Thursday, 09 April 2015 14:21

Urban Resilience and South Africa's metropolitan areas

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A partnership for holistic planning for equitable growth
The report is produced by the South African Network of Cities (SACN). The Network is an initiative between central government, the SA Local Government Association and nine of the largest municipalities. SACN undertakes research, promotes good practice and shared learning between different tiers of government. It has developed a template for City Development Strategies as “a holistic approach in promoting and supporting equitable growth”.

The formation of metropolitan governments has been a key force behind the SACN. The idea of creating a metropolitan tier of government came in a 1998 White Paper. One of the reasons behind the move was the wish to strengthen strategic spatial planning and the integration of physical and social investment across functional economic areas. South Africa’s metropolitan initiative is something that others should look at as their urban areas and travel to work patterns stretch beyond traditional urban administrative boundaries.

Thus the essence of the SACN approach is to emphasise links between what it calls “the productive city, the inclusive city, the sustainable city and the well-governed city”. Use of urban indicators to enable comparison and benchmarking is seen as key to the approach. This is the third time that SACN has done a State of the Cities report. The previous ones were in 2004 and 2006.

Resilient Urban Economies
The report is quick to stress the importance of South Africa’s cities to economic development and social well-being. It then explains how the notion of resilience relates to cities’ economies. It says resilience is about being able to recover from an external shock. Importantly, it argues that larger, more diverse urban economies are more resilient than smaller, more specialised ones. Long-term resilience requires innovation, creativity and long-term commitment from investors.

The analysis draws on the work done by Michael Parkinson and his colleagues in 2006 on the state of English cities. It sets up three city-wide core indicators: productivity, employment and external trade. These are backed by a set of other indictors covering technology and innovation, industrial structure, business ownership and management, capacity and skills, and connectivity.

The review finds that the economic gap between the cities and the rural areas has widened over the past decade, and though by international standards levels of employment in the metropolitan areas remain very low.

The lively South African debates about the informal economy are also summarised. The size of the informal economy there is small in comparison to that in other developing countries, and there are voices that say that growing the informal economy is potentially a route into employment for many of the poorest. In this way it can add resilience. Similarly, by providing goods and services to people and locations not served by government or the conventional market it also aids resilience. There is a call to shift the gaze and recognise that “the informal is normal”.

The empirical findings in some respects contradict the general statements about urban economic resilience. No clear relationship emergences between specialisation and economic success, though cities with large financial and business services sectors have enjoyed higher prosperity. Also the cities seem to have been less resilient than other parts of the country during the recession that began in 2008. Gauteng – i.e. the Greater Johannesburg region – has been worst hit with manufacturing hit by the global downturn and high levels of redundancy suffered by manual workers.

In a message that could be applied to many other countries, the report calls for a “step-change in local economic policy” and is dismissive of the “improvised and generally small-scale projects of traditional local economic development”. It argues that councils need to see economic development as a cross-cutting function, not the concern of just a single department.

Built Environment
The resilience perspective is also applied to the planning and design of the built environment. It means being able to adapt to change over time, while ensuring continuity with positive aspects of thel egacy from the past. It concerns both “historical injustices and future environmental challenges”.

Resilience in the built environment also means something about process, says the report. It rejects the “top-down model of ‘delivering’ housing and services to passive local communities”. Equally important is the rejection of the sort of reductionism that has seen urban policy as purely a matter of housing numbers, notwithstanding the desperate housing legacy of apartheid. As it notes South Africa’s sprawling and racially divided cities cannot be made more resilient by housing provision alone.

The authors conclude that city authorities are not planning and managing urban growth effectively. There are a number of reasons. They lack the necessary powers and resources, political will and technical expertise. One solution proposed is to create “township development strategies”.

City eco-systems

The ecological dimension of urban development is also a focus. Much higher priority needs to be given to the environment in South Africa’s cities. Key challenges anticipated are:
• Escalating energy prices;
• Erratic and unpredictable rainfall patterns;
• Fresh water demands exceeding supply in most cities by 2025;
• International pressure to reduce CO2 emissions;
• Reduced availability of sites for landfill waste disposal;
• Increased numbers of “climate refugees” from rural areas and neighbouring countries,

Again the need for indicators is highlighted. By measuring urban stocks and flows, ecological accountability can be built into policy making. The issue of urban food security gets a special mention.

There is a commitment to make a major effort to assemble data on urban resource use before the next Review is undertaken.

Planning for metropolitan resilience
I make no apologies for reiterating one of the findings from the scoping study of the State of the Commonwealth’s cities that I co-authored with Will French. We wrote “across the Commonwealth, the structures and operations of local government were inherited from an earlier and simpler era. They were not designed to grapple with today’s needs. For example, metropolitan areas sweep over traditional administrative boundaries; urban governments were providers of public services, not economic development specialists or regulators of carbon emissions; procedures were geared to slow change not the tumult of rapid urban spread.”

South Africa, spurred by the need for reconstruction after apartheid, has arguably embraced the need to reinvent planning and local government more than any other country. However the SCAN report shows that even when metropolitan scale units have been created, it is still very hard to change practices. Meanwhile the demands and expectations placed on policy makers continue to grow.

Nevertheless, South Africa remains a vital laboratory for urban practice in today’s world. In seeking to utilise the notion of resilience to integrate and focus its review of the state of the cities, SCAN has made a contribution that deserves critical examination. In that respect, my own view is that the jury is still out. Reading the SCAN report, “resilience” provides a story line but the study stops short of rigorously demonstrating that robust empirical findings give a clear lead on what kind of strategies will lead to resilient cities. Like any monitoring, this is a work in progress, but statistically and conceptually.

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