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Pandemic highlights SA’s social inequalities

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Experts say this is an opportunity to have a new look at town planning and housing policies, with an emphasis on properly managed densification.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone the brightest spotlight yet on South Africa’s housing inequalities and has served as a wake-up call for town planners and housing policymakers. The national hard lockdown saw large families confined to tiny houses with poor ventilation and hundreds of neighbours sharing the same taps and toilets – while they were supposed to be social distancing.

Densification has therefore emerged from the pandemic as an enemy of health security but, as urban planners explain, is actually not to blame. A lack of amenities and infrastructure – which can also be put down to neglect – is.

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The pandemic exposed some of the deep societal imbalances within and across rural and urban spaces and has led to a debate on the value of densification, says Elroy Africa, a developmental activist and professional and former director-general at the Department of Co-operative Governance. He was addressing the recent Women in Planning SA (WiPSA) webinar on the Post-Covid Urban Agenda.

And while the pandemic has been used as an argument against densification, a recent World Bank study of 284 cities in China found that the cities with higher densities “actually fared a lot better than those with lower densities” in terms of how they faced the pandemic and the impact it had on them.

However, as these dense cities were often wealthier and so able to mobilise resources and mitigate their responses, the issue is not necessarily one of densification but overcrowding and access to basic services. “Let us not discard densification as an urban planning tool – and a progressive planning tool.

Maybe, within cities, we need to rethink how we provide basic services to people… Let us begin to deal with the issue of overcrowding but not necessarily throw out densification.” Responding to this address and echoing Africa’s thoughts on densification in the country, Soobs Moonsammy, a town planner and head of urban renewal at eThekwini Municipality, says densification is not the problem but rather “that we densify without any of the necessary services”.

“We densify for the poor… We build and then we walk away.” Claire du Trevou, a director and head architect at Bitprop, a social enterprise that seeks to address housing shortages by allowing private investors to invest in backyard micro rentals, says the pandemic and lockdown have taught critical lessons about many of the country’s housing types.

“At the informal side of the spectrum, we have learnt that the status of quo of one tap per 23 households is not enough and nor is it safe.

“So, we need to address access to water and innovate around how to allow for increased and better access to water and ablutions in informal contexts. “In terms of backyard rental housing opportunities, the zoning regulations in Cape Town’s townships allow for buildings to be built on the boundary of the property, so long as there are no windows and doors on the boundary edge.

This means that often all the windows and doors are on one side of the rental space, and thus there is no cross-ventilation or movement of air.” She agrees that the pandemic has demonised densification in many ways and says that although New York-scale densification is not the answer, “we certainly do need to see an increase in housing density”.

“Densification is a critical factor in allowing for affordable housing to exist. Urban density, if it is done well, has all kinds of benefits.”

Rashiq Fataar, founder of Our Future Cities, says Covid-19 has both highlighted and exacerbated the country’s housing inequalities as many lower-income communities have suffered from higher rates of infection.

When considering future housing provision, governments must “prioritise the creation of healthy neighbourhoods where communities can access all the services, infrastructure and amenities they require within walking distance of their neighbourhoods”.

He adds that many of South Africa’s high-density settlements are well-located in terms of proximity to schools, work, healthcare and other amenities and that discussions of “de-densification” that involves relocating communities are “harmful and non-viable as they involve the forceful uprooting of well-established communities”.

“De-densification proposals have also been shown not to secure the provision of other basic needs such as work and social amenities. Globally, including in ‘developed’ nations, high urban density has contributed positively towards concepts such as mass transport, walkable cities with ‘15-minute neighbourhoods’ and lower climate emissions. Thus, appropriate densification fosters healthy communities.”

Erwin Rode of Rode & Associates says it is crucial for low-cost housing to be near public transport corridors and this implies that highrise buildings are needed to increase density. However, high-rise buildings carry potential social problems and could end in financial collapse if based on sectional title.

“This means sectional title is not practical because one needs tight management. The solution is for social housing agencies and private or listed funds to invest in high-rise rental schemes on transport corridors.”

He also notes that give-away housing has become unaffordable and says South Africa should rather proactively switch to site-andservice schemes which enable people to build their own structures, in a more planned manner, on serviced land.

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