Has the time come for us to start re-ruralising?

Nope, I don’t have any answers, but I do find it entertaining to talk about things that interest me.

(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 16 June 2022)

It’s a grey and dreary winter’s day. My thoughts go to Youth Day as I drive down Buffelsfontein road toward my regular Walmer coffee spot. My mind dwells on the sad truth that the passenger seats in my car are all empty. My children have now grown and left this town for a brighter future. No youth in my car this youth day.

Buffelsfontein Road standpipes

My gloomy sadness is interrupted though, by an unfamiliar sight by the side of the road. A makeshift water station on the verge with a number of emergency taps on light blue plastic standpipes. Our answer to “Day Zero,” I am told, has been to drill boreholes in strategic spots and allow people to fill containers of water enough to drink and cook and clean with. Later, over coffee, I can’t help but think, that if ever there was a monument built to mark the failure of government in this town of ours, then these blue standpipes are it. No political argument, no beaming Politian’s picture in the press or free pop concert for the masses can argue away these pipes. They are there standing boldly as monumental evidence of our inability to manage the affairs of this city region. The unavoidable truth is that government is failing at the most basic and fundamental level. Running water and flushing toilets are not rocket science. Running water is the most fundamental and non-negotiable starting point of what we have come to expect from urban living.

I am sorry to tell you though that I really don’t have any answer to the water problem. I’m simply using this very visible failure as an excuse to talk about a question that’s interesting to me right now:

Is it not time we begin to re-ruralise?

Is it not time that we accept that our current system, just does not have what it takes to effectively manage towns and cities? I mean, have you driven down the main road in Humansdorp lately? It’s one continuous pothole. Makhanda has had water problems for years. Mthata is chaos!!

Is it corruption? Is it white monopoly capital? Is it the construction mafia? Is it lazy officials who earn fat salaries but don’t deliver? I’m not interested in those questions right now. I am interested rather to zoom out a bit and consider the slightly larger question of why it is that we, as a civilisation, have decided to build cities and towns in the first place and whether the conditions that seemed to make cities and towns a good idea way back then, still prevail.

I can completely understand why the first towns and cities must have sprung up all those thousands of years ago in Iraq and elsewhere. Back then it was so much easier to get all the cool stuff you needed by living in a city like Eridu. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker were all right there. By contrast, your rural cousin had to figure out how to make what ever cool stuff he wanted all by himself. Living in the countryside was a ball ache!

With time, through the growth of civilisation, the industrial revolution and right up to the 21st century, cities became increasingly sexy. The city meant, running water and electricity. It meant education for your kids. It meant music and entertainment. It meant fun church and religious activities. It meant access to more potential romantic partners. It meant access to better health care. City living though (for all but the very rich) came at a huge price. City dwellers contend with crime, bad food, air pollution, overcrowding and worst of all; jobs to pay for all these conveniences and cool stuff. But perhaps the biggest price we paid was the loss of our connection with the land, the fresh smell of rain on the soil and the feeling of being part of the glorious living organism that is our mysterious planet.

What I see lately though is a glimmer of an exciting shift brought about by rapidly advancing technology. A discernible adjustment in focus from urban to rural. Thanks to solar and battery technology, we no longer need to live in a city to run a fridge or computer. Thanks to cheap electric pumps and plastic piping, rural homes can have running water and flush toilets. Very soon, even remote rural areas will have super-fast satellite internet. This will give rural people access to the highest quality education through apps like Udemy, the highest quality preaching for the religious-mined though apps like YouTube. It will give access to a huge pool of potential romantic partners through Tinder and Instagram. Sure, living in the city will still give you somethings that you just don’t get in the country, but I am open to the idea that the scales will begin to tip. As city living becomes increasingly less bearable, as we are no longer able to shower or water our tomato plant and as rural living becomes slightly less tedious, we make be shocked to see a landslide of people beginning to Re-ruralise. Of course, this trend will begin with the rich, but as we have seen with all technological change, these trends spread very, very fast to the poor. (Remember how cell phones were first just for millionaires and rock stars?)

I am very excited to see all this unfold in the very near future. Are you excited too?

