Lessons from Johannesburg’s new plan to fight sprawl

A new plan aims to guide more compact, transit-oriented development of Johannesburg through 2040. (Magdalena Paluchowska/Shutterstock.com)

Johannesburg is South Africa’s biggest city and its economic powerhouse. It is known as the “City of Gold,” due to the gold mines that surround it. But it is not a land of riches for many of its inhabitants.

Burdened by the legacy of apartheid-era urban planning, which resulted in poor, mainly black residents living on the city outskirts, Johannesburg shows symptoms of spatial inequality. Most of the city’s poor continue to live on the urban edge, far removed from economic opportunities, and are stuck with long and expensive commutes to work and schools.

The city aims to change that. It has plans to re-engineer the urban fabric over the long-term, based on its Spatial Development Framework 2040. The document was released in July, and was presented this week at the United Nations’ Habitat III conference on cities.

The framework envisages a city that is “spatially just, efficient, resilient and sustainable.” It lays the groundwork for reversing the trends of sprawling low-density development, and predominance of car-based transport. It aims for more compact development and more mixing of land uses, while directing future urban growth toward the urban core. It also plots the way for concentrating new development around transit stations.

“We consider this a global example,” says Rogier van den Berg, project leader of the Urban Planning and Design LAB at UN-Habitat, which collaborated with city government on the framework. “It is very strategic, and the process we went through lasted only a year.”

Johannesburg’s experience in plotting a new urban future has lessons for other cities that are looking to transform the urban space. Here are five of them.

1. Get the data

Before deciding on how to intervene in certain areas it was key for city planners to have a clear understanding of what conditions on the ground they were working with, explains Herman Pienaar, director of the city’s transformation and spatial planning unit. It’s important to get data that doesn’t come from official channels like the census, he says.

“You need to tap into the informal sector and at least have people there that understand the dynamics of things,“ he says. The city also used data and research from universities and civil society groups.

2. Participatory planning is key

When devising the framework, city officials met with various stakeholders, holding a series of working sessions. Stakeholders included planners, bankers, developers, environmental groups, provincial government departments, and other city departments.

“When you plan for a whole metropolitan area it’s difficult to do a participation at a very detailed level,” says Pienaar. “But we put together reference groups from very different people in society. Not only people with a development interest, but also artists and writers to come in and represent various parts of the community, and also people that represent homeless communities.”

It also held a public participation process to get comments on a draft.

3. Do a few things and do them well

While the new framework aims to overhaul the urban system, it strategically targets certain, well-defined urban areas. Or, as van den Berg says, it must require a “radical shift” from the way things are done now while still being realistic.

When developing such a plan, it’s key to have a “sound, principle-based idea of how you want to develop the city,” and then make sure those principles translate at an individual project level in targeted neighborhoods, explains Herman Pienaar, director of the city’s transformation and spatial planning unit.

4. Align the budget

Encouraging growth in certain areas requires investments in parks, sports grounds, libraries and transit systems. But financing urban interventions is always tough for local governments. For capital investment, one-third of the funding for the framework’s implementation comes from intergovernmental grants. The rest comes from the city’s cash reserves or loans, according to Pienaar.

“There are so many cities that have really good plans but the budget gets decided by the Chief Financial Officer, who’s a bean counter, with all due respect,” Pienaar says.  “If you don’t have a strong enough planning department within your set-up that can dictate, in some instances, and really lead other departments that need to contribute to the urban environment, then you’ve got a problem.”

5. Political continuity matters

Johannesburg’s local government is in transition, as former Mayor Parks Tau lost a reelection bid in August. (Tau, who was elected to lead the global association United Cities and Local Governments last week, remains on the city council.) The opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, took control of the city under the leadership of a new mayor, Herman Mashaba.

City leaders maintain that this political shift will not disrupt the 2040 vision.

“If you look at the new political manifesto, it has the same kind of language,” says Pienaar. “There is maybe a bit more emphasis on economic growth, but that’s the way we wanted to go anyway.”

While Johannesburg’s spatial development framework offers a comprehensive vision for sustainable urban development, some are concerned that the city will not be able to say no when private developers offer competing plans.

“My main concern is that this new administration does not take [the Sustainable Development Framework] to heart as much as it should,” says Thomas Coggin, who comes from Johannesburg, and is a fellow at Fordham University’s Urban Law Center.

Typically, the interests that back up the Democratic Alliance are private-sector white capital, he says. “If you say ‘inclusionary housing’ to your big property developers in the city — I’m not sure how well that’s going to go down.”

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Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town. Full bio

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