South Africa needs to focus on what it has, no need for new cities

South Africa is a predominantly urban country, with almost 70% of the population living in cities. But city services and infrastructure are under increasing strain from infrastructure collapse in many smaller and medium-sized cities and deteriorating levels in major cities.

A common response to the looming urban crisis is to imagine starting over with new cities. The momentum cuts across the political spectrum.

In his 2019 State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled the construction of a new smart city. He has since announced new towns in Lanseria (north of Johannesburg), Mooikloof (east of Pretoria) and along the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape.

In April 2022, former opposition leader Mmusi Maimane argued that South Africa needed to build many new cities, doubling the number of metros from eight to 16.

New cities are an attractive idea. But that doesn’t make them good.

What would it take to create a sustainable new city without bankrupting the national exchequer? Are they a viable prospect or white elephants in the making?

Fortunately, there is a history of new urban thought and practice that we can learn from.

New cities can be attractive because newer, smarter and more sustainable infrastructure can be built. But in South Africa, these costs compete with the need to improve the deteriorating infrastructure of existing cities, which actually have the capacity to absorb projected urban growth for decades to come.

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While carefully planned new urban development can play a role in South Africa’s urban future, it would be a critical mistake to divert attention and resources from the country’s major urban challenges.

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New cities

Most major cities worldwide have developed over long periods of time, responding to the growth of the local economy. But there are cities that are deliberately designed from scratch for many different reasons – including political ego, land speculation, colonial expansion, post-colonial development and attempts to free existing cities from overcrowding and congestion.

In modern times, there has been a wave of new town development (or rather new towns) in Europe since World War II. This was done to decentralize development away from heavily bombed major cities and create better living conditions for working class families as part of a larger social program.

The British new town program was the most extensive and well known, but new towns were also built in France, Italy, Sweden and elsewhere.

Western countries have abandoned the development of new cities, but since about 1990 the development of new cities has gained momentum in other parts of the world, including East Asia and the Middle East.

In China, for example, new cities have been built to accommodate some of the additional 590 million people in cities since the 1980s. Saudi Arabia has an astonishing plan to build a 100-mile-long megacity called Neom, which will be just 200 meters wide.

In Africa, Egypt has a long history of developing new cities.

Elsewhere, there have been three recent waves of new urban development. Just before the financial crash of 2008/09 an ambitious first wave was launched (eg Konza Tech which is 64 km south of Nairobi, Eco Atlantic on land reclaimed from the sea outside Lagos, Cité du Fleuve on an island in the Congo River outside Kinshasa and Kigamboni across a large estuary north of Dar es Salaam).

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Most staggered. The late South African academic Vanessa Watson called them “urban fantasies.”

The second wave was initiated by Moscow-based developer Rendeavour, which targeted the growing black African middle class (eg Tatu City outside Nairobi, King City near Takoradi Port in Ghana and Appolonia City near Accra). The developments were more modest in size and had some market success.

The third, most recent wave is diverse, ranging from South Africa’s Lanseria Smart City to Senegal’s Akon City, an African-American rapper’s attempt to recreate the fictional Wakanda. Most recently, in May 2022, Elon Musk made an extraordinary announcement. He intends to build a new US$20 billion city called Neo Gardens outside Gaborone in Botswana.

This international history offers many lessons, but so does earlier South African history, which included the creation of nearly 80 new towns under the apartheid regime for ideological reasons. These include Welkom, Vanderbijlpark, Sasolburg and Secunda, which were created to support new single-industry economies.

They did well for a while. But they have not diversified significantly and their industries have suffered in recent years from international competition.

These patterns mirror those evident internationally, where the picture is more often one of economic vulnerability and long-term instability.

Conditions for success

There are places where new urban economies are thriving – such as Shenzhen in China, Abuja in Nigeria and Milton Keynes in the UK. These are quite specific cases: Shenzhen was one of China’s first initiatives to open up to the private sector in the 1980s and is close to Hong Kong; Abuja is the national capital; Milton Keynes is home to a major university and a cluster of dynamic industries.

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New places sometimes develop around new or emerging economic activities, although often the pull of existing economic cores remains strong.

New cities have a better track record in places with rapid economic and population growth, such as in East Asian countries, where large resources are available for infrastructure development and growth is fast enough to drive some of the economic activity to new cities.

So the prospects for new cities depend significantly on the context in which they develop.

New cities are expensive as new infrastructure has to be developed from scratch. And they have high risks in terms of outcome. At the same time, they do not replace existing cities that continue to grow.

In our view, South Africa needs to engage with the realities of existing towns and cities and make them work better for their residents and the country.The conversation

Philip Harrison, Professor of Architecture and Planning, University of the Witwatersrand and Alison Todes, Professor, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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