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City challenges, with Neil Fraser
21 July 2008

A new book calls for a new urban agenda, recognising that what makes cities vital in the 21st century are complexity, density, diversity of people and cultures, the messy intersection of activities, among others.

Neil FraserTHE Urban Age Project was developed primarily by the London School of Economics and Political Science and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society. Six conferences were held in 2005 and 2006, one in each of the cities on which the project focused. These were New York City, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Berlin.

After each conference a bulletin was issued "summarising the more substantive contributions and including a series of salient quotes from key speakers and participants, giving a flavour of the differing dimensions of the debate within each city". A group of "travelling experts" gave presentations, together with limited local input. The project has ultimately culminated in the publication of a recently released 600-page volume entitled The Endless City.

In regard to the conferences, the book records: "Each conference lasted for two days, with an invited audience of between 100 and 150 people drawn from the city's political, development, academic and design communities. Each conference was small enough to allow for discursive sessions among all participants and large enough to incorporate many opinions and backgrounds."

The Johannesburg conference was held at Corner House on what may have been the top floor, that had been, and probably still is, stripped bare - no floors or ceilings or finished walls and, because the plaster had been stripped from the walls, icy drafts drove into the room from the gaps around the window frames. The organisers must have been wanting the participants practically to feel part of the urban revitalisation the city was then starting to experience by using this shell of a glorious building from our past (which to my knowledge is still in that state!).

In my case, all I remember was having a mild dose of the 'flu at the time, and the freezing venue didn't help to improve my temper nor my participation. The first day had started badly enough, in that I had the wrong date in my diary to lead the "travelling experts" on a tour of the inner city. Then, when we got the tour going belatedly from the travelling experts' Rosebank hotel, I had to listen in horror as a burly security officer (white) assured the participants that he and his armed colleagues would be just behind the bus in an appropriately kitted out security truck and would be shadowing their every move. He clearly felt that the risk factor was so high that he had to provide the kind of instructions that would make any participant more than merely apprehensive.

In fact, when one of the "travelling experts" later shared his impressions of the city with the conference, he said that it was the first city he had ever visited that had found it necessary to provide such cover. Not only was it not necessary, nor was the over-the-top security "briefing" or "support" arranged by the city, but it also created a totally skewed perspective of what they were going to see.

The book cleverly uses statistics in a compelling way. Thus the cover comprises a series of 22 statistics dominated by those that relate to urbanisation - "10% lived in cities in 1900; 50% is living in cities in 2007; 75% will be living in cities in 2050". But, sadly, a negative bias infiltrates the reporting on Johannesburg.

Johannesburg's "statistical page" is, believe it or not, "69% of office space was in the Central Business District in 1990; 30% of office space was in the Central Business District in 2000; 22% of office space was in the Central Business District in 2005". Why not that Johannesburg's average annual gross value added growth from 1996 to 2001 was 4,2 percent and from 2001 to 2004, 5,3 percent? Why not that the percentage of households without water on site had dropped from 15,52 percent in 2001 to 4,96 percent in 2004? It is bad enough when locals can only see the negatives in a sea of positives - we don't need help from the international community!

In the same vein, the author of one of the articles on Johannesburg (now an ex-local), addressing inner city commercial space, provides this comment: "For instance, a derelict seven-storey office block next to the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Braamfontein, draped in advertising since 2003 has, in three years, rewarded its owner six times over. Far more lucrative and far less troublesome than recommissioning and letting, this has become a widely used model of urban regeneration producing a kind of 'post-architectural' city in the making."

A widely used model of urban generation? Come off it! Maybe three buildings in nearly 2 000.

My problem with such publications and reports is twofold. They come out way after the event (now all of four years) during which time, in our case certainly, change has accelerated, but are absorbed into the world of reference books and academia from whence they are endlessly quoted as the status quo. For instance, the last chapter of the book is accompanied by a photograph of the Ponte atrium taken from the bottom, looking up; it is captioned: "The Ponti [sic] tower in downtown Johannesburg - a white middle class housing project taken over by illegal black African immigrants - epitomises the tensions and opportunities of the twenty-first city".

