Look after what we have got.

(I wrote this Column for the 9 April 2014 edition of Port Elizabeth’s daily newspaper, “THE HERALD”)
It was a windy, wet Wednesday. The sound of the angry sea crashing over the rocks was not even audible over the noise of the lone excavator as it crushed and smashed the last remains of what was the Seaview Hotel. Like a deranged beast, like an angry elephant, swinging left and right with its devastating mechanical trunk. The once gracious and manicured Minhetti was no more.
My son sat in the car, dry from the rain, as I stood by the gate, by the sign “Dangerous – Demolition in Progress”. I was not sad nor sentimental, not angry nor frustrated. I did not really even like the Seaview Hotel all that much the once or twice that I had been there. But I was filled with and uneasiness that stirred somewhere deep inside my innards. Over the course of my short life I have not yet been able to figure out what these deep feelings of uneasiness mean, or even whether they are of any significance. I have learned though, that it is normally I sign that I should step back and ponder. So here I sit, this morning, pondering over a fine Cappuccino in an average mall café.
I ponder over how we commit large amounts of energy into showing how frustrated “we” are that “they” demolished “our” hotel, or made potholes in “our” roads. Or how “they” built Greenacres, killing “our” beloved, historical Main Street. We know that it is too late, but still we commit the energy to raise our voice. Like the English complaining about the weather. Is this not a form of insanity? (Knowing nothing can come of our whinging, yet whinging anyhow!) But then I ask myself: ”If it is too late to save the Seaview Hotel, then what is it not too late for?”
I am sure each and every one of us has a best building or favourite neighbourhood, about which we are sentimental. But not each of us has a newspaper column in which to talk about it!
I do.
So, without any shame, I tell you: “Now is the time to take action to save Central, Port Elizabeth.” Framed by Govan Mbeki Avenue, the Baakens Valley, Rink Street and Russell Road, Central is home to the most extraordinary collection of rich and poor, young and old, sinner and saint. All framed in beautiful avenues, delightful squares, quaint lanes and irreplaceable buildings. How long will those of us that find meaning in Central wait before we find the energy to stand up, make a noise and take action? Will we wait for the last heritage cottage to be burned by damp and freezing vagrants? Will we wait for the last antique shop to flee to Walmer? Will we wait for the last coffee shop to tire of hastily hosing vagrant urine of its veranda every morning before the first customers arrive? Will we wait for the last office dweller to driven to Newton Park by the grime, dirt and continuous harassment by street people, drug dealers and petty thieves? When the last housewife, loses her last child in the hip high grass in any number of once perfect parks and playgrounds? Will it be after the bulldozers come, to clear the land, to flatten the monuments? Will it be then that we say “But how could “they” do this to “us”? How can “they” rob “us” of this enduring example of how city living can be tolerable, bearable and even enriching. How can “they” rob “us” of this model of authentic living that was our only contribution to the country’s emerging thinking on the future of the city?
I am sorry my friends, but I must offer to you that we are all delusional. Sadly we have come under the spell of a compelling lie, a myth that there exists such a thing as an “us” and a “them”. We can understand why the politically powerful may find it useful to perpetuate this myth, but it serves no purpose when we are needing to get things done. Right now, the thing that I am motivating, needs to get done, is that we save Central. If you are with me, then let us agree on one action we can take right now, as you put down this newspaper. Go find out more about the excellent initiative underway right now to establish a Special Rating Area (SRA) for Central (basically you pay a bit more rates to get better cleansing, security maintenance etc.)  It’s a “no brainer. SRA’s have been set up all over South Africa and the world.  Jo’burg’s got them. Richmond Hill has just set up an SRA, proving it can be done in our region.
If you do not live, work or invest in Central, all is not lost. Make a point of having a coffee in Parliament Street once a week. Make a point of buying an antique in Lawrence Street once a month, make a point of taking your kids to the Donkin Reserve once a term, make a point on attending a church service once a year in any one of the most beautiful Gothic revival churches. The point I make is, that our energy can be much better spent by expending it before the demolition than after the demolition.
Now that you are clear about what needs to be done: get out and do it! (Please)

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:
Management
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?
Energy
Does the building comply with SANS 204: 2008 (Energy Efficiency in Buildings)?
Transport
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?
Water
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?

