How SA's urban sprawl trend is maintaining spatial divisions, resulting in poverty traps

20 October 2017

According to Professor Edgar Pieterse, urban sprawl will continue to be encouraged if private- and public-sector land investment in our cities concentrates on keeping the haves away from the have-nots. He was speaking at the recently held GBCSA Green Building Convention in Cape Town.

Urban inefficiency creates "pockets of poverty"

Similar sentiments were shared by City of Cape Town mayoral committee member for transport and urban development Councillor Brett Herron who said that cheap and abundant land on the urban outskirts of the city has encouraged sprawl. He added that it becomes clear that Cape Town is an inefficient city when one travels, especially during peak hours.

"This inefficiency creates pockets of poverty on the outskirts of the city. In South Africa's push to provide 4.5-million new homes since democracy, we have compromised on location. So, families are forced to commute too far," said Herron. "They typically live in a 40mhome, 40km away from jobs, and spend about 40% of household income on transport. It's clear that where people live matters. The spatial planning injustices of the past have a bearing on their future," he said.

Explained Pieterse, "The National Treasury has obliged metros to use the Built Environment Performance Plan to show how they will reverse the apartheid form... The assumption is that transit-orientated development improves mobility, it will accelerate the speed of change and break with the past."

Too 'gatvol' for real estate-driven pace of change

However, he pointed out, the current model will take between 20 to 30 years to lay the basis for real estate-driven urban integration and reconfiguration. "How will the profound development challenges of the city be resolved through this approach?" he challenged.

"Our zeitgeist is summed up in one word: gatvol Pieterse continued. "We are gatvol. Look at the amount of social protest, the rise of anti-racism sentiments and movements. And, our economic stagnation means that [social] movement is stuck in neutral."

South African townships' dysfunctional education and health systems have turned them into spatial traps. "The paradox is that the investment in public housing is capped by state spending. The more we redistribute to try and get the poor into the city, the more we reinforce spatial inequality. What we need to recognise is that the challenges we face get more acute with each public- and private-sector rand invested," Pieterse said.

The country's current urban sprawl trend maintains spatial divisions and the resulting township poverty traps forced on their populations, he said.

Cape Town 'lucky' to have a housing problem

The housing crisis can drive the economy and we need to stimulate the market especially as there are not many other feasible options, Rob McGaffin, founding member of the UCT Nedbank Urban Real Estate Unit, told delegates. Referring to the Cape Town example, McGaffin noted that it is fortunate to have a housing problem.

However, to realise the opportunity, housing must move from a social to a commercial concern. "We've got about a 320,000-housing unit shortfall," he said, and therein lies the demand.

McGaffin says that the rental market catering to the 70% of Capetonians earning less than R20,000 per month needs to be catalysed, so that rent for family living spaces can be below R5,000 per month. "We need to build more homes within the city footprint, and closer to jobs and economic opportunities," he said.

Is there a market in the gap?

"It is hard to achieve this in our current context because the value versus cost equation doesn't work, and developers can't cover the costs," said McGaffin.

As cost is key, the sizes must be reduced. Therefore, stop focusing on new builds as, with land production costs of land acquisition, infrastructure and regulatory approval, they are the most expensive type of development and only represent 1% of total stock, advised McGaffin.

"Uber reworked the existing stock of available cars, and this same trick can work in the housing market," said McGaffin. Single storey homes are increasingly being converted to double-storey across high-rental yield areas. City authorities need to bring this trend to a tipping point, which will result in effective localised wealth redistribution, create an economic pillow to pinched homeowners and, with very little new infrastructure or regulatory processes, close the gap on housing shortfall across the economic spectrum, he said.

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