In The Star of 17 July, is the same picture but taken from the top down, illustrating a story headed: "The full Ponte: new lease of life for landmark - a pianist in the lobby, a climbing wall, a gym, several shops and restaurants, a children's playground ... " Now that's what Joeys is all about!

Now that I've got that off my chest, (am I being overly sensitive or defensive?), the book actually provides a very useful and important contribution to the way we approach and deal with many of the urban issues with which we all struggle. "Informality and its Discontents", for instance, suggests "that informality defines the urban landscape of many global cities with hawkers occupying interstitial nodes that are either unanticipated or undermined by urban designers and city regulators".

The chapter ends with this statement: "Undoubtedly, the growth of future cities depends on how well we are able to plan for the unplanned. The generic theme evolving from Asia, Latin America and Africa is that as cities expand, the 'informal' sector grows faster than the 'formal' sector. This means that our plans will need paradigmatic change to deal with the heterogeneous housing and mobility needs of growing city populations. We will have to plan spaces for activities that cannot always be well-defined and predicted. It is better to plan for what is inevitable rather to turn a blind eye to the future."

Immensely thought provoking is the final chapter in the book, written by Bruce Katz, Andy Altman and Julie Wagner and entitled "An Agenda for the Urban Age".

The proposition it offers is that the 21st century, with more than half of the world's population living in cities, will be the urban age with the emerging conurbations as the vehicles for addressing the major challenges that face the world today; extending economic prosperity, promoting environmental sustainability and reducing poverty. But, that cities lack a coherent roadmap to realise the promise of the urban age ... "our primary conclusion is that there are broad disconnects between urban change on the one hand and urban policy and practice on the other. These disconnects are magnified at national and multinational levels where specialised and one-dimensional policies dominate. As a result, the promise of cities is systematically undermined ... In an urban age, the battles to achieve the highest aspirations of the twenty-first century and beyond will be fought - and won or lost - in our cities.

  • There is a sharp disconnect between the challenges of the urban age and our current set of urban solutions
  • There is a disconnect between policies intended to promote economic growth, policies designed to advance environmental sustainability and policies aimed at reducing poverty
  • There is a disconnect between the complexity of challenges and the narrow responses that dominate urban policy
  • There is a disconnect between the artificial geography of government, and the real footprint of the economy and environment
  • In the twenty first century, markets are moving quickly to reshape and remake urban places. Yet urban policy and urban governance appear stuck somewhere in the twentieth century. The lag between transformational change and governmental action is immense."

New urban agenda
These really apply to us - so how do we address these issues, these disconnects? The authors suggest a new urban agenda - starting with the people responsible for delivering the urban agenda - moving from specialists and technicians, "who interpret and strive to fix discrete problems such as traffic congestion or slum housing", to generalists, "who see the connections between challenges and who work to devise and implement policies that advance multiple objectives simultaneously".

"Imagine networks of city builders who cut across disciplines, programmes, practices and professions. These city builders will perfect new ways of 'reading' cities, deploy new metrics and measures to diagnose city assets and ailments, and gauge city progress". " ... We need to arm city builders with programmes and policies that champion integration and holistic thinking".

To produce such people we need to find institutional vehicles that can deliver multidisciplinary learning; our existing academia is just too fraught with "artificial divisions between separate schools, professions curricula, departments and self-defeating fiefdoms."

"Making linkages and connections between policies must be the norm, not the exception reinforced by incentives and new structures and systems ... The vertical silo driven bureaucracies of the past century need to be laid horizontal. In many respects, closing the divide between related but separately administered policies is as important as bridging the partisan and ideological divides that characterise so many countries and undermine urban success."

"We see today that what makes cities vital in the twenty-first century are those very tributes of urbanism that we destroyed in the twentieth century. Complexity. Density. Diversity of people and cultures. The convergence of the physical environment at multiple scales. The messy intersection of activities. A variance of distinctive designs. The layering of the old and new. These are the physical elements that advance competitive, sustainable and inclusive cities."