Of Fear and Order

(This Column first appeared in The Herald on 7 June 2013)

Article in the Herald – 4 June 2013

For a Saturday morning, things were going pretty much as they usually do. My daughter’s under 10 hockey match at 8:30, a quick croissant and coffee in Parliament Street, then dashing through to Charlo or Lorraine or Summerstrand or wherever ever the birthday party/play date/guitar lessons were on that particular day. To be honest I can’t remember where I was on my way to, but I do remember a mild throbbing in my head recalling a particularly tasty Friday evening Merlot and  I do remember that I drove past the site that Continental Tyres has been trying to rezone for the last two years. The land lies there, fallow, windswept and bare, offering no benefit, no opportunity and no hope. That’s probably why I hardly noticed it and why I certainly did not think of it at all again until I read Mandla Madwara speaking about it in the Herald this week.

Mandla was eloquently complaining that we can’t afford a city where, routine procedures like rezoning get caught up in red tape for such a long time that even the biggest and most well-resourced corporations become exhausted and frustrated to the point of moving their money elsewhere. My concern about this issue though is not so much about the “how” of the rezoning process, but about the “why”. I mean, why are we as a city bothering with ”zoning” at all? Don’t get me wrong. I am all for legislated building regulations that protect us from fires, shoddy construction and stairs that are too steep. I am all for environmental legislation that stops us from building flats over the swamp where the rare three toed frog lives.  I am all for Heritage legislation, that stops us knocking down a quaint settler cottage to build a Seven Eleven.  What I specifically question in this discussion is the reason for the existence of municipal town planning controls.
But what are town planning controls? Quite simply, they are a set of “rules” that the city makes up to tell you what they think you can and cannot do on the land that you bought and paid for. They are rules that tell you that the municipality would prefer, for example, that you pray there, but don’t sleep there, or that ten families may live there, but not eleven. They are rules that tell the shop owner that they are to provide 6 parking bays for their customers when he knows his business customers only need four. Other rules say that you may build two storeys, but not three, or ten meters from your boundary, but not nine. When your idea for what you want to build on your property is different to what the Town Planning controls permit, you have to prepare what is commonly called a “re-zoning” application. It is this application that Continental Tyres has still not got approval for after two years of waiting.
What I am asking myself is: “What would our world look like without Town Planning controls?” Would the resulting city be so intolerable that it would have less economic development? Would such a city create less jobs than the zoned city? Would a city without town planning controls be uglier?
There is of course no way of knowing for sure, but we can get clues from those parts of towns and cities around the world that were built before our contemporary obsession with town planning controls. I have made it a point to visit these places. I find them exciting, vibrant and viable. The best parts of Amsterdam, Mombasa, London, Shanghai, Antananarivo, Buenos-Aires and Stone Town, were all built in an era before anybody dreamed up the idea of “zoning”, “coverage” or “building lines”. In spite of the traffic jams and other minor inconveniences, these are some of the best places in the world to be. If we have developed our municipal town planning controls to prevent our cities becoming like those places, then I think our energy has been grossly misplaced.
It is actually surprisingly hard to find, in any of the Municipality’s documents any meaningful explanation as to why we need town planning controls at all. Heritage legislation explains that its reason for existence is to protect old stuff. Environment legislation explains that it exists to promote biodiversity and other such good things. The National Building Regulations explain that they are there to ensure safe and healthy buildings. But, the closest I can get to a justification for town planning controls is that they promote “order”.
“Order” seems to me to be the opposite of “freedom”. PW Botha used the word “order” a lot to justify his actions in the eighties. I remember the old UPE using the word “order” to justify why its student dress code required men to where pale safari suites with the socks rolled down at the knee. “Order” to me speaks about entrenching the status quo. “Order” speaks to me about making it difficult for a new entrant to the property market to use their property in such a way as to allow them to compete with the old guard.
So, I say to the city fathers: Stop meddling with our freedoms! Trust us. Trust the economy to create the balance. Trust the legislation to guarantee the non-negotiables. Release the landowners of this city to boost the economy, create jobs and stimulate a vibrant and integrated urban experience.

