Why design is crucial for urban planning

For some time now I have been following the debate on affordable or social housing. In the blog Vision, Apartheid and Gentrification I touched upon some of the general challenges in South African housing and urban development. The last three weeks I have been talking to several experts and I have attended two conferences (Social housing and municipalities & Department of Design). I noticed that I missed one challenge in my previous post: design. This doesn’t mean interior design or art, rather it means architecture, infrastructure, use of materials, human capital and local factors. So how does design fit in with social housing and urban planning?

People who own a house are often afraid of and opposed to the development of social housing when such a development is planned ‘in their backyards’. They fear that their property rates will decrease and crime will rise in their neighbourhoods. The interesting part though is that people who rely on social housing are often negative about it too. In South Africa you don’t want to rent a house, you must own a house! It seems that social housing, or even just renting a house, isn’t very popular. How come?

Two reasons I have found: The design of social/rental housing and the ‘One man, one plot’ regulations.

1. The design of rental housing

Not all neighbourhoods with rentals are of a poor quality, but a lot are and that image sticks with people. During the conferences I attended the experts explained: ‘If you start thinking about building communities you will design so that one can’t see from the outside whether apartments are owned (buy) or rental. Also, you will include the (social) infrastructure required for that neighbourhood in your design. As a result the developed neighbourhood will look more appealing. And that will change the perception of the rental sector. It might even attract different socio-economic groups to these neighbourhoods.’

Integrated planning (Source photo: Makingsenseofresponsibility.com)

A mind map, starting point for an Integrated neighbourhood vision (Source photo: Makingsenseofresponsibility.com)

The importance of design for improving livelihoods is clearly stated by a quote from an article on South African informal settlement upgrades:

“My belonging has changed drastically because of the structure that is more beautiful than before”. (Housing and health in an informal settlement upgrade, Short & Hammet, 2013)

The more holistic approach that is referred to, is also being used in the Netherlands. For almost 10 years professionals are practicing the integrated vision for neighbourhoods. What do you as a professional, and more importantly the inhabitants, want the neighbourhood to look like? How do you refer to those preferences in your design? What does that mean in practice and what do you need to realise it? Is there anything limiting that vision? For such an integrated or holistic vision you need to work with all the different disciplines in the field. It will take time to design such a vision, as you need to include all the knowledge, views and local factors, but it does help to build clean, safe and appealing neighbourhoods that people want to live in.

2. One man one plot

But I think the negativity around rentals is mainly caused by the ‘One house, one plot’ regulation. The right of owning a house and a plot of land is even stated in the Constitution of South Africa. Because it is incorporated into the constitution, people don’t seem to accept any other form of housing. Even though it might be more suitable and cheaper.

Urban Sprawl in Cape Town. Almost no high rise buildings to be seen! Some are paying 80% of their salary only on commuting.

Urban Sprawl in Cape Town. Almost no high rise buildings to be seen! Some people are paying up to 80% of their salary on commuting to the CBD. 

I do understand where the idea is coming from in a post-Apartheid era, but I wonder if it is still the best way of ensuring that people have a decent roof above their heads, access to services and proper infrastructure. At the moment it is almost not done to even discuss this question in public. To me the right on proper housing is evident. I just think it needs to be advocated in a different way. I feel that ‘One man, one plot’ is one of the main reasons for many urban problems. (more on this in a future post)

To conclude

Don’t just start developing, think about it first. Invest to realise a great yet feasible integrated vision and plan. It will pay off by realising attractive neighbourhoods.



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