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Navigating a post-Covid urban agenda

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By Gugu Sithole-Ngobese

The planning sector needs to be regulated and quality assured so that it is not reminiscent of a colonial “town and regional planning” paradigm from yesteryear, says Gugu Sithole-Ngobese.

World Town Planning Day is celebrated in more than 30 countries over four continents each year on November 8. This year, more so than any other year, it is crucial that planners reflect on the role of planning in creating liveable communities, in both towns and villages, especially within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On October 29, Women in Planning SA (WiPSA) hosted a webinar on the Post-Covid Urban Agenda. During the discussion, Elroy Africa, a developmental activist and registered professional planner presented his views of a post-Covid urban agenda.

Dr Soobs Moonsammy, also a registered professional planner, led a discussion on whether the history of modern urban planning has lessons for us in navigating the current pandemic and the period beyond it. During this discussion, several key questions were asked.


WiPSA has compiled a list detailing the five considerations planners need to note amid the pandemic:

1 Covid-19 has merely highlighted, not created, the stark inequalities that exist in our towns and cities Covid-19 officially entered South Africa in March. The national government sprang into action with attempts to educate South Africans on the importance of physical distancing, hand-washing, and later, wearing a mask. To many, these are easy requests to comply with; however, for the 19% of the South African rural population who lack access to reliable water supply, and the 33% of the rural population who lack basic sanitation services, it was an almost impossible feat. Covid-19 did not create this inequality, but it did put a spotlight on the mortal consequences of a lack of sanitation.

2 The prescriptive thinking within the planning sector needs to change Moonsammy noted that planners in South Africa have become prescriptive, and respond mainly to legislated norms and standards, such as land-use management systems, as opposed to the lived realities of people in towns and villages. Planners in a democratic South Africa have yet to experience a “golden age of planning”, unlike those who thrived during apartheid and were able to implement the Group Areas Act. It has become more important than ever to proactively address the conditions experienced by South Africans in the 21st century. The concept of planning needs to be re-thought, especially on a fundamental level, so that planning students graduating from universities are equipped with a toolbox that allows for innovation and a reconfiguration of our towns and villages.

3 Town planning needs to be innovative and without restrictions In efforts to reject notions of prescriptive thinking, planners are required to embrace innovative and non-restrictive thinking. While it is necessary for us to be mindful of the legislative frameworks that exist, we need to build practical toolboxes for ourselves, which allow us to react to the lived realities of the voiceless, such as the homeless and the poor. The planning sector needs to be regulated and quality assured so that the sector is not reminiscent of a colonial “town and regional planning” paradigm from yesteryear. South African planners need to operate within the African context. While we might borrow from our Western counterparts, our environments are inherently different, and our diverse people and the unique issues we have faced during Covid-19 and the lockdown reflect this.

4 Space is a privilege for a number South Africans who live in cities, the advice and requests for physical and social distancing were easily taken and met. However, for the poor majority, physical distancing was a challenge, due to the modes of transport many had to take to work, the working conditions experienced by many, and their living conditions, which prevented physical distancing on a practical level. Covid-19 has shown that the act of distancing oneself is a privilege. For many South Africans, a lack of isolation facilities within their homes and communities led to cross-infection between family members who had to share homes, or essential workers who had to take public transport to reach their places of work. The onus is on planners to identify that space is a privilege, and is one that all deserve – especially during a deadly and costly pandemic.

5 Densification is not the enemy, overcrowding is while physical distancing was for many a cause of concern, the issue was not merely dense concentrations of people, but dense concentrations of people without access to basic and decent services – which is essentially overcrowding. Densification can benefit communities because denser communities can support higher-grade quality public services and the possibility of “herd immunity”. South Africa experiences high levels of overcrowding, especially in our cities, which then have the potential to become hot spots for a range of diseases and viruses.

The crux of the matter is that millions of South Africans do not have access to basic services and necessities, even though the Constitution states that every citizen is entitled to quality basic services. The fact they are not provided is in fact unconstitutional and highlights the flawed planning of our public and private spaces.

Covid-19 has brought to light the lack of basic services available to many South Africans and the dire consequences this can have especially during a global pandemic. As noted by Africa during the webinar, “diseases and epidemics exploit human-made conditions”.

As planners, it is our duty to acknowledge spatial inequalities to ensure that efforts are made to focus on urban resilience and disaster management. Moonsammy said that “we should not let a good catastrophe go to waste”.

Covid-19 has forced us to examine the living conditions of our neighbours and fellow residents, many of whom have been left behind. Rather than attempt to respond in prescriptive methods, we should be imagining alternative and sustainable spaces, and make concerted efforts to make this re-imagined space a reality.

World Town Planning Day offers an opportunity for citizens and planners to reflect on the importance of the planning profession, and the need for good quality spaces to ensure liveable neighbourhoods and well-functioning villages, towns, cities and metropoles.

* Gugu Sithole-Ngobese is a registered professional planner and the founding director of Ziphelele Planning & Environmental Consultancy and Women in Planning SA (WiPSA)


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