The politics of ecological and sustainable development

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 4 January 2016

Over recent decades, many discourses in the spatial disciplines have increasingly been concerned not just with buildings, but with architecture in its broader cultural, spatial, or environmental contexts. One form of practice that has emerged from these concerns is what is known as "landscape urbanism," which respects and utilizes natural systems to structure and organize urban terrain. In Euro-American contexts, it has dealt more with natural systems than social ones; but in the politically charged urban landscapes of the South African context, the most enticing possibility of the discourse must also be its transformative potential to restructure the built heritage of deeply inscribed colonial or apartheid urban geography through neglected natural systems.

In South Africa, these debates around integrative natural-built design-thinking are still in their infancy, with the most traction they have gained still largely confined as emergent discourses within the realm of academia. In Johannesburg, many of these themes were explored in several north-south collaborations at the University of the Witwatersrand, with KU Leuven in 2014 (focusing on Johannesburg’s mining belt) and in an International Transdisciplinary Workshop in 2015 (focusing on an informal settlement in northern Johannesburg).

Outside of academia, in Johannesburg there have been some projects that could be said to mark tentative beginnings. In 2009 for example, a competition proposal for an inner-city urban park by Newtown Landscape Architects (NLA), a design firm that most explicitly has attempted to develop a "landscape urbanist" discourse, sought to create an open space network across the inner-city that linked natural and urban landscapes. The same landscape architects are currently also involved in another large open space project (Wemmer Pan and Pioneer Park) uniquely positioned close to the inner-city and its associated socio-economic opportunities.

Whereas the urban—albeit depoliticized—sensibility of such emergent projects in Johannesburg give some hope for new beginnings, a new mega-project in Cape Town, known as the "Two Rivers Urban Park," is less so. At the gateway into the CBD from greater Cape Town, it plans to convert 250 hectares of neglected riverbanks into a R15-billion (US$ 980 million) "regional park" and mixed-use property development. Although the project seeks to manage ecological, recreational, and “sustainable development” concerns in the face of major development pressure, these priorities only become wholly insufficient when they do not engage a broader city context of unequal and deeply entrenched socio-economic and spatial patterns, and the degree to which the status quo will be perpetuated by furthering major public investment and cultural capital around the already well established but wholly peripheral CDB. Linking the project to the CBD’s non-white and poorer hinterlands, such as the nearby Langa or Athlone areas, or to transformative and catalytic public transport investment which serves and connects it, could significantly restructure this part of the city and open up new socio-economic opportunities.

Socially, natural systems and landscapes must be seen as more than touristic, recreational, and commercial opportunities; or else “strategic” development would ultimately mean little more than ecological gentrification. In the global South it is essential that they also be seen as precious spatial and cultural assets that allow rare opportunities to restructure deeply unequal cities toward greater social and spatial cohesion. Therefore where such developments lead more toward consolidating unequal patterns than transforming them, they amount to epic failures of political will and vision. There is much evidence of many beginnings, but transformative and qualitative mainstream spatial practice remains elusive in the fragmented and ever-unequal South African city.

Photo credit: Fig. 1 NLA’s inner-city urban park proposal for Johannesburg (NLA) and Fig 2. "City Desired" 2014 exhibition argued for an extended "Two Rivers Urban Park" project in Cape Town

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