Walking between worlds: imagining infrastructure between Alexandra and Sandton, Johannesburg

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 13 October 2014

The apartheid state embodied a special relationship with the modern project. Its concrete highways not only reflected appropriate modern imagery but simultaneously also provided it with a powerful, ready-made vocabulary to keep neighbourhoods and communities apart. But the history of modern architecture and planning over the last century in South Africa is one fraught with many contradictions; for today, again, it is transport infrastructure that is now invoked to connect the city together.

The City of Johannesburg recently embarked on a new spatial vision — dubbed the "Corridors of Freedom" — where transport and development corridors are envisaged as the spatial backbone to restructure the apartheid city, toward a more integrated and inclusive city form. Drawing on 'Transit-Oriented Development' concepts, higher density, compact, mixed-income and mixed-use development will be encouraged along key transport arteries and around intermodal transport hubs, serviced by a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system.

Unlike the typically lengthy distances between poorer areas from wealthier areas and economic opportunities, which the 'Corridors' seeks to shrink for the two thirds of workers in the province that use public transport, north of Johannesburg a somewhat unique condition exists between Alexandra ("Alex") and Sandton. These iconic neighboring suburbs—the former one of Johannesburg's oldest black townships and severely affected by poverty, the latter the 'richest square mile in Africa' — are separated only by a thin strip of highway and industry. Nowhere else in South Africa is extreme poverty and extreme wealth in such close physical proximity, resulting in approximately 10,000 people walking and cycling daily from Alex in the east to Sandton in the west, to access employment, schools and other services. Known as the 'Great Walk', the City has identified this Alex-Sandton pedestrian highway for a number of transit infrastructure upgrades to improve access.

The challenge for the "Corridors of Freedom" in such contexts is not only its mandate to manufacture magnets for mixed and integrative forms of development along its route, but also to meaningfully address the radically unequal conditions that exist on the ground. Fortunately, through interdisciplinary debate, the crucial intersection between the north-south 'Corridor' and the east-west 'Great Walk' was conceived of as more than a utilitarian space for modal transfer as it was initially earmarked (the 'Watt Street interchange'), but as an opportunity to offer much needed mixed-use and public space for Alex residents, while penetrating into the divisive industrial buffer. If these principles are carried through into implementation, the Watt Street interchange and public space could successfully translate and pilot fundamental principles which the "Corridors of Freedom" hopes to achieve.

Today, transport infrastructure cannot continue to be conceived of and implemented as a hard, scientific discipline apart from its social affects. South Africa's modern history, especially, simply no longer allows it that kind of luxury. Rather, a reimagining of modern architecture for post-apartheid spaces is required, joining the high-level infrastructure needs of modern cities with the lived realities of its citizens on the ground, in hybridized spaces.

There is sufficient political will and creative mileage within the "Corridors of Freedom" concept to affect significant change in the urban form and social life of the city. However, new typologies that consider the public space and social-economic dimensions of multiple publics, but especially the poor, are also required. Spatial thinking, imagination and interdisciplinarity must be part of the process at multiple levels in order to imagine and build a different kind of city, for the segregated and unequal city cannot transform its future with the same tools used to create its past.

Fig. 1: The 'Great Walk' (author); fig. 2: Map (author); fig 3: Watt Street interchange (City of Johannesburg)

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