There is no reason to fear!

Freedom and the shape and form of South African cities

Freedom is so complicated. There are so many difficult decisions to make all the time. Do I get Top TV with its new porn channels? Do I marry a gay person? Do I wear a headscarf to work? Do I circumcise myself after high school? Do I circumcise my son at birth? Do I just let my foreskin do its own thing?
It was all so much easier in the old days when they treated us like children. We were told what to think, told what to do, told where to stay, who to have sex with and what gods to pray to.  Now of course, there is so much choice that it is mind boggling and we all suddenly expected to be adults and make up our own minds.
It does seem though that the ideas that we have of freedom take longer to trickle down to some aspects of our lives than it does to others. The aspect that I am quite interested in of course the urban aspect. Cities and town in South Africa now accommodate half the country’s population. That means that 50% of the country’s population now look to towns and cities for the space they need to express their freedom.
So, I ask:
“How has freedom changed the shape and form of our cities since the days of apartheid?”
When I drive the dusty streets of Missionvale or Motherwell, I am struck by how little has visibly changed since freedom. There are still shacks, far and remote from the city. Refuse clutters up open spaces and things seem generally run down. My mother-in-law lives in a cul-de-sac in Connacher Street, New Brighton. (Yes I have the freedom to choose a mother in law from New Brighton) I have been visiting her there since the late eighties and have, since those days, every winter, had to park my car in the same muddy puddle outside her house. Freedom has not yet tarred the dirt road outside my mother in law’s house. Freedom has, though, managed to build a Stadium, a Casino, two five star hotels, a number of glitzy shopping malls, a billion dollar container port and a very big brewery.  Sure, the townships have rows and rows of new concrete block, featureless RDP houses. Some street lights and sewers have been installed, but no matter what way you look at it, we are still faced with a stark and distinct contrast between town and township. There is no blurring of the edges in any way. Yes, millions have been spent on infrastructure. Yes, the scale of the problem is immense, but we would not be doing justice to the challenge by not being brutally honest that we are nowhere near achieving the objective of making “township”, “town”. If we continue to move at this pace, I can assure you, our cities in 20 years’ time, will still be characterised by the terms “town” and “township”.
Many of my friends, I am sure, will say that I am confusing “freedom” with “prosperity” and that we are all now free to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We are all now free to get a fancy job and buy a house in Summerstrand, away from the muddy township streets, littered parks and shack land gangsters. But these friends may be overlooking an important piece of context here. We must remember that the shape and form of our cities is set in the mould of a grand apartheid plan. A spatial plan that not only kept people of different complexions apart, but much, much more significantly, housed  the poor and working class in locations remote from the city centre, remote from opportunity and remote from cultural institutions. It kept the poor remote from all the benefits that come from the proximity generally associated with living in a city. But most curiously and surprisingly, in Nelson Mandela Bay, we have continued to build our city in this mould. We have continued in almost all instances to perpetuate the apartheid city masterplan; locating poor and working people further and further from the centre beyond Motherwell on the road to Addo and beyond Bethelsdorp on the back road to Kwanobuhle.
No matter what we say, poor people are not free to live where they want in the city. Poor people are not free to take advantage of the opportunities that the city has to offer. Poor people continue to be located in such a way and under such conditions as to be lumped with all the disadvantages of rural living, without any of its advantages. They are located in such a way as to be exposed to all the disadvantages of urban living, without any of its advantages. Ask these people to list what has changed in their lives since freedom, and I expect you will not need a very long page.
My argument ,  therefore,  is  that, quite a few (not all) of the causes of poverty and barriers to progress in our city have to do with physical and spatial planning features we have inherited. My further argument is that we have done very little so far to undo this terrible planning legacy, we are instead, perpetuating it.
We can definitely do better, but in order to do so we have to agree that this matter belongs on the agenda and deserves urgent attention. “Business as usual” Is just not an option.
THC

Searching for the real thing

(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 10 April 2013)

