Toward the compact green cities of our future

Toward the compact green cities of our future

(This piece first appeared in The Eastern Cape Herald on 4 May 2012)
 If big private capital, has its way Nelson Mandela Bay will, in the coming months see massive new sprawling developments beyond Motherwell to the east and beyond Sherwood to the west. The multi-billion rand Baywest shopping centre along the N2 toward Humansdorp, this month obtained environmental approvals from the MEC, while the process is now well underway to obtain approval for a new R6 Billion mixed residential development beyond Motherwell, along the road to Addo.
The question, I suppose is: Have we, as a community, stopped to think what it is that we are allowing to happen here? Are we happy that our city continues its low density sprawl endlessly, like a tumour, consuming the landscape? Government support for these two proposed developments seem strange and confusing, especially since it has become generally understood that the economy can no longer afford to keep building environmentally destructive sprawling cities the way we have been building since the World War 2. Government policy documents since “breaking new ground” to the first drafts of the National Planning Commission documents are clear that South African cities need to be accessible, compact and break away their divisive spatial and physical past.
In spite good policy documents, South African cities have continued to become massive sprawling, polluting, fossil fuel dependent, crime ridden poverty traps. These cities, in which 50% of our population now live, are monuments to inefficiency and environmental arrogance. To this day, our cities remain memorials to apartheid’s most visible and viscous social engineering projects. But they are also reminders of another massive mistake of recent history! The mistake, with which we must now rapidly come to terms, is that South African cites have been designed under the false assumption and the lie that cheap fossil fuels would be available in perpetuity. This is now proving to be a colossal and expensive mistake.
The International Energy Agency have told us that global oil production has continued to increase year on year, since oil was first extracted from the ground in 1859, but that production has now peaked. In fact the consensus is that oil production peaked sometime in 2006 already. In other words, each and every year since 1859 the world was able to meet the increased demand for fossil fuels by simply finding new oil fields or drilling deeper in old ones. But now, supply is rapidly declining, while demand continues to grow unchecked, most notably to meet the needs of the growing Chinese and Indian economies.
While the implications of peak oil are now broadly understood, what I would prefer to focus on is what this means for how we approach the design of our cities looking forward. Firstly, I would suggest, let us concede that we have got it all horribly wrong up until now. South African cities are of a very low density and have sprawled very widely. The brutal truth is that the general public are going to have to pay a very heavy price for this design error. It is soon going to become unbearably expensive to move around in private motor vehicles. It is going to become unbearably expensive to distribute food and goods within our sprawling cities It is going to become unbearably expensive for police to patrol and for municipalities to collect refuse. Even if our cities suspend their sprawling today, it is still going to be very tough!
Secondly I would suggest that we do not expend any energy in trying to apportion blame for these design errors. We must understand and forgive our Town Planner friends motivated by a fee structure that for years encouraged hectare upon hectare of free standing sites in mundane suburbia and featureless townships. We should understand and forgive our Civil Engineer friends motivated by a fee structure that for years encouraged kilometre upon kilometre of suburban roads, sewers and storm water systems. To vilify these professions and the government departments that briefed them would be futile. Rather let us turn these skilled and committed thinking people to the task of imagining the new compact green cities of the future. Cities where people can walk to work or use public transport. Cities that produce their own food, cities that create vibrant live hoods and cultural diversity.
But thirdly, and most importantly we need to put an immediate stop to the popular myth that profit motivated big developers “know best” about what is good for us and our city’s future. The fact that a big JSE listed developer has acquired cheap land of the periphery of our city and can fill it with government subsidised housing or thousands of square meters of retail clothing stores we don’t need, does not mean that it is good for our city. It does not mean it is good for our economy. It does not mean that is good for our people. In fact, all it means is that our city becomes more sprawled, more distorted and more likely to trap ordinary citizens in an unbearably expensive future where no one wins. We cannot afford to allow this myth to continue any longer.
What I do know for sure is that our generation is equipped and capacitated to change all this, but what I am not so sure of is whether we have the courage to confront or the commitment to stay at it.
We will see.
Tim Hewitt-Coleman 20 April 2012

We are very happy to see the NMMU Missionvale Campus published in the 2012 edition of The South African Architectural Digest.

