Why the Legacy of Apartheid is Still a Challenge for South Africa’s Cities

Why the Legacy of Apartheid is Still a Challenge for South Africa’s Cities
Camilla Ween (LF '08) was recently at the World Festival of Ecomobility in Johannesburg, which included Africa's first ever car free event. Cars were excluded from the Central Business District for the whole of October. Her visit opened her eyes to the legacy of apartheid, and led her to pen this dispatch.

I recently took part in the Johannesburg Ecomobility World Festival. I had read that Johannesburg is a city dominated by car traffic, and I have to admit I came with preconceptions and plans to highlight examples of how Europe is changing its cities to embrace sustainable travel options. What I had not appreciated is that South Africa is still, 21 years after Mandella’s Rainbow Nation speech, living with the legacy of apartheid–its cities were built to segregate communities, blacks, whites and coloreds. Those separated communities still exist today, along with the physical barriers that separate them.

Transport is responsible for about one third of all carbon emissions, so if cities are to effectively mitigate against climate change they need to move to less carbon intensive travel and particularly less car dependency; this is now referred to as Ecomobility. Central to promoting ecomobility is encouraging walking and cycling as appealing options. For this to happen, cities need to be permeable so that journeys are as short and as direct as possible, and the urban realm must be attractive so that these trips are pleasurable. This permeability is a fundamental element of becoming a sustainable city.

Movement happens naturally when people feel they are welcome and there are no physical or psychological barriers to moving into a neighboring area. When the physical fabric of a city drastically changes or the buildings metaphorically “turn their backs on you,” there is a sense of “do not enter.”  The result is that people avoid the area by taking great detours rather than taking the direct and convenient route. Breaking down these psychological barriers is fundamental to creating an equitable city where all people can move freely everywhere. This is an urgent issue for South African cities, but also for so many of our cities that have evolved with ghettoized communities and have erected real or perceived barriers between themselves.

Changing the fabric of a city takes time, but the boundary zones can be broken down so that people feel free to cross them. When I worked on large development zones in London, one of our key objectives would always be to ensure that a new piece of city would be well integrated into the surrounding neighborhoods so that all communities could benefit from new facilities and amenities. We coined a strategy called “fuzzy boundaries,” wherein there is no discernible border or boundary between one place and another. We used a number of strategies to achieve this.

A key is to stitch together the road network, so that movement and linkages will naturally occur across the boundary; this may mean re-routing roads so that they join up. It could also simply be a matter of upgrading the quality of an existing road, by providing high quality pedestrian facilities, introducing tree planting, including continuous cycle lanes and ensuring that street lighting and street furniture is attractive. If the strip of street across a boundary zone is celebrated and treated as a gateway, then people are likely to be comfortable using it.

Another way to overcome boundary barriers is to create new urban space that clearly belongs to both communities. This can be small scale and urban, such as a new town square, market place or meeting point or it can be the introduction of open green space such as a parklet. If community or civic functions are located within these areas, they will naturally attract people from both sides of the boundary and foster interaction. The key is to lay these out so that they feel equally part of either community.

Often the boundaries will follow a natural feature such as a river, stream or ditch. If the banks of a stream are levelled and planted, these kinds of boundaries can can be turned into linear parks and become quiet movement corridors for walkers and cyclists, an alternative to the busy streets. The key is to make sure that there are regular entry points so they feel safe and become active.

When the border is a highway or a railway, the difficulty of overcoming severance is a bit more of a challenge. If highways are elevated, public access and linkage can be created underneath the highways, and public facilities–such as sports and playgrounds–can be included. The important thing is to create a thoroughfare with lots of pedestrian and cycle traffic. If highways are at grade, “flat bridges” can be introduced at regular intervals so pedestrians and cycles can cross the traffic. Introducing traffic lights will mean that vehicle traffic will be marginally slowed down, but this is a necessary price of civilizing our cities. Railways also need be crossed at regularly intervals either with over-bridges or by tunnels underneath so that they do not create long lengths of severance.

What is poignantly evident from satellite images of Johannesburg is that the wealthier areas are significantly greener. Planting trees and green infrastructure is an intervention that can make an immediate difference. Trees have multiple benefits: they create shade in hot weather, they help to reduce air pollution, they support biodiversity and they bring life and beauty to the urban environment.

These types of urban interventions are a key element of ecomobility. The appropriate interventions to break down boundaries between segregated communities will be particular to each city and each community and must employ an urban iconography that speaks to local communities. The overarching principle is to create permeability and a natural flow of people, because active areas are by nature more inclusive and welcoming. Cities must be convenient and safe for walking and cycling if people are to going to abandon their cars for a new world of sustainable mobility.

Read the Johannesburg Declaration on Ecomobility for Sustainable Citieswhich Ween helped put together. It will be presented in Paris next week at the climate summit.
Photo courtesy of Google Earth.
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