Cheers, Neil

PS: The good news appears to be that the University of the Witwatersrand has no intention of demolishing the Tower of Light (although some of the sources of that story emanated from Wits itself!). I received a wonderful letter from the deputy chancellor, finance and operations: "We therefore take extreme offence at such piece of unfounded and malicious disinformation being circulated in your otherwise admirable newsletter.

"I would like to request an absolutely grovelling apology sent on the same subscription list - I say ¬Ďabsolutely grovelling' as you have not only carelessly impugned our planning and heritage intentions on the basis of zilch evidence or factuality, but you have also insulted the intelligence of an organisation that stands as an uncompromising beacon of knowledge in our city and society."

The article was neither unfounded nor malicious, but the heritage lobby is so delighted at your assurances that I happily prostrate myself before you!

Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust
A tribute to Nelson Mandela: this day-long bus tour takes place on Saturday, 26 July, to celebrate Madiba's 90th birthday.

The tour includes:

  • A visit to the house in Alex where a young Mandela lived in the 1940s.
  • A visit to Liliesleaf Farm, hidden away in Johannesburg's northern suburbs, which became the high command of UmKhonto we Sizwe. The tour will re-live the police raid on the farm, on 11 July 1963, which resulted in the Rivonia Trial in which Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.
  • A visit to the Johannesburg Fort, were Mandela spent time as a prisoner. At the jail, A Prisoners Lunch will be served on tin plates, with coffee in tin mugs.
  • There will be a quick look at the treason trial, in which 156 prisoners opposed to apartheid, including Mandela, tell their story.
  • A visit to Vilakazi Street, Soweto, the only street in the world that boasts two Nobel Peace Prize winners as residents - Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
  • Time permitting, the bus will drive past the home Madiba occupied during his tenure as president.

The cost of the tour is R320 each and booking is at Computicket, on 083 915 8000 or 011 340 8000, or through the Computicket website.

Meet David Forrest at Sunnyside Park Hotel, 2 York Road, Parktown at 8.30am for departure at 9am. For more information, telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

Brixton Cemetery: this is a walking tour on Saturday, 26 July

"For all our graveyard fans we'll be exploring the sunny side of Brixton Cemetery. Secretary to the Joburg Sanitary Board, a man named Adolph who banned the first motorcars - not in our borders! Most graciously laid out in 1910 with avenues for the wealthy families, smaller plots for the less consequential and lots of fascinating individual headstones. We can't resist removing the ivy to find who is underneath and if you bring gardening gloves and secateurs and help us clear some foliage, we'll consider a R10 discount!"

The cost is R75 and booking is at Computicket. Meet Val Hammerton, Flo Bird and pathfinder Sarah Welham at 2pm at the corner of Krause and 17th streets (it becomes Bartlett west of this point), Brixton. For more information, telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

Billiton's Art Collection: this is a walking tour, on Saturday, 2 August

Natasha Fuller, the curator of Billiton's art treasures in its building on Hollard Street, leads a small group of members through this exciting collection. There are large works rising up in the atrium, smaller paintings in offices, on the landings and the passages so it involves winding through the building. Numbers are strictly limited, so book early. Please note that no drinks, eats, et cetera are permitted.

The cost is R75 and booking is through the trust's office with Eira Bond on 011 482 3349 as it will be necessary to provide your car registration details. Meet Gill Sagar and Dennis at 17 Simmonds Street (between Main and Marshall streets) outside the basement and enter together at the same time. No late comers will be allowed in.

Melville Koppies: annual general meeting on Saturday, 16 August

Melville Koppies is holding its AGM, and Sue Krige has kindly agreed to bring a group to do a presentation, "The Sophiatown experience in conjunction with the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre". St Joseph's Home and Sophiatown border on part of Melville Koppies West, so we are all linked in the past and present.

The AGM will be held at the lecture hut, Melville Koppies Central, at 2pm. Park in Kafue Road, Emmarentia.

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Last Updated on 21 July 2008