Building revolution in the city - part 1

Architect and urbanist Andrew Makin considers the South African city and proposes a new vision for our urban centres.
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Where it's at

Cities are the most fertile fields of economic, social and cultural exchange and creativity. They are highly efficient and effective environments for the conversion of resources into opportunity and productivity. And they are therefore powerful contributors to achieving our human potential.

This unique capacity primarily derives from density, diversity, connectivity and public space, which are four defining attributes of the City and, at smaller scales, Town and Village.

Density enables the greatest number of people to have access to the most efficiently and cost effectively provided, maintained and sustained resources. Diversity means that most people can have the widest range of their needs and objectives met within the closest proximity. Connectivity enables people, goods and services to interact and reach their destinations most freely while consuming the least resources to do so. Public space offers engagement with ‘the other’, promoting a sense of commonality over difference.

Without these attributes – without City – the provision of infrastructural services, education, healthcare, social amenity and accessible economic opportunity is not viable; poverty and effective unemployment reduction unachievable; and – in the South African context – the sustainable economic growth required to deliver the vision of our Constitution – Freedom, Equality and Dignity – is unreachable.

The City is therefore one of the most important mechanisms for the achievement of the promise of our political liberation. But it is not predominant in our heritage, and it scarcely exists in our contemporary political, economic, social, and cultural lexicon and discourse.

Our fragile city heritage

Pre-colonial indigenous people of Southern Africa were mainly nomadic, following the seasons that provided their sustenance.

There was a direct, efficient and sustainable relationship between resource supply and consumption. There are some exceptions, often where the discovery of minerals resulted in more permanent settlement – such as at Great Zimbabwe – but they are rare.

With a heritage of high population densities concentrated on relatively little land, and centuries of experience of their potency, Europeans settling in South Africa from the sixteen hundreds did make Cities. Early Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Kimberly were dense, diverse, connected and therefore vibrant and highly productive. Public spaces of the street, civic, Church and market squares were key to this productivity. This was a good start. 

Dismembering and dismantling

But exercising the strategy of ‘divide and rule’ to achieve and maintain power, Apartheid [1948 to 1994] was in direct opposition to the defining attributes and benefits of the City.

By forcing black and enticing white South Africans to live at low densities far from the cores of economic opportunity, the system effectively began to dismember our fledgling Cities. Sprawl grew, functions were zoned apart from each other, connections were co-opted for control, and public space was effectively outlawed.

Post 1994 infrastructural and property investment has not reversed this trend. It has deepened it.

Instead of supporting and growing dense urban cores, diversifying their uses and activities, and making a network of defined streets, squares and parks as connecting public space, green-field land continues to be released for low density, single-use, effectively isolating pockets of residential, commercial and retail sprawl further and further from them.

Public funds are therefore directed toward the construction of more and more road, water supply, electricity and sewage infrastructure, supplying fewer people at lower densities and therefore at an ever higher cost per person.

This is the effective dismantling and negation of the City and, with it, the dismantling and negation of the most effective tool we have to achieve a ‘better life for all’.

Zero sum system failure

It is a direct route toward a zero sum equation where increasing investment delivers decreasing benefit. A ‘settlement of dependency’ where economic, social and cultural exchange, creativity and productivity are not self-perpetuating, multiplying, diversifying and sustaining, but require constant external stimulus and investment to hold off their decline, let alone catalyse their growth. Because no quantities of resources are sufficient to perpetually feed such an inefficient ‘machine’, the logical conclusion of this is ‘system failure’.

By contrast, the proper City is a form of urban settlement with the inherent capacity to convert resources into productive energy at a rate, and at a level of efficiency that can realistically and tangibly deliver the Constitutional imperatives of Freedom, Equality and Dignity.

These are the reasons why understanding, imagining, designing and building dense, diverse and connected Cities, built around systemic networks of movement and resource infrastructure, and public space, need to become a primary focus of the creative and investment communities.

Cities and identities

Also because of density, diversity, connectivity, and public space, cities are the main definers of national identity, which is a powerful tool to achieve common purpose.

This is important because the significant reduction of unemployment and poverty is a common purpose. Increasing the standard of, and access to, education and healthcare as well as to economic opportunity and growth through creativity, innovation and productivity are also important common purposes. Building a stable and cohesive society from the scale of the individual and family upward is another critical common purpose.

Common purpose in Mexico and Brazil

Between the ‘30s and ‘60s, when Europe was in and recovering from deep conflict, Brazil and Mexico were redefining their identities as platforms to radically alter their trajectories and assert themselves into this rapidly reshaping world. With political intent - whether under dictatorial, military or democratic governments - design was an important part of achieving this.

Brazil is a country of immigrants from many parts of the globe including Africa, Europe and Asia. Its demographics are arguably even more diverse and complex than South Africa’s. In spite of this, during the middle half of the 1900s it actively sought to grow its potential by encouraging further immigration, particularly taking advantage of the flight of the intelligentsia from Europe.

Because of their urban heritage, most of these immigrants settled in the City, the economy, society and culture of which was, as a result, enriched and strengthened. With increased human capital, density, diversity, and movement and public space connectivity as the platform, Brazil began to build a Nation by strategically defining and constructing a unifying Identity.

Football was strongly promoted because of its capacity to bridge the divisions between classes around a common purpose. In an act of loaded symbolism, Feijoada was consciously repositioned from being the food of the slaves, made from their master’s leftovers, to national dish.

