Urban solutions

2014-04-22 00:00

MIGHTY Detroit — once synonymous with American industrial muscle — has fallen to its knees but, in fighting to arrest its decline, it could provide lessons for South African cities.

Famous as “Motor City” when it was the centre of the world’s car manufacturing universe, Detroit’s fortunes have plummeted, along with those of the industry that once defined it. The collapse has been calamitous.

In the decade to 2010, the city’s population fell by 25% to 713 000 — down an astonishing 60% on the 1,8 million people who lived there in the boom days of the fifties, leaving behind a wasteland of abandoned neighbourhoods and urban decay.

In March 2013, the state governor declared a financial emergency and in July last year, the city filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in United States history. The city was declared bankrupt with debts of more than $18 billion.

Last week, as this former powerhouse attempts to rebuild itself, Detroit’s leaders announced a programme to begin auctioning houses in the city for $1 000 (R10 530), a move you would imagine to be a speculator’s dream.

But in an unusual twist, Detroit has attached special conditions to the sales. Buyers have to sign a contract guaranteeing to renovate the homes within six months and to inhabit them within the same time frame.

It’s an innovative move to reverse urban decay in the city’s depopulated wastelands and it’s being tackled neighbourhood by neighbourhood, with 15 houses up for auction in the first round. A local bank has come on board, offering soft loans with a $5 000-a-year (R52 491) loan write-off for every year that the new owners continue to live in their newly purchased homes.

In terms of the Detroit policy, homes that have been abandoned or that are not being developed to a habitable state are to be seized by the city and progressively auctioned under this new policy.

Real-estate developers are not allowed to bid for the properties, nor are entities with a history of building-code violations or those who have defaulted on city taxes.

It’s the kind of policy that could resonate in many South African cities, where slum lords, absent landowners and abandoned or stagnated developments are a rising concern in the urban landscape.

In Durban, for example, an active neighbourhood civic group is battling the very problem that Detroit is tackling with its aggressive policy.

The Save Our Berea campaign is actively targeting stagnant developments that they see as a major threat to the future of the Berea, Musgrave and Morningside neighbourhood but, unlike in Detroit, come up against city policies that do not necessarily protect the interests of existing property owners.

Responding last week to the Save Our Berea campaign’s concerns over two Currie Road developments that have been under construction for years, an eThekwini spokesperson said there is no time limit for a development to be completed, as long as the developer has approved building plans.

Such an approach offers little benefit to neighbours who complained to our reporter that the constant building at the two sites has damaged their property value and left them susceptible to crime, among other problems.

Durban’s policy to allow timeless construction on developments, for example, seems to contradict other progressive policies aimed at securing the future of the city environment through Urban Management Zones, which focus on basics such as cleaning streets, security, managing open spaces and formalising car guards.

Surely a powerful ingredient in this laudable approach would also be tightening up building policies, such as those highlighted by the Save Our Berea campaign?

Last year, Pietermaritzburg introduced tougher bylaws to tackle similar problems, such as the mushrooming of illegal boarding houses in Scottsville, although, as recent Witness reports have shown, they appear to have had little impact a year later.

The decay of the once quaint and desirable homes in Pietermaritzburg’s historic centre tells its own story of the bleak future that lies ahead without the aggressive enforcement of bylaws and other regulations.

Whether Detroit’s approach will work or not is still to be seen, but it does highlight the potential for city authorities to take the lead in tackling urban blight creatively, in concert with other civic actors.

It’s a concept that should, at the least, inspire innovative responses to the many challenges that are facing South African cities.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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