A tale of new cities

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The Greater Lanseria Master Plan is an ambitious development of Gauteng’s West Rand.
The Greater Lanseria Master Plan is an ambitious development of Gauteng’s West Rand.

The government’s plan to build a new post-apartheid city is not a novel idea, but it is an idea that requires innovation, implementation and investment. 

The recent news flow saw the announcement that South Africa was looking at building the ‘first new post-apartheid’ city got me thinking. Firstly, SA has built or is in the process of building several “new cities”. Waterfall, Steyn City and Lanseria smart city all stand out as built or in process, exposing the announcement for what it was, a political grandstand aimed at driving a narrative of progress.

But dreaming big when your existing cities are crumbling is not an entirely futile exercise if it spurs the out-of-box thinking, innovation and implementation required to arrest the decline of existing cities and change more than the narrative. It’s also important to highlight the fact that the terminology of “new city” likely refers to the concept of a planned city or community in contrast to the organic growth of older cities.

Cities and their evolution are a global phenomenon. While many Western metropoles have seen their prime and are witnessing their sunset, new cities continue to emerge as engines for growth in many of the world’s frontier and emerging economies. This process of the rise and fall of new centres is as old as time itself, from the building of Memphis as Ancient Egypt’s first capital and planned city, to the conceptual and ambitious projects of Neom in Saudi Arabia and Masdar in the UAE.

Cities are an engine for economic growth, but is it the magic pill to growth and prosperity? No.

Not only in antiquity, but even more recently, stories of ill-conceived vanity projects highlight how capital can be misallocated in building new shining urban centres without any underlying raison d’être.

How many have heard of Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, and its gleaming white marble buildings? Even with its purpose as an aerotropolis and some of the “smartest” tech aimed at addressing clean energy, traffic flow and an abundance of green space, Songdo in South Korea has sputtered and struggled to “take-off” despite billions of dollars in investment.

This is because smart cities don’t necessarily make sustainable communities. Rather than build cities and try to import people, I posit that we build cities around our people. In a rapidly urbanizing world, SA does have a pressing need to ensure that its own urbanisation trend is adequately catered for and managed to maximise the economic and social benefits that urbanisation aims to bring.

There is some research that suggests that retrofitting legacy cities with modern infrastructure is more expensive and complicated than a clean slate. SA’s spatial inequalities may confirm this view although I believe that such spatial issues are not magically waved away by placing a gleaming new city on an unused piece of land. Just looking at how newer developments in SA have become further enclaves for wealthy South Africans to cocoon themselves addresses this point.

Cities thrive on middle classes. And this should be the crux of the narrative. It’s the classic case of two birds with one stone. The state has proven itself deficient in sustaining world class levels of service delivery. It is time to partner with the private sector to reinvigorate the sunk equity and revive its metropoles.

Smart cities are all about increasing efficiencies and improving the quality of services for their residents. It is fortuitous that the time of the “smart city” coincides with the deepest pressing need to rebuild SA urban centres.

South Africa’s challenges of clean energy and energy security, water distribution and even rubbish collection are all part of the global focal points on how smart cities can address better service delivery, governance, and accountability.

It starts with measurement. The era of 5G and big data are making accessibility of sensors and communication prolific. Citizens deserve to know the extent of the problems. It’s in the cold hard facts and the data which should be made opensource.

By starting here, it removes the ability for city officials to sugar coat service delivery. Either a bin is emptied when full or it isn’t. Sensors can indicate when water flow is degraded, highlighting burst pipes. Sensors can tell when streetlights are out. CCTVs with facial recognition can go a long way in addressing crime. It need not be sinister. Smart traffic lights can use algorithms to optimize the flow of traffic, route reallocation and minimize fuel and time costs.

We haven’t even gotten into the prospects of smart mass transit, self-drive vehicles, urban farming. The possibilities are endless. But SA needs to get through the first tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy if it is to aspire toward the higher aims open to the rest of the world.

With accountability, SA need not necessarily attempt to attract billions from global investors. With opportunities that address the concerns of its citizenry directly, SA needs to realize that its citizenry may be both the customer and the investor in this equation. Partnership with the private sector and civil society have yielded inspiring results in the past. It’s time for government to make space.

Rather than descending into a Dickensian “Tale of Two Cities”, let SA rather craft its own “Tale of New Cities”.

Mohammed Nalla, CFA, is the founder of and Magic Markets. 

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This article was written exclusively for finweek's 17 September newsletter. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

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