The Three Headed City Monster

(This piece first appeared in my column in the Herald on 20 September 2013)
My wife and I missed our evening walk on Tuesday. I decided rather to attend a critical evening meeting at the PE St Georges club. I usually prefer to avoid evening meetings to do important family work and to” veg out” on the couch with my dogs, but this meeting was different. It was one in a sequence of meetings that report back on the work of an exciting grouping of business leaders volunteering their time to what they call “Project NMB”. Under the direction of volunteers like Kobus Gerber, Michelle Brown and Andrew Barton, the project has in very little time, identified a clear list of “doable” projects that would turn this region around. They speak about plans for public access high speed Wi Fi, they speak about a clean, Green City, they speak about the freedom precinct and they speak about a full calendar events strategy. Great ideas, great clarity and an impressive commitment that comes from the sincere passion of people that know that Nelson Mandela Bay is yet to live its finest hour.
Sitting through the presentations in the Club’s grand and ornate colonial dining hall, I was remind again that this city is not faced with a shortage of great ideas. It is not faced with a shortage of great individuals. It has great weather. It has no malaria. It is not in a warzone nor is it a viable target for multi-national terrorists. So what are the obstacles?  To be honest, I am not exactly sure, but with your permission I would like to try out an argument on you to see if it resonates.
My argument to you is that the most significant obstacle to meaningful spatial transformation of South African cities lies not in a shortage of academic “know how”, not in a shortage on public sector investment, not in a shortage of private sector mobilisation, but rather in the entrenched dysfunctional relationship between the public, private and academic sectors.
Each of these sectors operates increasingly as a “silo”, separate from the next with no mechanisms available for true collaboration. The public sector has become driven by a number of imperatives that require it to “procure” the “services” offered by the private sector in a standardised procedure designed to “procure” anything from light bulbs to toilet cleaning contractors. The obvious fact that public and private sectors can best serve the urban crisis by contributing the best and brightest from their ranks to collaborate in providing, vision, leadership and direction, is of no concern to the faceless authors of our public sector’s “supply chain management” procedure. The unavoidable net result of this strategy is a contested, completely unproductive standoff between the public sector “urban silo” and the private sector “urban silo”.  No vision emerges from this standoff; no leadership emerges from this standoff.
In a similar way urbanists in the “academic silo” come under increasing pressure to focus not on the South African urban crisis, but rather on “purer” academic pursuits. A 23 year old with a Phd that deals with some arcane branch of architectural theory is much more likely to assume a professorship in Architecture that a practitioner with 20 years’ experience in city building. This trend seems unstoppable with a momentum developed from very high up in our higher education community.  Architects who teach are now actively discouraged from participating in private practice. Those from private practice who give on their time and share their experience do so as volunteers. Academics offering to serve the public sectors are treated the same as their private sector counterparts, as a commodity to be bought through a “procurement system” with the same resultant frustration.
In this way the silos grow more and more isolated and positions within them become more and more entrenched, urbanists of otherwise impeccable credentials begin to withdraw into cynicism and isolation. Great ideas are shelved, big visions parked and energy diverted.
The sorry fact is that no workable protocol exists that enables top urbanists from the public, private and academic sectors to collaborate and share thinking on the spatial transformation. Instead we have developed the unsubstantiated and unscientific belief that a formalised, project level “public participation” process will magically and miraculously manifest the big ideas we know are waiting to turn our cities around. Well, it hasn’t and it won’t.
In the world of city building I am afraid “public participation” amounts to no more than  a series of noisy meetings in stuffy halls where the housewife’s, car guards and estate agents clamber for the microphone drowning out the voice of any academic or private sector urbanist with real value to add. Yes, its democratic. Everyone gets a say. But that does not mean that we are harvesting the best ideas from the minds of the few that are excellently placed to take us forward. There is no meaningful collaboration, so we stay where we are.
Is there any solution? Is there any alternative to these dysfunctional relationships? Is there any way out of this urban crisis? Of course there is. These challenges were made by people like you and me and the can be overcome by people like you and me.  It’s up to us to develop new protocols and to have the courage as activists, in whichever silo we sit, to do whatever it takes to push them through, to confront our management, to put ourselves at risk.
The re-shaped cities of the future depend on our action.
Tim Hewitt-Coleman  18 09 2013

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