But the arts were perhaps the most effective tool. Samba was repositioned from being the music of the underclass to the unifying heartbeat of the nation. A new capital of Brasilia was designed and built to represent a utopic, forward looking national spirit, and its image was widely spread as an inspiring National Emblem. And the work and personas of thinkers and Urbanists like Lucio Costa, architects like Oscar Niemeyer and Affonso Eduardo Reidy, painters like Candido Portinari, and landscape architects like Roberto Burle Marx were positioned as inseparable from Brazil’s powerfully defined Identity to itself and to the world.

During a period of intense modernisation and urbanisation of a primarily agrarian society, it was a particular moment in history, and the opportunity was not lost. The increasingly powerful and globally assertive Brazil that we experience today is directly traceable to the foundations laid during this period.

Mexico implemented a similar strategy deriving from and consistent with its own reality. With the majority of the population having some degree of pre-Hispanic ancestry, it selected the highly developed Aztec civilisation as the representation of National unity. This suggested to a diverse population that they had a shared heritage, whether this was literally so or not.

It emphasised the continuity of past, through the present, to an envisaged future. To do this, it particularly emphasised continuity in urban planning, architecture, mural painting, and the importance of cultural expression in music, dance and colour.

It rightly positioned Mexico’s pre-Hispanic cities as globally important and promoted them as magnetic domestic and international tourism sights. People like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Rufino Tamayo became icons in the international art world, as did Mario Pani and Luis Barragán in the international architecture world. And it emphasised the connection between heritage and the Mexican landscape by bringing pre-Hispanic cuisine to the contemporary kitchen pot in the form of cactus, grasshoppers and even worms and ant roe.

It embraced the utopic ideals of modernism in its massive investment in transport infrastructure and educational and cultural institutions.

UNAM, Mexico’s internationally recognised, free-tuition state university is regarded as the best in the country. Although most of its 310 000 enrolled students are from less than privileged backgrounds, its educational reputation exceeds that of its elite private equivalents.

Its main campus is a masterpiece of modernist design with strong resonances of three-dimensional pre-Hispanic urban planning, where public space is the key element of economic, social and cultural exchange, creativity and productivity. Exemplary individual buildings and structures powerfully meld pre-Hispanic design with modernist ideals to represent a unique Mexican identity. The best minds in the country are educated in an environment of fusion and continuity between Mexico’s diverse heritage and its vision of a radically better future.

In both countries, the fundamentally important benefits of the dense, diverse and connected ‘Systemic City’ were recognised and consciously embedded. And the unifying potency of a defined and well-articulated national identity was activated. Together, these are powerful instruments with which to achieve important national goals, especially those of common purpose and a radically better future.

The South African design project

Reflecting on these and other similar examples, the uniquely influential opportunity of the South African creative and design community is the 1994 project of reconstruction and development in symbiotic partnership with nation building.

South Africa’s highly corporatised private sector mining, manufacturing, service and consumption (retail) driven economy depends on continuously increasing profits. To a large extent, this comes from merger and acquisition, control of vertically integrated supply chains, the replacement of people with technology, and the insatiable need for new markets. This continues to centralise wealth and effectively impoverish the nation. Nothing fundamentally important would change if the control of this economy were to shift from white to black hands. Until we reposition away from this corporate dominance, our economy is unlikely to be the tool that it should be for reconstructing, developing and building our nation.

Our governing party is arguably more concerned with itself, its historic legacy and sense of inherent importance, than building our nation. Alongside this, government, state, and related institutions, businesses and individuals that absorb somewhere between 25 and 40% of South Africa’s annual GDP through corruption are also unlikely to be the tools to reconstruct and develop the country, build a nation, and deliver a ‘better life for all’.

And the degree of difficulty in effecting any policy (good or otherwise) that relies on connectivity, is equal in size to the physical distance between us. In other words, the more dispersed we are, the more difficult, expensive and time consuming it is to get anything done. In South Africa we are obsessed with ‘individual space as luxury’, but it is our impending downfall – our current settlement pattern is another barrier to achieving our potential.

Other ways

Different, simpler and more directly implementable and broadly empowering instruments are required; ones that inspire broad-based action, open up the trading and service economy to a vastly greater number of people, enabled by a fundamentally more favourable settlement pattern.

The first step is to restore a belief that there is a way in which life really can become better for most of our people. This is the purpose of a strategically defined, articulated and embedded national identity that fuses an authentic unifying heritage with an inspiring and generative vision of a radically better future.

If the examples of Brazil and Mexico are of any relevance, this is a responsibility of the creative community. Because, by accessing the true nature of a condition or moment, the Arts have the special capacity to recognise, synthesise and express the essential power underlying often confusing and seemingly overwhelming complexity. And to discover, define and articulate a truer, broader and more potent horizon of who we are, and who we can be.

The second part of the challenge is to understand the importance of proper cities for exchange, creativity and productivity. This will enable us to envisage, advance and design them as a uniquely potent tool to achieve the objective of a ‘better life for all’.

Only through this will the opportunities and possibilities for self-perpetuating, multiplying, diversifying and sustaining, economic, social and cultural exchange, creativity and productivity be released, and our true and abundant potential be reached. 

This article was originally commissioned for Where It's At, a Design Indaba publication created in collaboration with Richard Hart and disturbance design published in 2012.