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Where’s the consultation and evidence for new cities?

Isandla Institute | 2023-06-21 | 604 views

Human Settlements Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi announced on the sidelines of the recent UN Habitat Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya that South Africa needs to create new cities, as “the country can not continue to rely on the current cities which are overpopulated” and “has to grow better”. The Minister stated that new cities will reduce migration to provinces such as Gauteng, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal, by people in search of better socio-economic opportunities. Minister Kubayi elaborated that talks are currently underway to test the feasibility of the plan, and that the National Department of Human Settlements “will make an announcement when [it is] ready”, and that lessons could be learnt from other countries, including others in Africa where new cities have been developed. But where has the broad and meaningful consultation been around new cities? And what is the evidence base for proposing new cities in South Africa?

This announcement is the latest in a growing state narrative promoting new cities for South Africa. In his 2019 state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a vision of constructing a new smart city. He has since announced the conceptualisation of a number of new cities across the country, from Gauteng to Mpumalanga and the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape.

Developing new cities on vacant land seems appealing, as they can supposedly provide housing and jobs at scale and seem less messy with possibly less public contestation. But that doesn’t make them a good idea. Can the country afford the associated high costs to the fiscus, and the diversion of critical attention and resources from improving the state of infrastructure of existing cities, clearly a more urgent priority, as well as other urban challenges? Will lower income households be able to afford to live in new cities? Will they have a viable socio-economic base? Will people be expected to abandon their existing socio-economic networks to move to a new city that may take many years to be developed and the success of which is not certain?

Cities have mostly evolved over time due to a specific local characteristic, which is often also the basis for the local economy. When new cities have been created this has been for several reasons, often linked to, among others, colonialism, political ideology, or attempts to reduce “over-population” and congestion. Think of the many Apartheid new towns including the single-industry Welkom, Vanderbijlpark, Sasolburg and Secunda. In the last 30 years, most new city development has occurred in East Asia and the Middle East, with a growing number proposed in Africa. While a number of these have had documented issues, the track record in Africa is particularly poor. The proposals keep on coming, and recently it was reported that the African Union and a Singaporean state-owned conglomerate are considering investing in a plan to develop as many as 123 new cities across Africa over the next 20 years at a cost of around R2.9 trillion. The plan was developed by Cape Town-based Africa123, an entity involving the same key individuals who are behind the heavily criticised Wescape development 20km north of Cape Town, now re-named Milkwood City. Land for three new towns in Ghana has been secured and the plan is to build 800,000 residential units to house 3 million people.

The lessons are quite clear. New cities depend heavily on context, and have worked better in East Asian countries with rapid economic and population growth, with significant resources for infrastructure development and local economic growth. Developing new cities is highly risky, and we rather need to work with the challenges facing existing cities. New cities will not be able to replace the need to improve existing cities, so it’s not a panacea. While it may be messier, we need to sustainably densify our cities, with associated amenities, and ensure that lower income people have better access to well-located housing and economic opportunities, including through improving public transport, as part of a just urban transition to more sustainable and resilient cities. The costs may be significant but are less costly than building new cities from scratch – which in any event will never be able to replace the need to improve socio-economic conditions in existing cities.

Addressing housing and other urban challenges in our country requires meaningful engagement and evidence. We need to engage the difficult and messy task of making cities work and provide better for poor and low-income households through, among others, informal settlement upgrading, support and enablement of backyard, social and affordable housing, and much needed improvements to transport and other infrastructure, to enable real socio-economic and spatial transformation.

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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