Braamfontein was seen at the time by many in the private sector as a vote of no confidence by the authorities in the central business district. Although the actual move only took place in 1972 - 22 years being a good period for the public sector of the time to translate decisions into action - a number of CBD-based corporations followed the council's lead and relocated to Braamfontein prior to the council's move.

These included Eskom, South African Breweries (SAB), Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and Shell. I have made the comment before that often, major decisions appear to be taken without fully taking into account their long-term consequences. A decision, instead, to consolidate the City's presence in the CBD could have had far more positive long-term consequences. But monuments to regimes are far more appealing.

At the time of the council's 1950 decision there were only 4 923 square metres of office space in Braamfontein. By 1965 this figure had mushroomed to 163 113 square metres - most of it at the CBD's expense.

The 1960s

The philosophy that predicated the layout of Johannesburg as a mining town - narrow streets, small erven and small city blocks - together with subsequent town planning regulations to curb the height of buildings, had acted as a brake on development.

In the 1960s the town planning regulations were finally changed to allow for taller buildings that could accommodate allowable bulk. This started a new building boom that included the construction of some 60 tower blocks. By the mid-1960s the "boom" had increased the available office space of the 1950s by a third.

In the late 1960s, however, an ill-conceived and poorly managed parking policy was introduced that permitted a low maximum number of basement parking bays in any new development. An extremely poor public transportation system, together with a propensity for businessmen to want to have their motor vehicles located in the same buildings in which they worked, resulted in developers looking further afield to where planning was more permissive. We still suffer the consequences of this policy today, with hopelessly inadequate parking in the city.

The 1970s

The traditional central business district, or CBD, was roughly the area of the original two mining camps laid out in the mid-1880s. In the 1970s the SABC headquarters moved out of this CBD and the City council finally moved to Braamfontein - together they contributed to a loss of some 5 000 persons from the CBD.

The Carlton Centre, perceived by its developers as a large enough intervention to shift the centre of gravity of the CBD further east, was completed at a time when the city's most prestigious department stores were already relocating to the suburbs. It thus not only did not have the desired influence on the city's retail sector, but also drove property prices in its vicinity extremely high.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange, widely expected to follow the move of the Carlton Centre eastwards, decided instead to move west, just outside of the traditional CBD boundary, where land was cheaper. The United Building Society, however, moved even further east of the Carlton, where Absa was eventually to consolidate its corporate head office campus.

Sanlam moved its corporate offices from its core CBD location into a new building north of the Carlton while Standard Bank bought ground to the south of the traditional CBD for its future superblock.

Thus, instead of a clustering of activities that one finds in most major cities, the dominant developments in Joburg of the 1970s were to spread and locate at the four corners of the traditional CBD. The result was a stretching or dispersal of the traditional CBD to a point that it could no longer act coherently and efficiently, particularly in view of the lack of public transport. This dispersal was also to have a major affect on retail patterns.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, the trickle of decentralisation started in the previous few decades turned into a flood. Decentralised shopping malls near to places of residence were far more convenient for shopper-workers who had been spread to the four extremities of the CBD.

In the early 1980s, Greatermans, Stuttafords and John Orrs closed their CBD stores and the order of retailing in the city declined. Office accommodation followed the retail. The result was that, between 1981 and 1984, there were 431 000 square metres of office space under construction in the suburbs, compared to less than half that, 205 000, in the CBD and Braamfontein.

An important sector that was affected by the downscaling in retail during this period was the medical sector. Previously, patients had combined their medical visits to the CBD with shopping. With the decline of CBD retail they were not keen to visit the CBD at all and the medical profession basically moved north. This sector was not to recover until 2005-6.

The 1990s

The last decade was a period during which the inner city was in free fall.

From a political point of view, the last of the city's non-representative councils appeared to be in paralysis - clearly it didn't want to do anything that might affect the "new" electorate (and their chances of re-election, as remote as these were), so they preferred to do nothing.

As a result there was absolutely no urban management in operation in the inner city; by-laws such as those related to informal trading were not repealed but simply were not enforced, resulting in a massive uncontrolled and unmanaged spiral of traders on the city's pavements, in turn resulting in an acceleration of retail exiting the inner city.

Taxis commandeered roads and pavements as ranking areas and the inner city was dirty, neglected and unsafe.

The "political paralysis" in so far as the inner city was concerned, continued into the second half of the decade when the first of the democratically elected councils focused its attention, understandably, on restructuring the apartheid structures it had inherited. Regrettably, the structures that it initially introduced were to have a major negative effect on the inner city.

The unmanaged state of the inner city continued. Blocks of flats were hi-jacked by militant tenants placing rentals in specially created accounts at best, or refusing to pay rentals at all at worst. Landlord-tenant relationships plunged and many properties were left without services as property owners struggled to come to grips with the changing scenario.

Financial institutions withdrew from the market and an extensive period of "red-lining" of most of the inner city was imposed - always denied by the institutions.

Prime office rentals slipped back to levels last experienced three to five years previously and vacancies increased dramatically as an increasing number of businesses moved elsewhere as soon as their leases permitted them to do so.

The Johannesburg Sun Hotel was downgraded from five to one star and the Carlton Hotel steadily lost its core clients - the airline crews - who relocated to hotels to the north; eventually both hotels closed. Even prostitutes started abandoning the inner city, moving north to areas in which new hotels were flourishing.

The legal sector followed the medical sector in relocating to the north.

Structurally, the traditional CBD imploded - major initiatives had been focused on its four corners with the result that the traditional core was dramatically weakened. Now many of the major institutions heavily invested in the traditional core, started to disinvest. In a 1999 Economic Review of the Inner City, Professor Richard Tomlinson made the following comment:

"The Johannesburg CBD is essentially owned and controlled by 20 major landowners, of which the most notable are Old Mutual, Anglo American, First National Bank, JCI, Sage, Sanlam and Standard Bank." Next week I will look at how this "owning and controlling" by the 20 major landowners ended, and at the structural changes to the inner city that the 2000s heralded.

I trust you had a wonderful and safe long weekend.

Cheers, Neil


Walking and bus tours by the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust

The costs below are for members and non-members respectively. Bookings can be made at Computicket on 011 340 8000 or through the Computicket website.

For more information, phone 011 482 3349 in the mornings only.

Saturday, 5 May: Take a walking tour of St Andrews School. Meet at 2pm at the school's gate in Johnson Road, Senderwood; the tour lasts about three hours and costs R50 and R70. In 1920 the school moved into this 1903 mansion designed by Sir Herbert Baker for Sir George Farrar.

Saturday, 12 May: Benoni - Son of my Sorrow is a bus tour. Meet at 11am at the Sunnyside Park Hotel in Parktown; the tour lasts about five-and-a-half hours and costs R160 and R180, including a picnic lunch.



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Last Updated on 05 June 2007