Architects, Green buildings and Climate Change

(This Article first appeared in The (Easter Cape) Herald on 22 November 2011)
Climate change is a serious threat to our continued success as a species on this planet.
Thankfully we have now developed the consensus that continuously growing human consumption and destruction are a cause for urgent concern.
Much of this continuous growth and destruction expresses itself in what we call the “built environment” The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) tells us that buildings through their life time consume 48% of all the energy consumed on this planet in any given year. That’s a lot!
This energy is consumed during the manufacture of construction materials, the transport of these materials, the construction process, lighting the building, heating the building, cooling the building, cleaning the building, ventilating and eventually demolishing the building and carting away the rubble.
But the UNEP also tells us that good news is that buildings (compared to manufacturing, transport and others) require the least amount of cost to release the greatest impact on limiting green house gasses.
More good news is that in South Africa, Architects and other built environment designers are very well informed of the strategies that are to be employed to transform the built environment. The strategies involve creatively and innovatively addressing aspects including the following:
  • Passive heating
  • Orientation
  • Passive cooling
  • Rainwater harvest
  • Grey water harvesting
  • Water saving
  • Promoting biodiversity
  • Local building material
  • Public transport
  • Embodied energy in Building materials
These strategies are not new. We just now, for the first time since the industrial revolution seem to have the collective will to do something about it and to change the way we build.
Clearly, changing the way we build and employing the strategies that we know need to be employed will require innovation, design leadership and creativity.
We are therefore very fortunate that we do not live in Somalia or Southern Sudan, because in South Africa we have access to the professionals able to provide top quality innovation, design leadership and creativity.
So, what are we saying?
  • Climate Change is a big Problem
  • Buildings are the biggest culprit in this problem
  • Building Industry urgently requires increased levels of innovation, leadership, design and creativity
  • The skill set is in fact already available and ready to be mobilised.
So, what then is the problem?
The problem is that we have adopted public and corporate institutional arrangements that are unable to effectively mobilise that skill to address the challenge. In fact, at a time when we are to rely even more heavily than ever before on our Architects, innovators and designers, we have been caught up in the systematic “commoditisation” of this critical form of leadership.
In both the private and public sector, we have become increasingly obsessed with standardising procurement and “supply chain management” issues. We insist that we procure the services of an Architect to innovate new solutions for the built environment in the same way as we procure toilet paper, grass cutting services or a fleet of refuse trucks. It’s crazy! What results from this standardised procurement practice where “cost is king”, is that the services of the Architect become progressively cheaper and cheaper. The cheaper the product, the poorer the service. Simple!
We are currently doing some work in a city called Chengdu in Central West china.
From our Port Elizabeth office, Architects trained at NMMU and nurtured on the Port Elizabeth design community are doing excellent work designing innovative green buildings in a country where we hear that they plan to build 800 new cities in the next twenty years!
But why are our company’s skills and the skills of hundreds or American and European firms in such demand in China? Not because we are cheaper, not because we are faster, not because we are more compliant than the thousands of Chinese architects. No. It is because we offer innovation, creativity and design leadership. The qualities that could have been abundant among Chinese Architects, if not for the wave of aggressive cost cutting, and “industrial efficiency” that became so widespread during the years of China’s construction boom.
China’s Architects and designers are now very cheap, very fast and completely compliant, but unable to live up to the expectations of the increasingly discerning Chinese private or public sector property developer. So, the developer turns to the “West” .Very sad.
But, it’s not too late for us. We can learn from these errors South Africa still has a very strong community of Architects and other designers focussed on excellence and committed to a better built environment.
So what must we do? What action must we take?
Can I suggest the following?
  • Architects: Can we please snap out of our silly obsession with fashion, Top Billing and playing to the whims of the super-rich and corporate gluttons. There is serious work to be done. We need to save the plan
  • Public and Corporate developers: Can you please make peace with the fact that most of the innovation, thinking and leadership you require to “green” you property portfolio will actually come from outside your institutions from private firms of Architects and other designers. (And yes you have to set up a process more sophisticated than the ones designed to buy pencils and toilet paper to get the best out of these firms)
If we build green buildings we can save the planet. It’s as simple and as dramatic as that . Failure is not an option. We must succeed!

