Dr. Pieter van Heyningen, founder and CEO of SustNet – a company focused on developing and managing sustainability-oriented innovation systems and districts. Dr. van Heyningen is also senior lecturer and associate at the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University.
“Size doesn’t always matter, sometimes quality is better” – a pattern of thinking, steadily replacing the “bigger is better” philosophy. “Bigger is better” is not only unsustainable but a fallacy. An example of this: mega-malls. An established trend in South Africa, their success has been declining in the US, even being banned in some states, as they are shown to have negative socio-economic impacts (especially on the social dynamics, and liveability factors of urban centres).
Of course malls are attractive in car-consumerist cultures, and dangerous neighbourhoods – hence the need for understanding the contexts of our developments. Many South Africans are unfortunately prone to both the consumer culture and subject to the safety-issue context.
There is, however, rapidly-emerging alternatives to the car-culture and disingenuous ‘bigger, brighter, faster is better’, path to development – and this approach puts liveability and citizen-oriented design at the forefront. Interestingly, this trend is coming out of the USA, as a counter-culture to the Trumpist “Big League” (or is it “Biggly”?) thinking, representing a more sustainable approach. It also considers the 21st century knowledge as founded on citizens with talent, knowledge and skills, and gears urban design and infrastructure for their needs. That is, cities need to be liveable for them to function optimally in this age.
Innovation taking the stage
The live, work, play slogan is no longer sufficient with innovate primed for inclusion. In conjunction with the development of one of America’s first Innovation Districts, the city of Boston took these principles so seriously, they ripped up their mega high-way and replaced it with a massive green belt. This is now a central feature, having reshaped the entire city’s culture, in one bold move. This project, called the ‘big-dig’ took the notion of walkability and liveability very seriously into consideration – something South Africa yet has to ‘get’.
Before the ‘Big- Dig’ the highway, separated the city from the waterfront, and was a prime example of the dominance of a car culture. This was replaced by citizen-oriented design below.
The old highway is replaced by a “Green Belt’ that now connects citizens of the city, which leads to Boston’s Innovation District.
Other cities, such as Los Angeles, have strongly adopted transport-oriented development (known as TOD) which puts people, their liveability, and their movement at the centre of development. The psychology behind this goes as deep as an understanding of how people feel when they walk past two city blocks, how pavements have been designed, and how green spaces influence psychological health and well-being (check out the TEDx Talk by Jeff Speck on The General Theory of Walkability).
Where to begin?
South African cities have so much latent potential to transform their inner city cores, following these principles – but where do we start in activating it?
Barcelona shifted its entire economic strategy, and did pretty well since, around the concept of the walkable and people-centred city. The point to be made here is that as thinking shifts, so does the design of our cities and spaces. What follows is innovation, productivity, and progress. A large-scale societal shift in thinking is the ultimate driver of innovation. Fear of change and risk-taking leads to institutional and cultural rigidity, uncreative stagnation. It is this rigidity that is ultimately the enemy of innovation.
So how do we break this disingenuous path of development in South Africa?
We have to shift our thinking to adopt new principles on the ways in which we envision our future cities. What goes hand in hand with shifts in thinking is, of course, doing. A great example of not only future-thinking, but future-oriented doing, is the Cape Town inner city. While exemplary, there are still two key ingredients that are missing: liveability and innovation.
While it may be true that Cape Town plays host to the highest concentration of entrepreneurs as a city in South Africa, it certainly doesn’t cater to them in terms of infrastructure and liveability.
We remain a car culture, ‘biggly’ thinking society, and it shows in the way we continue to develop. Our efforts to really put in place alternative transport, bike lanes etc. is not bold enough. They remain pilot projects, with fading green paint where bikers are supposed to ride. MyCity does not seem to reduce traffic issues yet in Cape Town, and in JHB we know their system is not yet optimized.
These are good attempts, but these attempts will remain just attempts, unless we get serious about putting citizens first in our urban centres as well. It is not only about mobility and transport, but all the factors of liveability together that will mean the difference between success and failure.
What needs to change?
Putting the South African urban citizen first! It’s a vital move, and has implications for the way in which we develop as an entire nation going forward, with the majority of people in our country living in cities now. We are at a critical juncture in the history of our country, whereby the collective mindset of South Africans could be described as fragmented.
While many see this as a threat to their identities based on race or culture, the fact is, we all too often forget that we are all South Africans before we are a colour or race. It is, in fact, our differences that make us so unique, and we have not even begun to define collectively who we are as “the South African urban citizen”. An important culprit is the slow response South African cities have shown in the rebirth of their own identities, from a separate development spatial planning legacy. This has resulted in our cities’ cores becoming degenerated and run-down, and hardly the places they could be in terms of liveability or productivity. The good news is that our cities, and especially inner cities, still have the power to shape our new South African urban identities.
The big questions
Can we walk around easily in our cities?
Are they enjoyable places to visit?
Is there public transport and good mobility?
Are they inspirational, clean, safe and fun?
Can one live there, work there, and find like-minded people in the vicinity?
Is there access to modern amenities (like co-working spaces)?
Are there public spaces like parks, art galleries, sidewalk cafés, bars, and good coffee shops?
This is what people want anywhere in the world, including South African cities’ inner cores. It’s what liveability should be about: putting yourself in the shoes of a visitor, and thinking about what you would like to experience in a city space. Getting this right in South Africa would be real urban and social innovation, and a pre-cursor to the success of any innovation district.
Where does one even start? The first step is developing innovation districts in our urban centres, and at least getting liveability right at a precinct level. Concentrating efforts into one urban node is not a bad idea, as it enhances success, and provides momentum for doing it again. The opportunity for developing liveable, sustainable, and innovative precincts or districts in South Africa exists now.
The ingredients are there – it only requires willingness of citizens and the leaders of our cities to do it.
For more information on innovation district development, please contact the author, Dr. Pieter van Heyningen, at firstname.lastname@example.org