“Less is More”

(This Piece first appeared in The Herald in Nelson Mandela Bay on 3 November 2021)

It’s a blustery voting day in Nelson Mandela Bay as I sit to write this morning. I’ve not yet voted but did check out the length of the queue at the Walmer Town hall on my way back from gym. The crowd will probably die down a bit later and I’ll pop in then as a physical expression of gratitude that I live in a functioning (if imperfect) constitutional democracy. I must be completely honest though; it is not all easy for me to decide who to vote for. When I peer into the faces on the lamp pole posters of those that are asking us to make them mayor, I am not at all convinced that any one of them has even the foggiest idea of what needs to be done to address the physical and spatial challenges that stand in the way of Nelson Mandela Bay becoming a world beating city. (I am not judging them either. They have had to spend their entire careers doing the things people need to do to rise in political life. What time could they possible have had to ponder on the shape and form of the city?) But really, I am not at all convinced that any of the hopefuls even have a remote grasp of the mechanisms of local government that cause a city, (any city) to take on the shape and form that is does. The shape and form of Venice or Stone Town or Rio or Havana is not accidental. The shape and form of these beautiful cities are the result of layers upon layers of human decisions taken by leaders over decades and centuries. Where cities have become good places to work or visit or raise children, they have become so because of the decisions that successive leaders in these cities have made. While this statement of fact is entirely beyond dispute, we find that the political campaigning that has preceded the 1 November vote is almost completely devoid of any discussion around the physical shape and form that we would like our city to take. What is their vision for our spectacular beachfront? What is their vision for Njoli Square? What is their vision for Schauderville Korsten? Will they build the International Convention Centre that has been promised for so long? Well, its too late of course to ask these questions. By the time you read this, the election is all over and we are well on our way to the first meeting of the new council. So perhaps rather I should offer a few words of advice to the incoming mayor and the incoming council.

So then, here is my simple advice: “Less is more”. Yes, that’s right. “Less” is what you should be aiming for, not “More”. It was the famous German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that first popularized this slogan among designers around the world in the 1950’s. But the truth is that the wisdom of this aphorism goes way, way back. Even in the time of the great Lao Tzu, the concept of Wu Wei became mainstream in China, where great leaders came to see the power of “non-doing”. Today we see this thinking spread on Instagram and Netflix by the followers of Marie Kondo, that encourage homemakers to discard everything from their living spaces that does not “spark joy”. But what can this great and ancient wisdom of “Less is More” mean to you as a new installed mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay? Well, it could mean many things, but I would urge you to see it simply as “Less Projects” and “Less Rules” is “More Progress” and “More Prosperity”.

Let me talk first about “Less Projects”. In my time in business in this town since the early 1990’s, I have seen Metro mayors try and fail to get a number of grand projects off the ground. I can mention Bayworld, The Statue of Freedom, The International Convention Centre, The Schauderville Korsten Urban Renewal and the Njoli Square Development. My advice…. Pick one!! Yes of course don’t forget about the routine stuff like fixing potholes and keeping the taps working, but when it comes to novel, game changing projects that will take our city region to the next level, pick one and run with it! When you are done, pick another one. Drive the project at the highest level. Yes, you are Mayor drive it yourself! Don’t think that paradigm changing projects can be delegated down into the deep ranks of the various departmental silos. We have tried this. It does not work.

Secondly, please. Commit yourself to “less rules”. Our metro and others around the country are struggling to administer the various applications that are made to Council to be given permission to vary from one or other rule that impacts on what private property owners may do with their money on land that they own. My advice is that you get rid of all but the most essential rules. (and you will find that there are very few that are essential). You will be surprised to see how quickly the private sector responds and what construction boom will follow along with the thousands of jobs the government can simply not be expected to create.

That’s it. Follow this advice. Give it a try. Its free and it’s easy to do. Trust me; you will thank me when you are re-elected in four years’ time!

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Urban Agriculture Now!!

All over the world Urban Agriculture Projects, big and small, provide a critical lifeline, offering food security and small-scale business opportunities to those that may otherwise have become the burden of the tax payer.

May be an image of outdoors and text that says "AgriculituralAllmets Agricultural Allotments Industrial Developments AHIE Integration with potential industrial SMME development Durtan Road"

The Korsten Schauderville Urban Design Masterplan identified and measured the feasibility of a strategically located Urban Agriculture Project to the South of the N2 at the northern extreme of Durban Road. The local authority has the land. The funding required is minimal. Local local authority employs highly skilled (and highly paid) officials who have the capacity to deliver these (relatively simple projects) It’s is therefore curios and confusing to see that no progress at all has been made toward implementation. No apology offered….Nothing

Schauderville Korsten Urban Design Masterplan

When I first came to work on the Schauderville Korsten Urban Design Masterplan (for the MBDA) , I suppose I thought of it as a “local” or “neighborhood” intervention, but by the time we were done I came to understand that this crucial node has a substantial and significant commercial and civic role to play in the bright future of our city region.

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What interests me, is that while this consultative Urban Design process was carried out in 2015 already, it is still continually referred to in community discussions that focus on these issues. To be honest though, I am two minds about processes like these. On the one hand I can see how it is important that a community comes together and develops consensus about a picture of what they see for their urban future. On the other hand, I see how frustrating it is for people living in very difficult conditions to wait and wait and wait for any implementation to happen. So what do we do?

