SA City Futures FutureHood: A Project Synthesis Report

The South African government’s National Planning Commission (NPC) placed the persistence and complexity of spatial inequality on the national agenda with the publication in June 2011 of the Diagnostic Reports. The findings of the NPC were not a surprise for urbanists but did drive home the degree to which urban development policy was stuck in terms of reversing and changing patterns of apartheid-era planning and investment. Urbanists also had to admit that the plethora of legislation, policies and other governmental instruments aimed at unravelling the apartheid city was hardly making an impact. As the NPC found, 3spatial inequality was worsening between rural and urban areas, and within urban areas.

Urban thinking and planning also seemed disengaged from the future, besides the evident policy impotence to deal with spatial inequality. The NPC process – the diagnostic and the plan – has brought home to all South Africans the poor preparations for an increasingly turbulent and insecure future. Very few local governments, citizens or civil society organisations are engaged with the implications of future trends in terms of the economy, natural resources, materials consumption, or demographic change linked to socio-cultural transformations. The planning and urban management horizons are firmly fixed on the present, with a timeline of perhaps three to four years into the future.

Cue SA City Futures, a collaborative project formed in 2011 among organisations and individuals variously interested in futures thinking. It turned its attention on the back of these challenges to the nature of the urban planning system and institutional culture across South Africa in order to make sense of these testing conditions. It also explored how South Africa compares with the rest of the world where a number of urban planning and management innovations are finding root, changing the prospects of cities and people for the better.

This collective of public interest partners joined forces as a Reference Group to speculate around related issues and work together on developing an exploratory framework to re-imagine city trajectories in an interdisciplinary format. It was the beginning of an iterative process that culminated in a series of workshops held during 2013 and 2014 that produced some outcomes; this synthesis report is a joining of the dots between. The Reference Group comprises: South African Cities Network (SACN), African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town, Architects’ Collective (AC), Centre for Science and Industrial Research (CSIR), Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA), and other organisations in support.

As brief backstory, the contemporary urban planning system in South Africa has four dominant elements. Firstly, the Integrated Development Plan (IDP), which is a statutory requirement and covers the five-year term of office of the incumbent government. IDPs are meant to be a strategic planning framework produced through participatory deliberative processes but in practice they are more akin a yellow pages-like compendium of municipal sectoral plans and priorities.

Secondly, each municipality produces a spatial development framework (SDF), which is meant to be both an informant and outcome of the IDP. Again, in practice, most SDFs are classic spatial master plans that reflect the ideals of municipal planners but hardly impact on the investment decisions of private companies and households.

Thirdly, ward planning is performed to reinforce the ward-based political representation but these plans are also often meaningless. The main reason is that ward boundaries do not have any developmental logic. They simply reflect geographical catchments for a given number of voters. Since these elements are essentially short-term in scope (with the exception of the SDF) and ineffectual in addressing deep structural challenges associated with spatial inequality, it is not that surprising that urban governments are failing to solve the legacies of apartheid-era planning and regulation.

The net effect of these failures is that the de facto planning power resides in the large engineering departments of local government that are responsible for operating sectoral fiefdoms to deal with roads, stormwater, energy, waste treatment, water, and to some extent, public transport planning. The plans and expenditure of these departments have long lead times and the consequent projects have very long life-cycles, in the range of 60-100 years. However, these departments are driven by narrow sectoral concerns that can in fact serve to reinforce the status quo in terms of spatial arrangements, social interactions and 5economic location. In this sense, sectoral plans tend to reinforce the status quo and take a very narrow view of the future.

With a sobering awareness of these deep institutional challenges, the Reference Group came together to embark upon an experimental journey to develop a more creative public pedagogy to envision alternative city futures. The founding partners agreed from the outset that the project – called SA City Futures – had to be experimental and, by extension, flexible and open-ended. The project sought to promote the importance of futures thinking and exploration into the local government planning realm, with a bias to the enrolment of citizens at the neighbourhood scale. It sought to bring greater clarity to current thinking and practice by providing participants with a compelling experience of creative futures engagement. Its premise was not to offer forecasts but rather to clarify the importance of understanding and engaging with future probabilities. At its core was the belief that if the project could deploy visualisation techniques more effectively, it could induce a qualitatively different and improved social dialogue between actors with an interest in fostering more vibrant and resilient cities.

The project would, however, resist the temptation to produce firm policy conclusions and recommendations and rather offer a set of reflections that could inform and infuse various forums, processes and methodologies. It was driven by a hunch that through creative process facilitation, a way should be figured for participants to move between cognitive data and rational reasoning on the one hand and affective, emotional registers on the other. Also, participants needed to navigate between the present, the past and the future in ways that illuminated individual and collective pathways to instil confidence that alternatives were conceivable. Lastly, different levels and scales of urban development from the vantage point of the neighbourhood were to be privileged as opposed to the municipality as a whole, which is typically the reference point of local authorities.

Concretely, these imperatives were captured in the project workshop methodology as a dynamic articulation of three lenses on the South African neighbourhood: Future Sim (facts, statistics, trend data and maps), Future Form (the built environment and space) and Future Narrative (storylines of contemporary and future life). How exactly these lenses would be defined and activated in situ was the focus of the first phase of the project, anchored by ACC but continuously refined through engagement with the Reference Group. The substance of the FutureHood methodology is unpacked in the subsequent chapter, from its first iteration to its final refinement following experimental workshops in four sites. Later in this Report, following Outcomes and Findings, we delve deeper in the Context chapter into an analysis of the planning status quo and how this City Futures project initiative may complement, subvert and extend those deeply entrenched practices.