Worlds apart, same challenges

Image: The Telegraph

I recently had the privilege of attending a course on the tools of urban planning hosted by the French Development Agency in Marseille.

 We spent the time exploring large parts of the city and the complexities of contemporary urbanism in this Mediterranean city of  1.6-million people, a comparable size to Nelson Mandela Bay.

Marseille, also known as France’s largest African city, is a 2,600-year-old port city which at the start of the 21st century was run down.

The renewal of the port and adjacent areas was predicated on funds being made available to the dedicated renewal authority which was set up.

Like in SA, different public and private property owners had to be convinced to either sell their land to the authority or develop their properties in accordance with the urban renewal plan.

This was the most difficult part of the 10-year process, and included a combination of massaging the egos of public officials and obtaining development rights which could take years.

What was very clear  is the importance of leadership, both political leadership and senior administrative leadership.

Unless strong and visionary leadership is in place, no renewal is possible.

More importantly, that leadership requires support and realistic budgets.

The rest is all deal-making towards common objectives.

In SA, all those mechanisms are in place, but we have not been able to be consistent in committing to making those mechanisms work and to embrace the fact that it takes decades for investments in cities to make an impact.

Short-term, electoral-cycle approaches to development are what needs to be overcome.

The Mediterranean city bears the hallmarks of France’s colonial history and contemporary position on international matters.

Thus it has immigrants from North Africa, West Africa, Asia and the Caribbean as well as refugees from Afghanistan and Syria.

This is demonstrably shown in the variety of cuisines on offer where pizza, shawarma and couscous are some of the most available foods along with frog legs and French onion soup.

However, many of the immigrants live in settlements where services are not of the same standards as the wealthier parts.

Combined with unemployment and racism, this seems to be a continuous process of having to work towards an embracing culture.

It does not happen automatically, and public investments need to be clearly earmarked for social integration.

Though the context is very different, the issues remain the same and it is something South African urban managers are not engaging with conscientiously.

A city’s beauty is demonstrated by the extent towards it embraces the everyday of complexity of urban life which includes immigration, refugees and unemployment.

Some redevelopment areas were controlled by underworld organisations and also housed some of the poor inner city residents.

That the areas are being renewed with fewer evictions due to rising property values is a phenomenon which I wish we could explore more, because the challenge to urban renewal and gentrification is that the marginalised in those areas are the first to move out.

The poor are truly neglected and seem to have to fight for their rights to basic services, which others take for granted.

However, even poorer areas in Marseille get better services that some of the wealthier South African cities.

The provision of basic services by the local government is non-negotiable and it seems that while the services are not equal across income groups, leaking pipes and uncollected garbage would constitute a crisis.

 Even in Marseille, there are areas were officials fear to tread.

The gangs in Marseille are notorious for violent criminal activities. In some parts of the city, public housing predominates, where we were not allowed to take photographs, the levels of insecurity are as bad as some of the South African ganglands.

In one area, where the local authorities want to invest as part of the urban  renewal area, it is clear that no work will be possible unless the local power brokers are involved.

It seems that the MBDA team, learning from Helenvale and New Brighton, would be able to provide sound advice given its experience in ensuring infrastructure investments in “challenging” areas.

 Given its history as a dense urban area, the city has maintained a Mediterranean port city architectural style even with some of the newer areas.

However, in areas being redeveloped, or where new buildings are being constructed, the traditional styles are being maintained.

New high-rise buildings are more contemporary and risqué, but with a nod to the predominant style.

This is in strong contrast to SA, where there is no architectural vernacular and “starchitects’ have gone out of their way to make business districts in the image of Manhattan.

This raises issues of heritage buildings and why we are fixated in preserving colonial-era buildings instead of building new cities in the place of old.

As part of the redevelopment, huge investments in all forms of transport infrastructure are taking place. This includes trams, busses and underground trains.

The system is used to renew depressed areas. For example, in Castellan,  where Zinedine Zidane hails from, a new underground station has just been completed.

At the station, a car park includes fee parking if used with the public transport network. At the same time, an elevated freeway is being demolished to clear the area of the grime and antisocial activities which takes place.

This will not be the first elevated freeway to be demolished to improve public space.

Our fixation with a single mode of public transport and social housing entrenches apartheid because traditionally skewed investment patterns are replicated, because it means that property ownership and interests are not addressed.

Our public investments entrench apartheid instead of promoting social and economic integration.

NGOs dealing with the poor and marginalised also struggle with funding.

A highlight for me was to have my views on social entrepreneurship dispelled.

We visited a building owned by the province but due to be transferred to the municipality.

During the transfer period, a building was made available which now houses refugees, street people, artists’ studios, a restaurant, other service NGOs and a lab for testing business ideas.

This has enabled me to look at some public assets in a new way.

However, the enterprise is at risk, because the property is in a well-located area and the municipality might want to increase its revenue instead of recognising the value of the enterprise.

This is the South African story.

The takeaway from Marseille was the fact that they are dealing with the hard issues of what it means to live in a city located in France, in Southern Europe and on the Mediterranean.

These are questions we need to engage with, by determining what it means to be living in South African cities, and then determining what type of investments are required, including where those investments will be made.

The National Spatial Development Plan, which is out for public comment, provides us with such an opportunity.