People-centred planning

2009-01-05 00:00

If our cities are to become sustainable, South Africa needs to adopt innovative new approaches to town planning and technology.

The way our cities are currently planned is an ode to the automobile, and a time of cheap oil, cheap power, and an assumption that the environment has an infinite capacity to supply natural resources and to absorb endless pollution. Current urban designs are wasteful, toxic, energy- intensive, extremely costly to build and maintain, and harmful to the environment.

For example, the Msunduzi Municipal area maintains 49 water reservoirs, 32 sewer pump stations and 1 450 kilometres of sewage pipeline. Roads cover 1 825 kilometres, and storm water drains 2 000 kilometres. A total of 72 637 electricity consumers and 19 894 streetlights require an 11KV electricity-line network of 1 206,64 kilometres. Yet of a population of about 600 000 people, just over 75 000 are provided with adequate infrastructure, water and sanitation.

Challenges for local government to meet infrastructure demands are immense, yet local governments are constrained in charging for services by the low incomes of much of the population. In the Msunduzi area about two thirds of the population fall into the low-income category.

By popularising private motor vehicles, cheap oil has contributed to urban sprawl. Cities have become planned around vehicle use, rather than around convenience for pedestrians.

The practice of zoning has meant that places of work, education, child care, health facilities, entertainment, and markets or shopping areas are often far from residential areas and from each other, making it essential for people to travel about extensively by vehicle, adding to the cost of living.

This is exacerbated by private property developers whose new developments seldom take a holistic, integrated view of urban development, but tend to concentrate on particular sectors, leading to a segmented approach to urban planning.

In a dry country such as South Africa, providing adequate water supplies is problematic. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism’s 2006 South African Environmental Outlook (SAEO) reports that that current patterns of water use are exceeding water supplies.

In 2000, the Mvoti to Umzimkulu water management area had water requirements of 798 million cubic metres per annum, but a local yield of only 523 million cubic metres perannum. Of this, 408 million cubic metres per annum were used for urban domestic use.

One of the causes of the recent Eskom power cuts was low electricity pricing which failed to cover generating and infrastructure maintenance or upgrading costs, as well as wasteful use by consumers.

Innovative and integrated urban planning can do much to improve the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of modern cities.

Designing built environments around people, rather than around vehicles, requires a return to “human-scale” development, where public facilities and amenities are clustered within walking distance of community members, or easily accessible via public transport. “Planning for people” translates into planning to create relatively self-contained, compact communities, which are linked by effective public transport routes. This requires greater integration between working environments, residential areas, and recreation and shopping amenities.

Leading urban planners have designed settlements along these lines in the Dutch communities of Ecolonia, Morra Park and Ecodus, and the Scandinavian developments of Viikki, Orebro, and Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm, while the Japanese city of Tsuruoka has been planned so that a single arterial road links a compact urban centre to a network of smaller, rural-based compact suburbs.

Common to all these sustainable urban designs are the use of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power, buildings that are optimally designed to conserve energy and water, extensive use of recycling of water and other resources, limited access for private vehicles combined with effective public transport, integrating work areas into residential areas, and easy access to local public facilities such as markets, health and education facilities via pedestrian walkways and good public transport systems.

Biodiversity is promoted through extensive natural “green corridors”, and integrating nature into human settlements as much as possible.

Food gardens and urban agricultural centres are planned into the designs to help secure local food supplies, reducing the price of fresh food and carbon emissions, and creating employment.

Extensive waste recycling reduces landfill waste, pollution, the use of expensive raw materials, the

consumption of non-renewable resources, and creates jobs and economic opportunities. Organic waste is recycled as compost to fertilise urban agricultural centres.

Water recycling techniques, such as having dual plumbing systems which recycle “grey” water (water that has been used for dishwashing and bathing, etc) for toilet flushing and irrigation are inbuilt. The capture and use of rainwater runoff (for example by having rainwater tanks collect roof runoff) is also commonplace.

Research shows the infrastructure of such holistically planned areas is significantly more energy-efficient, cost-effective in long-term operating, “environmentally friendly”, sustainable, less wasteful and polluting, and more community orientated and stable than is the norm in “business as usual” city planning.

• Val Payn is studying for a post-graduate degree in sustainable development at Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute. She is a founder member of the NGO Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC).

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