More than 64% of South Africa’s population lives in cities and this is expected to grow to 77% in 2050 – a phenomenon that will place increased pressure on resources and infrastructure.
“It is crucial that cities grow in a sustainable manner,” says green building consultant Marloes Reinink of Solid Green. “Cities today face numerous challenges, but at the same time they are nodes of opportunity to move green design beyond the building scale.”

Urban sprawl

According to Reinink, one of the biggest challenges is suburban sprawl – the expansion of human populations away from central urban areas to low-density, mono-functional and car-dependent communities. These are typically characterised by isolated residential developments, separate business parks and islands of retail with big parking lots that are mainly accessible by car, despite 80% of the population being pedestrians.

Walkability was an important consideration in the design of Menlyn Maine. The precinct was designed with blind people in mind, using special groove tiles in the pathways and bubbles indicating stops or different levels. In addition, the precinct will have 1,5m wide bicycle tracks throughout with 40% of the public walkways covered with tree canopies in time. Courtesy of Corobrik

While there certainly is some attraction to urban sprawl in terms of privacy, space, and a perception of safety and prestige, this disconnected way of urban planning takes up valuable land space that could be utilised for farming. It also increases pressure on resources and requires extensive transport infrastructure. On a personal level, people have to spend more on transport and waste a lot of time sitting in traffic – thus missing out on vital physical activity which, in turn, may lead to higher medical expenses.

What’s more, an American study by The Smart Prosperity Institute on the cost of sprawl indicated that it is almost three times more expensive to maintain these wide-spread sprawl areas versus high-density, inner-city living areas.

“We have to look more pragmatically at how we can adjust to make cities function in a more sustainable way,” Reinink stresses.

How should we be designing our cities?

Reinink highlights a number of strategies to create cities in line with the New Urbanism movement, an urban design practice that focusses on creating compact, mixed use and walkable neighbourhoods:

    Compact, mixed-use precincts
Taking the idea of a 20-minute neighbourhood, developments should comprise a good mix of uses that are all connected so that residents can easily walk or cycle to where they need to be.

    Human scale
Probably the most important objective is to plan for the end-user by designing to a human scale, with a focus on sidewalks with ground-level activity where people feel safe walking.

    Activate street edges
An example of an area where this has been achieved is the Melrose Arch precinct, where a great mix of uses such as restaurants, retail and leisure activities encourages pedestrian movement at street level.

    Tree-lined, shaded streets
Trees are a good way of protecting pedestrians from cars, as well as providing shade for a comfortable walk and soften the building facades.

    Mixed mode transport infrastructure
Providing cycling lanes, continuous sidewalks and connections to suitable public transport could significantly change people’s behaviour, just as the Gautrain did, although many initially doubted that it would be successful.

    Integration and connectivity
Most malls in South Africa are very difficult to access on foot or by bicycle. Rather, these retail opportunities should be integrated with the surrounding neighbourhoods through interconnected blocks and multiple pedestrian entrances and exits.

    Create walkable cities
Urban planner Jeff Speck, of Speck & Associates, has identified four characteristics of a walkable city:
1.    Users should have a reason to walk (close amenities).
2.    The walk has to be safe (continuous sidewalks).
3.    It should be comfortable (shading).
4.    The route should be interesting (providing access to shops, public art and rest areas).

Most malls in South Africa are very difficult to access on foot or bicycle, unlike The Zone @ Rosebank which is integrated with the surrounding neighbourhood through multiple entrances and street level activity. This green wall facilitates a seamless flow from the indoors to the outdoors and makes for an interesting feature along the walk. Courtesy of The Zone @ Rosebank

Reinink observes, “In Gauteng in general we have extremely low densities, which make it really difficult for public transport to work efficiently. And while we may stay about 100m from the nearest shopping centre in a straight line, we still have to drive a kilometre or two to access the mall.”

“While several high density, self-sustaining city developments have been developed such as Melrose Arch, Waterfall Estate, Menlyn Maine and Oxford Parks, we need to ensure that these developments are connected and that there will be a sustainable means of transport between these developments to ensure sustainable growth of our cities.”

This article is provided courtesy of Solid Green Consulting.

Caption Main Image: A mix of uses such as restaurants, retail and leisure activities in the Melrose Arch precinct encourages pedestrian movement at street level.