Think Local and create jobs.

(I wrote this article for Port Elizabeth’s daily newspaper, The Herald, it first appeared there on 20 June 2011)
The other day I went to watch our local rugby team play at our local stadium. Some local friends and I have taken a suite at the stadium to support the local economy. So, there I was, drinking some local beer and having a good time. At half time we were brought a meal to help soak up some of the alcohol. After complimenting the waitress on the meal, I was horrified as she explained that the Thai Chicken dinner had in fact been pre-cooked in Cape Town and brought in by truck up the N2 that morning. Come On! Could this be?
This meal was creating employment for someone in a Cape Town factory kitchen? What are we thinking? No, I am not picking on the stadium management. I am sure they are doing a great job. I am picking on us, all of us who live here and who need to develop an awareness that we need to support and grow our local economy. This is where jobs and poverty reduction will come from. It is unfashionable to say this I know, but we must come to see that it is more urgent for us to take action against poverty than against global warming. We must come to see that is more urgent for us to address the local economy than to address Rhino poaching. If we allow this poverty time bomb to explode, it will take out every Rhino, every Elephant, every forest and everything that this country has built up over the centuries. It’s urgent!
I had forgotten about my Cape Town cooked rugby meal by the time the May 18 local government elections came around. But, as I listened to the campaigning, I was struck by how few ideas at all were put forward about issues impacting on the local economy. All I got was a lot of hype about killing Boers, media bias, open toilets and police brutality.
I heard no-one, contesting these elections, articulate any understanding of the challenges facing the local economy. This is odd, because local government can and should play a pivotal role in leading us out of poverty and joblessness. We must, of course, be informed by policy developed at a national or provincial level, but our strategy and tactics need to be made completely relevant to the local economy. It is not clear to me from anything I have heard from local government, what our strategy and tactics are. It seems though, that we have developed the idea that we need “outside investment” or an “export programme” to get our local economy to work. We seem to believe that we need GM to get deals that see’s it export more Hummers to Kazakhstan, or that we need to build an IDZ so we can export Aluminium to Argentinean cooldrink can fabricators! We have come to think that we will be rescued by big investment from “outside”. We believe that somehow these actions will make the poor less poor. I am sorry to say, our thinking is mistaken. In order for us to reduce poverty and create jobs, we desperately need to focus on not only on getting new money to come in, but also on how we ensure that he money that is generated here remains for as long as possible. We must work to ensure that money circulates locally as many times as possible before it vanishes to the coffers of transnational corporations in Johannesburg, Hong Kong or London. This is the challenge that our small city is facing. It is not the same as the challenges that Cape Town, Durban or Dubai are faced with. It is our own challenge. It is a distinctly local challenge and in desperate need of local thinking and local leadership.
Each of you reading this will know how in your homes and in your jobs illogical purchasing decisions are being made all the time. As transnational corporations work harder and harder to expand their global reach, we find ourselves making more and more stupid decisions. We buy Irish butter , we get our takeaway from an American hamburger chain, our cars, even those made in the metro, are in some way part of a scheme to enrich a German or Japanese corporation. We watch foreign TV. We listen to American music. Every time we purchase from these transnational corporations we are taking away from the local economy, we take away from local culture, we damage the environment through waist, emissions and packaging. But what can we do?
Perhaps the first step we must all take is to help each other understand that “localisation” (not Globalisation) of the economy is: Good for the environment, Good for job creation, Good for quality, Good for well-being. Maybe the second step could be to build consciousness through our purchasing decisions. We could buy milk from a local dairy. We could support local restaurants (avoid the chains) We could switch off the TV, watch Bay United or the EP Kings at our local stadiums. We could catch a show at the Opera House. We could buy our food at a farmer’s market. We could start a farmers market! We could grow our own food. We could sell our own food. ….I don’t know. There must be a million things we can do to localise our economy. Let’s choose one, and do it today. It’s Urgent.