It was a particularly miserable Wednesday evening on Stanley Street. The Easter Weekend rain that had washed away the Splash festival had left behind a cold, damp windy drizzle in its wake. But still, the street pavements were full of people; students, yuppies, car guards, artists, hippies, wanabee’s and buskers. It was a week night. It was a wet night. It was a cold night, but still we struggled to get an inside table at a restaurant or find a parking spot.944907_10151899005068975_675733428_n
So, as I sipped my wine outside, on the pavement, huddled in my jacket against the wind, I could not help but wonder a little about why Stanley Street, in Richmond Hill, has become such a popular place to be. I mean, it’s nice, there are people walking up and down, quaint shops and restaurants, trees planted down each side of the street, but no evidence of any flamboyant spending. No dancing fountains, no Zara super store, no four storey high ice-rinked  atrium with glass lifts whizzing silently up and down. Why then, was I, like so many others, rather, instead, not enjoying climate controlled, 24 hour security, undercover parking,  porcelain tiled comfort of any number of malls, shopping centres or franchise eateries available for us to choose from on any given evening. Why was I abandoning comfort and security for this wobbly table on a windy sidewalk in an ageing part of town.  I am sure some would argue that Stanley Street’s popularity has to with the quality of its restaurants. Some would talk about accessibility; others still would guess that about the particular entrepreneurial vision of a key initial property investor.
But I don’t think the success and popularity can necessarily be ascribed to any one of those factors in isolation. In fact, I am trying here to convince you, that what we see in Stanley Street is evidence of a far greater global movement and mind shift. And, of course, it’s not just Stanley Street. We see this re-awakening in Central, we have seen it in the Cape Town inner-city. All through the UK, US and Australia inner-city neighborhoods have become re-invigorated filled with new life, new energy and new business. So, what’s this all about? I am arguing that this phenomenon,  is evidence of the beginning of a wider shift in consciousness which includes the wholesale rejection of all that is fake, a rejection falsehood, pretense and scam.  As mass manufacture, mass media and massive institutions private and public seek do dominate and control, we see beginnings of a backlash and a resistance.
Being continually bombarded by commercial messages and plots to extract money from us has left many cynical and jaded. Growing numbers of people no longer trust big business, big money and big institutions. These powerful “machines” make us stand in queues, they make us talk to their call centres, they keep making us change our passwords, they anger and frustrate us. This new cynicism has led to rush for antiques and collectables instead of cheap Chinese imports  and a rush to social media instead of American TV channels.  Those that still watch TV, watch “reality” TV choosing rather to watch the boring authentic lives of Big Brother housemates over the fake interesting lives of The A Team, Knightrider or the Brady Bunch. More and more people reject branded goods for the hand made alternative. Artisan breads, micro-breweries and a Barista crafting your Cappuccino just the way you like it.
Grassfed beef, whole milk, free range chicken and genuine leather are all part of this movement toward authenticity. Less and less do we tolerate artificial flavouring, dubbed movies or plastic Christmas trees. They are just not the real thing and are not good enough.
A growing number of people are searching for authenticity. People are searching for what is real, sincere and meaningful. For our cities, that means more and more people will come to reject remote suburban malls. More and more people will reject the franchise steakhouse with is standardised happy birthday clap along song and dance. The taste for the authentic drives these people away from the remote, sterile, cookie cutter secure complexes in Lorraine. This movement drives people away from insanely clean, manicured office parks where people live out their days in insanely sterile manicured office jobs.
In growing numbers, people choose Stanley Street and other inner city environs like it, not because they are cleaner, not because it is dryer or less windy, not because the pick pockets and drug dealers are banished, but because these environments feel real, they feel sincere and they feel authentic. These environments exhibit less evidence of heavy handed government planning controls that seek to sterilise and segregate. Houses in a houses zone. Shops in a shops zone and restaurants in a restaurant zone. Buildings neatly spaced out with nice lawn between them. No messy parking in the street. No people cluttering up the pavement. All very clean, but oh so boring and oh so fake.
Perhaps, what we see starting in Stanley Street and in Central can be the beginning of that “special something”  that Port Elizabeth and the Nelson Mandela Bay has to offer the world. PE can’t be more Joburg than Joburg. PE can’t be more Hollywood than Hollywood. PE can’t be more Vegas than Vegas, but PE can be the best in the world at being sincerely, authentically PE, the real thing!
Tim Hewitt-Coleman
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