EcoDistricts Goes to South Africa: Lessons Learned from Johannesburg and Cape Town Low Emissions Program

In 2017, South Africa was gripped by an emerging climate crisis that would begin to threaten the economy and political order. Cape Town and Western Cape Province were quickly running out of water. As experts from all around the world mobilized to tackle the challenge, EcoDistricts began a two year engagement with the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town to explore how urban and community development could improve climate resilience and equity outcomes. Seeing an opportunity to link the water crisis with Cape Town, and Johannesburg’s recent commitments to transit oriented development with building a significant number of social and mixed income housing units, we partnered with the USAID Low Emissions Development Program (LED) to design a series of capacity building workshops to build support for neighborhood and district-scale equitable and sustainable development.

In September 2018, EcoDistricts arrived in South Africa to deliver our Incubator program to five different urban development projects in Johannesburg and Cape Town. We were joined by two members of our EcoDistricts faculty, Donzell Robinson of Justice and Sustainability Associates, LLC, a Washington DC based firm that focuses on strategic engagement, collaborative governance, and mediation; and Pete Munoz of Biohabitats, a leading ecological design firm that specializes in green infrastructure and water management. With funding and program design support from USAID LED – a multi year initiative  program to help urban leaders identify strategies to bring low emissions development capacity building to South Africa’s fast growing cities – we designed an interactive program to multi-day workshops to help municipal and community based organizations develop effective partnerships, governance strategies and performance outcomes.

Our first week was spent in Johannesburg working with the City’s Planning Department. Three important redevelopment projects were selected to participate in the program — Diepsloot, the Jukskei River Source Regeneration Project, and Paterson Park. Each of the sites represent important regeneration priorities, from environmental remediation to transit oriented development. Our team then led a series of workshops in partnership with the City of Johannesburg to advance an equity and sustainability strategy across these three priority precincts.

The goals of the Jukskei River Source Regeneration Project center around protecting the environmental quality of the Jukskei River, which runs through a low-income neighborhood east of the central city in Johannesburg. Old and failing stormwater and sewer infrastructure throughout the headwaters is resulting in raw sewage and other pollutants entering the river daily. Additionally, the river is overtaxed through a large inflow of waste water from northern Johannesburg. But, the river still holds immense potential for economic and recreational benefit in a severely under-invested community. Led by a volunteer group of civic, arts, and environmental NGOs and private stakeholders, the Jukskei team is focused on reimagining the Jukskei headwaters as a vibrant, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood in which the highly polluted waterway becomes a center of ecological restoration and art.

Paterson Park is a 37-acre transit-oriented redevelopment site currently owned by the City of Johannesburg. It is located near a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line and is a key site for creating a high-density cluster of social amenities and mixed-income residential housing. Paterson Park has already seen major improvements, including a large recreational open space that has been ecologically restored and is already in use by community members. In addition to the park improvements, the City is currently designing a cultural and recreational center and mixed-income housing. Once the redevelopment is complete, it will serve as an important community core along the BRT line.

Diepsloot is an informal settlement of nearly 225,000 people in northwest Johannesburg. The community is comprised of a series of precincts, set within a highly altered and polluted wetland. The area is very low-income and underserved by even the most basic amenities. Although years of massive reinvestment is needed to improve the quality of life for Diepsloot residents,  a group of city leaders and community representatives are working on a series of infrastructure improvements to enhance the public realm. The core of the project centers on a pedestrian bridge built in 2010 that serves as the spine of the area. The bridge is seen as a vital community asset, but the wetland area it crosses has become a site for illegal dumping and illicit activity.

EcoDistricts customized a three-day Incubator to help each of the teams make progress on their project challenges. The Paterson Park project team participated in the EcoDistricts Incubator to strengthen project governance and to deepen their green building and infrastructure knowledge. The Jukskei stakeholder group worked to build trust with the City of Johannesburg, gain skills in building an effective governance framework, expand and clarify local participation and partnerships, and identify funding to initiate a series of natural systems rehabilitation projects. And the Diepsloot project team participated in the EcoDistricts workshops to explore innovative community ownership and participation models to increase the effectiveness and impact of their interventions.

Following the Johannesburg Incubator, EcoDistricts traveled to Cape Town to deepen our engagement with the Salt River neighborhood. Back in November of 2017, the EcoDistricts team delivered a series of workshops in partnership with the City of Cape Town to advance a precinct-scale equity and sustainability strategy in the Woodstock-Salt River area.

Salt River is a Cape Town suburb. Eighty-five percent of Salt River’s population is Black African or Coloured, and 81 percent of the population is unemployed. Salt River served as the heart of Cape Town’s industrial sector from the early 20th century to the 1980s. Salt River was a small self-contained community from the 1960s through the 1990s, when few people had cars because of Salt River’s proximity to central downtown Cape Town. The area’s de-industrialization has spurred new residential, commercial, and industrial developments.

In 2017, the City of Cape Town worked with EcoDistricts to holistically approach precinct planning efforts to develop eleven sites throughout the area for affordable housing, and establish a Project Management Team (PMT) to guide the process.

This return trip provided staff and stakeholders the opportunity to re-engage on the work begun in 2017 and provide deeper support to the PMT. While the creation of over 4,000 units of social housing remains a fundamental goal of the Woodstock-Salt River PMT work, other projects in the district include a diverse mix of library upgrades, public park enhancements and infrastructure development.

In the time between the first EcoDistricts Incubator and this engagement the PMT has:

  • Formally assembled, developed a charter, and identified a range of projects beyond social housing
  • Released five parcels for development to the private sector
  • Hosted a well attended community outreach meeting in October 2018 to promote engagement and share information about planned development

As in Johannesburg, EcoDistricts’ customized programming in Cape Town focused on increasing the knowledge base of municipal and civic leaders using the EcoDistricts Protocol. In Cape Town, we delivered a two-day Incubator program to reintroduce the PMT to the EcoDistricts Protocol and dig into all facets of sustainable district design. In addition, the team hosted multiple skill building and technical assistance sessions to further local knowledge of best practices.

The future of cities in South Africa and the people who live in them —like so many high growth cities in Africa and around the world — is about the impact that investments will have in either creating more or less inclusiveness. Neighborhoods provide a unique scale to accelerate innovation and impact: small enough to innovate, yet big enough to leverage long-term investment and public policy. However, in South Africa, the scarcity of predevelopment funding combined with the lack of planning expertise, stakeholder alignment, and ability to challenge established processes all stand in the way of accelerating change. While crises like Cape Town’s water shortage can be an effective tool for bold and positive action, it requires the political, institutional and private sector wherewithal and clear vision to prioritize the right kind of investments at the right scale.


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