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

We can all take green action

(this column first Appeared in The Herald on 7 August 2013)

I spent last Sunday afternoon strolling around the exhibits at the Homemakers fair in Port Elizabeth. I had a reasonable cappuccino, did not lose any children and managed to cleverly avoid a route that passed by the super expensive leather lounge suite my wife has had her eye on.  All in all, not too terrible an outing. But as I drove home on that wintry afternoon, I caught myself harbouring curious, little, almost subconscious feelings of guilt for not buying all the cool and trendy “green” home improvement technologies on offer. I shrugged off the guilt very quickly as I came to see for the first time that we have been lead very cleverly into a trap of believing that climate change is our fault because we have not bought the latest vacuum tube solar water geyser, or the rainwater harvester with in- line UV sanitizing, or the super efficient wind turbine with deep cycle batteries. We have somehow allowed ourselves to be conned into believing that in order to solve the problem on years of excessive consumption, we have to buy more stuff!

 I love all of these new technologies. They are so much fun. It gives a sense that all of us are pioneering a new path in some way. But, there is a lot more that we can do to bring about greener buildings. No, I don’t think its practical that we all start living in houses made of coke bottles and Checkers packets and I don’t think that we should feel guilty about not being “hippy” enough to do it.
The action that ordinary working people can take has much more to do with the choices we make than the new things we buy. Allow me to give some practical examples. Walk into your boss’s office and ask if the building has had an air tightness

test done, showing “leakage rate of less than 15 cub m/hr/sqm at relative pressure of 50 Pa”. Explain to your boss that an air tight building requires less heating and less cooling and therefor uses much less electricity, therefore burns less coal, therefore causes less climate change.

Or how about this? In your next job interview ask what percentage of the space is “naturally ventilated in accordance with SANS 10400”. Explain you anticipate receiving more than one job offer and one of the factors that will help you choose is the Indoor Environmental Quality of your future place of work.  Or perhaps when you choose a school for your child, be sure that you select  one that offers 60% or more of its teaching spaces with a “daylight factor of not less than 2% at desk height under a uniform design sky”. You don’t even need to know exactly what this stuff means (I have put a comprehensive looking list on the Urban Circle Blog. This may help).
By taking these actions you get two things to happen. Firstly you can make an informed decision and vote with your feet, letting the market slowly isolate the big property owners who are not getting with the programme and rewarding those that are. Secondly you are sending a clear message with each action that Green Building issues such as these need to be put on the agenda of these large organisations, that these are not just “nice to haves”, but “must haves”.
Next time you buy a house or rent a flat tell the agent you only want to see properties that comply with SANS 204: 2008 (energy efficiency in buildings). If a thousand of us or even a hundred of us start doing this, property developers will very quickly begin to respond.  When you sign up for a gym membership make sure the gym uses harvested rainwater to flush its toilets and to irrigate its garden. If there is no gym that does this, then choose the one that promises to do it in the shortest period of time.
Many of these actions are longer term and slower moving, but what you can do today to reduce greenhouse gases is to walk from your office to the ATM. Walk from your home to the supermarket. Take a bus to the Library. Walk to the post office. If your place of work is not within 400 m of an ATM, a post office and a supermarket, get another job. If you are a business person looking for new premises, choose one within walking distance of public transport and the basic amenities people need every day. In this way we reduce the number of cars and the emissions they cause. We will reduce the amount of electricity required to process the steel to make these cars. We will reduce the amount of petrochemical asphalt required to build the roads on which we drive these cars up and down.
What I think I am saying is, don’t underestimate the value of the action you can take every day. These actions all help toward the creation of greener buildings and a greener city. If you can buy the expensive new technologies that make you home greener, please do. If you can live in a house made of re-cycled plastic, please do. But if you can’t do those things right now, don’t feel guilty. There is a lot you can do to get the big guys in business and government to take notice and to change things around.
Start today.
THC 1 08 13

How green is your building?

 People often make vague references to how “green’ their building is. The Green Building Council of South Africa has a very comprehensive system of “star ratings” which definitively rate a building’s greenness. You may want to pressurize your employers to make sure their premises are green, We have worked through the Green Building Council’s thick manual and come up with this short list of questions you can ask your boss about the building in which you work:
Is there a building users guide explaining all aspects of how the building is best used to achieve green objectives? If not, when will there be one available?
Has an a air tightness test been carried out showing leakage rate of less than 15 cub m/hr/sqm at relative pressure of 50 Pa?
Indoor Environmental Quality
Is 95% (or more) of the usable area is naturally ventilated in accordance with SANS 10400-O (minimum 5% openable area)?
Are external views are available to 60% (or more)  of the usable area, by direct line of sight?
Does 60% or more of the usable area have a Daylight Factor of not less than 2% at desk height level under a uniform design sky?
Does the building comply with SANS 204: 2008 (Energy Efficiency in Buildings)?
Is there reliable public transport within 1000 m?
Are any four of the following within 400 m of public entrance of building:
·         bank/atm
·         convenience store/ supermarket
·         medical facilities
·         post office
·         restaurant
·         Gym
·         Library
·         School.
Does your building accommodate cyclists with showers and bicycle racks?
Are 50% (or more) of the toilets in the building flushed with harvested rainwater?
Is 50% of more of landscape irrigation achieved with harvested rain water?

Cottage roof repairs

The thing is……each of the trusses is not level with the next, so we have to fit purpose built “spacers” to each top cord before we can place the purlins. This takes a lot of time and effort. My arms are tired. My legs are tired. But my spirit is soaring!