City Improvement Districts in Johannesburg: The neoliberal, safe, prosperous; and the informal otherwhere

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 25 August 2014

Most city centers in the post-apartheid South Africa are faced with challenges of urban decay, which call for urgent regeneration. The case of Johannesburg is particularly marked since the city is the economic hub of the country. In South Africa and globally, City Improvement Districts (CIDs) have emerged as a new urban space management tool in response to such problems as crime and grime in urban areas.

Given that regeneration for big business is a for-profit investment, although they create relatively cleaner and safer environments, they do so only for those who can afford the higher rentals. Urban regeneration, then, does not only involve reinvestment in the built environment but is also a process of gentrification which involves population transition from lower- to higher-class residents. Regeneration therefore must also be read in an ethical context: in relation to its immediate social environment, to the larger context of inequality, and in the broader context of overarching neoliberal economic management priorities.

CIDs in South Africa were initially meant for business improvement districts, and there have been very few CIDs in purely residential areas. This is an important distinction because in residential areas the effect on resident communities is greater than in largely business areas. In 2004, the voluntary residential CID "eKhaya Neighbourhood" ('at home') — one of the first residential CIDs in Johannesburg — was developed in the high-rise Hillbrow area, an infamous and deteriorated ‘no-go’ zone of the inner city. Atypical to many other CIDs, eKhaya, a voluntary association of approximately 30 property owner members in the area, has specifically attempted to mitigate the destructive social effects of CIDs by "helping to found authentic community-building." To this end, for example, eKhaya hosts annual soccer events and "Kids' Days," and partnerships between the City and the private sector also produced eKhaya's Neighborhood Park on a once neglected and overgrown open space.

Positive interventions such as those by eKhaya notwithstanding, they are nevertheless based on a neoliberal concept of community which has not adapted to the 'greyness' of the contemporary, post-apartheid condition; particularly in the inner city where the old separations (black / white, rural / urban, residential / business, public / private, etc.) now exist in new and uncertain combinations. Hillbrow, as a case in point, is more than slum and lawlessness, but is a popular, transitional, and continuously evolving public realm which continues to 'thrive' as an important port-of-entry into Johannesburg for migrants, immigrants, transnationals, or refugees. It is therefore questionable how sustainable a neoliberal community model is in this context; in terms of providing workable models that do not exclude, neglect, or shift to elsewhere the urban 'problems' of informality, heterogeneity, and cross-border mobility.

A truly democratic residential CID would mean participation of all stakeholders in its decision-making structure, negotiating a public consensus, and ultimately shaping the public space. In this case it is only the state that can ensure a balance between conflicting interests, while protecting the needs of the most marginalized. However, this would require a conceptual shift in accepting the coexistence of difference in the building of democracy, between lived realities and the City’s vision of a "World Class African City." Spatial practitioners too cannot continue to ignore broader ethical responsibilities, but should bring their design agency to bear upon imagining this new conceptual terrain, in creating places of inclusivity, safety, and opportunity for all.

Fig. 1: eKhaya Neighbourhood CID, Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Fig. 2: Slum or "hijacked" buildings (left) still stand alongside newly renovated buildings (right). Fig. 3: eKhaya Park, Hillbrow, Johannesburg. (Photos by Author)

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