Planning between the local and the global in Johannesburg's Spatial Development Framework

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 23 September 2015

This article is the second in a series on the shaping of the City of Johannesburg's current Spatial Development Framework (Joburg SDF). This month we spoke to Rogier van den Berg of The Urban Planning and Design LAB, United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) – international planning consultants for the Joburg SDF – to discuss the relationship between local efforts and global goals.

What does your unit do and what does it seek to bring to the Joburg SDF?

Launched in 2014, UN-Habitat's Urban Planning and Design LAB proposes and implements urban planning projects from neighborhood to city-wide scale worldwide. It brings best practices from all over the world while supporting local, regional and national authorities to implement policies, plans and designs through participatory planning processes, that are not an outcome but the start of a multi-stakeholder discussion.

What are the yardsticks that you measure a city against?

For sustainable urban planning, we measure the city against three holistic concepts: compact, integrated and connected. For this we have a set of five interlinked principles: (1) promoting adequate space for streets and an efficient street network (for vehicles, public transport, pedestrians and cyclists); (2) well-designed density as the foundation of a sustainable neighborhood; (3) mixed land-use to promote the local economy and encourage pedestrian and cyclist traffic; (4) connectivity in the street section, for walking, use of multiple modes of transport, and to encourage economic usage of building plinths; and (5) social mix that promotes social cohesion and equitable urban opportunities.

What can be measured to global standards and what needs more nuanced approaches?

Sustainable Urban Development is about principles, not standards. But one might say that, for example, a street pattern that occupies less than 10 percent of the land discourages walking and has poor economic potential.

The differences can lie in building typologies, in the way people use streets, how economy is part of society and how it occupies city spaces, and how topography and climate also dictates the need for shadow, water retention and street patterns. But some basics should still be in place. Some people, like in Joburg, still need to travel long distances and spend more than half of their salaries on transport.

If legal, financial and spatial instruments also are not linked and aligned, implementation will simply fail. This set of preconditions is also unique in any society.

Is Johannesburg unique?

Any city in the world, even every street, is unique. In Joburg many aspects of the city are amplified: high levels of segregation, extreme fragmentation, inequality, high levels of poverty and an urban economy based on informality. At the same time Joburg is a city on the global map, with a past that showed the world how to pave the way to freedom, although twenty years after Apartheid the city still is highly segregated.

How effectively is Johannesburg tackling inequality?

The City is addressing inequality, but this should surpass short-term political thinking. We are working on setting a long-term vision for the Joburg SDF, as well as transformative concrete urban projects. A city like Medellin in Colombia showed that great achievements are possible in overcoming excessive crime rates and inequality by bringing public authorities together with academia and the private sector with a common long-term goal.

Local administrations should facilitate a process in which many stakeholders take part. The SDF developed in a series of "charrettes" that included civic society, academia, the private sector, and a range of public authorities and departments. Overcoming the urban divide is probably also a responsibility of the nation state, not only the City.

Photo credits: SmartCityStudio.

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