Aerial view of townhouse development, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Martin Harvey/Gallo Images
- New research by Divercity and GBCSA reveals if the current urban sprawl continues unabated, Johannesburg will pay high environmental and economic costs.
- The research found that how housing is built in the city has a massive effect on its residents’ carbon footprints.
- The researchers believe there’s enough land available to develop more new housing units in or closer to the inner-city.
Jackie Khumalo does not know what it feels like to run out of bus fare in the middle of the month, even though she and her husband don’t earn much.
Living in the Joburg inner city close to the pre-school where she teaches means that it only takes a walk in summer to get to work. On cold winter days or when it rains, she takes a short ride on the Rea Vaya, costing only a few rands.
A few kilometres away in Braamfontein, Beth also walks or take the bus to the CBD where she works. Although she earns enough to own a car, she wants and keeps its fuel tank full. Her lifestyle is different to that of 44-year old bookkeeper Primrose Nkosi simply because she can walk to work.
Nkosi leaves her West Rand home at 05:45 and doesn’t remember when last she had breakfast with her family or took her daughter to school.
While both women earn similar incomes, Nkosi spends more of it refuelling her SUV because of the long distance she travels to Midrand for work.
These three women are fictional characters. But they resemble the exact travel patterns of typical Joburgers that Divercity Urban Property Fund and the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA) picked up in their recent research – now documented in a report titled, Does location matter?.
The rapid urban sprawl
The urban sprawl, which has given birth to new “cities” such as Waterfall City, Steyn City and Cosmo City, was always going to be a part of Johannesburg. Being South Africa’s economic hub, Johannesburg has more than tripled its physical footprint in the past 30 years and is expected to become a “megacity” by 2030.
The same pattern is playing out in other big metros in the country, particularly Cape Town and Durban.
In fact, the rapid urbanisation worldwide is creating more cities like Johannesburg, and the economic and environmental costs are mounting.
“The kind of sprawl that we see in Johannesburg is not a unique condition. Many of our cities are actually because of their historical kind of development, this extreme kind of segregation, all kinds of exhibit those patterns of sprawl,” says Arup’s urban designer and sessional lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand, Aamena Desai.
The cost of keeping workers on the periphery of the city
The problem with the urban sprawl in SA is that people living on the periphery bear the cost of the state’s failure to plan for the rapid urbanisation.
This is the kind of planning that makes Lagos and Rwanda’s capital city Kigali. Kigali’s Vision City, which is the largest residential housing project in Rwanda’s history, will bring thousands of households closer to the central business district.
SA’s planning problems, on the other hand, are multifold. Not only is the government not bringing enough affordable residential property stock to inner cities, but there’s also poor planning to connect people moving to the new ‘cities’ on the periphery to a reliable public transport system.
Divercity and GBCSA’s quantitative study on the impact of the location of housing development in Johannesburg found that the use of public transport in South Africa is mainly by need rather than by choice, due to a lack of service quality, reliability and provision.
So, because Nkosi earns a better income, she drives from the West Rand to Midrand every day – just one person in the car.
On the other hand, the breadwinner of the low-income Songa family spends 25% of his income every month to get to the inner city for work. And it’s thanks to the direct route taxi he takes that he’s able to keep his travel expenses at that level. Otherwise, when he misses the direct route, he has to take two taxis which costs him more money and takes him longer to get to work.
The researchers point out that currently, the dominant mode of affordable housing delivery in South Africa confines lower-income households to the urban periphery – far from economic opportunities, thus costing the economy dearly.
“This research highlights the crucial role played by spatial planning and associated transport networks in shaping cities that work for their citizens and the environment,” says Georgina Smit, GBCSA’s head of technical.
The environmental cost
However, the cost of poor urban planning in Johannesburg goes further.
Divercity and GBCSA say should all new housing be built on the urban periphery, carbon emissions in the city could reach 224MtCO2e by 2050. That equates to ten times more annual carbon emissions than the city of Johannesburg generated in 2016.
But by developing more housing stock closer to central business districts like the inner city and Sandton CBD and avoiding further sprawl, Divercity and GBCSA say Johannesburg can avoid the projected spike in carbon emissions by 2050. Of course, other things like using less coal power and fitting solar panels in more homes will yield even better results for the environment.
“This insight really highlights the importance of decisions taken now and their potential to compound emissions impact through time. Situating a development on the periphery risks locking in modes of high carbon travel if the system doesn’t change,” says Damien Canning, a senior climate change consultant at Arup.
Carel Kleynhans, CEO of Divercity, says by their measure, there’s enough land available for the development of housing for half a million housing opportunities in the Johannesburg inner city.