As an Architect and an Urban Designer, I am paid to do this work, but the community representatives who volunteer many hours and long nights (and their reputation in the community) are very often left asking “was it really worth it?” . They don’t see the projects being implemented. All they see are the disappointed faces of their neighbors as the pass them on the same derelict and dismal streets that were there before Tim and his team came to town.

I think though, if I was president of the world and could choose only one building to implement out of large collection of great projects that make up the Schauderville Korsten Urban Design Masterplan, then it would be the proposed Korsten Transport Mall (on Durban road, next to Mercantile Hospital) – Korsten is a key “intermodal zone” in the city region, but has almost no public capital infrastructure to support this essential function. Durban Road is almost always in a state of unmitigated chaos as a result of this failure to invest.

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So lets see! Maybe we are all just being impatient. These things perhaps just need a little more time.

Schooling without schools and other lessons from 2020

This piece also appears in the Independent Schools Association Magazine of July 2021 and The Herald on 3 May 2021.

I must admit that I had only a passing interest in the 2020 Matric results released last week.  I have been busy with other things and I refused to be drawn by those who would like to entangle me in pointless political discussion and develop an opinion on whether these results serve as evidence that the government is doing a good, bad or average job. I can tell you though that what did catch my interest is what I did not see.

St Dominics Priory – Probably the most beautiful school in the world!

What struck me, in fact, was the absence of a widespread collapse of the matric results in spite of the fact that for the most part of the 2020 school year, those preparing for matric were not able to make use of the very expensive buildings we have come to think of as essential to the education system. Rather, what we  saw was the incredible resolve of ordinary learners and ordinary parents and ordinary teachers doing whatever they could with whatever they had, to overcome what was by all measures and extraordinarily terrible year.

Architects (and others in the construction industry) found to their dismay perhaps that the sad fact that school buildings could not be used for the most part of 2020 did not seem to devastate learning and teaching. You see, Architects are generally blessed with very large egos and it is very hard for us to come to terms with the fact that the buildings we commit our lives to creating are not the centre around which the universe revolves! Besides, we are still reeling from the blow to our sense of worth dealt by the #FeesMustFall campaign of 2017. Let me explain. I remember being an external examiner that year for an incredibly talented group of final years in the Nelson Mandela University Masters degree in Architecture. For much of 2017 these students preparing for the exam could not get to campus. They could not access the library, the studio or the labs. When it came to the exhibition and examination, that was the climax of their year, they were prohibited by those threatening violence, from using the Architecture department’s studio space at NMU’s south campus. Seemingly unperturbed, the clever leadership at the NMU Architecture department made arrangements and transformed the City Hall in Govan Mbeki avenue into a very comfortable (and in fact memorable) examination and exhibition venue. I found to my surprise that other departments and faculties had made similar arrangements in public buildings throughout the city to ensure that their students were able to safely and comfortably continue with the examinations programme. I was left wondering that year if the very successful response by the NMU leadership to the #Feesmustfall campaign’s attempt to deprive students access to the campus meant that we no longer needed university buildings? In the same way, I am now left wondering if the acceptable Matric 2020 results mean that we no longer need school buildings. But after having given this some thought over the weekend, I can tell you that, no, I don’t think so. We do need these buildings. But I do think that the events of 2020 (and of 2017) help us see that we have significant spare capacity in our building stock. There is spare capacity in middle class houses that allow schooling to continue in the case of a COVID lockdown and there is notable spare capacity in civic buildings throughout Nelson Mandela Bay that will allow even large institutions like the NMU to run a complicated and sophisticated examinations programme without the use of its campuses.

So what is this truth telling Architects and the construction industry? No, the message is not that we don’t need any new buildings ever again. I think rather the clear message is that we need to design and plan for flexibility. We need to design and plan for the inevitability (not just the possibility) that our buildings will need to be re-purposed many times over in their lifetimes. The one thing that we know about the next crisis is that it is very unlikely that we will be any good at predicting it and therefore very unlikely that we can make any specific plans for it. What we do know though is that we can make ourselves ready for change. What this means practically in the built environment is that we need Land Use Management systems that allows repurposing to happen effortlessly and organically. We need a Land Use Management system that allows and promotes continuous tinkering and tweaking of buildings to meet what is very likely to be the almost continuous environment of change that we will face for the foreseeable future. Gone are the days when we can cut and paste the zoning schemes, by-laws and regulations that limit and give shape and form to our city. This kind of cut and paste thinking will not do in politics, it will not do in business and it certainly will not do in the built environment. Our future success demands constant tinkering with and re-purposing of our political institutions, constant tinkering and re-purposing of our business institutions and constant tinkering with and re-purposing of our built environment. This is the only way in which our economy and our society will continue to evolve new strength and the only way in which we stand any chance of surviving the next crisis that we know will come.

The Independent Schools Association of South Africa Magazine – Winter Edition 2021