Vision, Apartheid and Gentrification

This week I have attended the conference “Spatial Tranformation of Cities Conference” in Johannesburg. It was about the city and its challenges such as public transport, housing, diversity, inclusive neighbourhoods etc. Besides local professionals, several professors were flown in from Brazil, Thailand, India, Belgium and the UK. In general it was a mixed audience (academic/practitioners/government/private) that attended the conference.

It started off with the City Challenge. 2summers described the day very well in her blog and the Challenge certainly opened my eyes too. I’m used to traveling with minibuses, taxis and other informal forms of public transport in other African countries, but I haven’t used it here because everybody warned me NOT to. It turned out to be a wonderful experience and I do intend to use the public transport more often.

The other two days were as you would expect from a conference; many presentations by various knowledgeable speakers, questions and (some) discussions.  Everything was new and interesting to me. I basically got a crash course on the topics for cities South African cities, and particularly Johannesburg.

I wanted to share the three most remarkable themes that triggered me during the conference. And I noticed that it wasn’t only me who got triggered. Over a beer at the end of the day the discussions were very interesting and intense.

  1. Underpinned vision: The city has a vision, which is called “Corridors of Freedom”. It wants to create large nodes of public transport, so called Rea Vaya (fast buses). During the conference it became clear that not all required research had been conducted to decide why and where those corridors should be constructed. In other words, the city had not done its homework properly: what kind of transport is suitable in certain areas, how many people would use public transport, if the Rea Vaya is the best way of public transport etc.  As professor Atkinson said: “Do your research, choose smaller projects and execute them well.”

    One of the many slides during the conference. But this one is clear and powerful.

    One of the many slides during the conference. This one is clear and powerful.

  2. Apartheid: The division between classes and races is still very much in the veins of everybody in South Africa. Definitely the Apartheid planning has done no good to the cities. The cities need to re-organise their urban planning so that they can become diverse and inclusive. I started wondering if using the terms ‘poor’, ‘rich’, ‘white’ and ‘black’ might be holding back the developments in the country instead of being an inspiration and a motivation to overcome the effects of the Apartheid era.
  3. Gentrification: The word gentrification has a very negative connotation here in South Africa. Most definitions talk about the restoration or renewal of old buildings/neighbourhoods which attracts middle-income and wealthier people which in turn often leads to a change of identity of the neighbourhood. It could mean that the existing residents are being displaced, but this is not always the case! It can also mean that with the arrival of middle-income households the investments in the area can increase and that local businesses and people can benefit hugely. During my three months here in South Africa, I have not once heard someone talking about gentrification in a positive way. Of course there is a fine line between the negative and  positive effects of gentrification, but if nothing would happen these areas often decline even more. So lets start to think of gentrification as an opportunity to create more diversity!

So back to work!

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