Can families root out Poverty?

This piece first appeared inThe Herald (Port Elizabeth) on 8 December 2010.
Nguni Matroos, the one armed geriatric Tsistikama farmer,…an inspiration!

Minister Ebrahim Pattel proposes that the salaries of the rich are frozen. While it is easy to see how this move would score points with the labour movement, the Minister has not argued how this limitation will address the challenge of poverty. We speak a lot about poverty in South Africa.y, rural poverty, “endemic poverty”, “entrenched poverty”. In talking, we have almost abstracted poverty; elevated to the status of an issue. Something requiring the world’s attention like global warming or rain forests. But how much do we really know about poverty? We think we know what poverty is. Surely the answer is obvious. But is it? South Africa like other developing countries are today the front-line, we are at the battlefront of the war against poverty. Here, poverty is real, tangible and palpable. This is not the case in Japan, New Zealand or Sweden.  Our friends in those countries can be forgiven for assuming and arms length theoretical view of poverty. But for us in Africa, we have got to develop an understanding of poverty useful  enough, to use to take action. Poverty is a problem effecting real people with real lives. I have slowly begun to grasp that we often think of poverty as the “inability to consume”. We think that poverty is simply that we haven’t got enough stuff or the money to buy stuff. But I wonder if it would not be better to understand the “inability to consume” rather as the symptom of the problem we are trying to solve. Would it not be more useful for us to see that it is the continued inability to produce and be productive that is the root of poverty?

Much of poverty is caused by ordinary people being robbed of their ability to be productive.  This robbery has been carried out in the name of colonialism, apartheid, crime or capitalism. Government’s welfare and housing programme’s are addressing the fallout from the robbery. They are to be applauded for this effort. But, does a social grant and an RDP house stop poverty? Is a poor woman still poor the day after she moves into her new RDP house? Yes. Of course. She is simply a poor person sleeping under and asbestos roof.  For us to take this woman out of poverty, we need to find out what stands in the way of her being productive. This is where it becomes difficult for government. It is impossible for government to go door to door, intervening at a household level . Government is doing what governments must do. Government have cemented our macro economic fundamentals and they have put in place safety nets for those that are too sick, too old or too young to look after themselves.
So if the institution of government cannot root out poverty at the household level, which institution can? This is where I propose, for discussion, that we do not overlook the family as an “institution”. The family institution has real power and it has broad reach. A family has the ability to identify those of its members who are victims of poverty. If it is not your sister, it may be your cousin, if it not your cousin it may be your second cousin. Extend definition outward from the core as far as you need to find a member trapped in poverty. Once we find this person, I suggest we get personally involved; understanding what obstacles this member faces to being productive. Remember we are trying to help this person to take the first step out of poverty. To earn even R1000.00 a month may revolutionise this family member’s life. What blockages stand in the way of your family member growing chickens? Selling firewood? Making vetkoek?  Mending dresses?  Painting houses? Growing pumpkins? Washing sheets? Baking Bread?  Don’t be cynical or patronising. Remember obstacles that may seem small to you could seem insurmountable to them. Once you agree on the project, help unblock the blockages. It may require a small cash loan, it may require some advice, it may need you to assist with an alcohol addiction, you may need to fence in the chickens to keep the neighbours dogs out. Each situation will be different, but know that you are the best placed person to help. One by one, family by family poverty slowly begins to withdraw to be replaced by a generation of productive, efficient and competitive families.
Could this be the path we should walk? Let us discuss it.