CITICHAT: Year-end review 4 – Upgrading the Public Environment

Year-end reviews 1 and 2 (Citichats 42 & 43/2007) looked at two of the major visual changes we can anticipate in the inner city, those brought about by a new transportation system (the Bus Rapid Transport System, BRT) and those, largely, emanating from it, dense residential accommodation. But what about the base off which these are to be provided? What about the streetscapes?. At present not very pretty!  I find it constantly embarrassing taking visitors through the city and pointing out the real progress that has been made and then asking them to “watch their step” as they walk over pavements with missing paving slabs and pavers and, even more dangerous, skirting manholes with no covers.


The value of upgrading our public infrastructure has been experienced over the past few years through four urban upgrade projects, all inspired and largely funded and maintained by the private sector – Gandhi Square, Braamfontein, AAC’s Main Street pedestrianised precinct and Main Street itself. A number of others, some private and some public sector inspired, are at various stages of progress. The “Legal Precinct” around the High Court, the pavements around the Fashion Kapitol Building currently under construction in the Fashion District in Pritchard Street, the pavements around Jewel City and at the entrances to and within the Ellis Park Precinct and the Hillbrow Health Precinct all bear testimony to public space revamping. The Inner City Charter process has recognised both the need and value of the urban environment anticipating providing a substantial spend on “walkable streets”. A Charter-related report states the following On 18 May 2007, Mayoral Committee approved the City’s Capital Budget for the 2007/08 financial year ………of which R300 million was allocated to the Inner City specifically for the upgrading of physical infrastructure and public environment. One of the outcomes from the 2007 Inner City Summit process has been the further allocation of R300 million exclusively towards improvement of the Inner City. The main objective of the additional funding is to support the City’s strategic agenda to significantly upgrade the public environment and to improve the quality of the built environment by implementing housing developments. 

The rationale is to target a focused area in the Inner City on a block-by-block basis and to implement a full range of public environment upgrades, relating to the classification and function of the particular street. The City can therefore systematically over the next financial years roll-out this programme and not only significantly improve the physical quality, but also link these interventions to focussed urban management interventions.”


That is really very good news!


In the immediate term the focus is on Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville. It is recognised that these areas have some of the worst urban environments in the Inner City and yet have the highest population densities. Prioritising these areas over those in the CBD itself also takes into account that BRT will be disrupting many of our CBD streets whereafter attention will have to be paid to both road and footway replacement anyway. Professional teams have already been appointed to provide  “a comprehensive Inner City streetscape/public environment plan” for the Hillbrow/Berea/Yeoville areas by December, just a couple of weeks away. That means that tenders will be called for early in 2008 and work can commence immediately thereafter.


Another related Charter project is more long term – “upgrading of identified priority streets and precinct areas will be implemented” by December 2009 – that’s just two years away. Not sure what ‘priority streets’ means but if it encompasses attending to the many, many degraded pavements throughout the core CBD area, it cannot be soon enough. I understand that a basic grading of roads has been done which classifies the range of elements that could be included in an upgrade, such as paving, pedestrian lighting, street furniture, swivel bins, infrastructure upgrading, public transportation facilities and public art. It is provisionally estimated that R850 000 per 100m street length will be needed for streets classified as Public Movement Routes, R600 000 for Activity Streets and R300 000 for Residential Streets. This translates into approximately 150 city blocks to be targeted for public environment upgrades with a budget allocation of R150 million. Clearly the reason for many decades of neglect previously has been cost but 2010 is spurring on the need to get our public environment in order!


But other good news in the Charter is that feasibility and business plans for a development of a number of “key iconic public place projects” must be finalised by March next year and such places include Old Park Station and the Gauteng Provincial Government Square. Both have been allowed to become major eyesores yet have tremendous potential. Both are owned by other Government or parastatal bodies, the Park Station building is owned by Transnet whilst the latter area is a Provincial government responsibility. It really is a pain when levels of government other than local, add to the degradation of the city, so it is good to know that within four months there will be a plan for at least these two. We need to add the Rissik Street Post Office and the old police barracks in Marshall Street to the list of projects demanding action and a large number of others. The City, to their credit, is currently  dealing with the much neglected Governor’s House next to Constitution Hill.                     


And what about my great concern voiced over the last year – more and better urban green space? Well, the following  answer is spelt out in the Charter:


·        An implementation plan for a coherent approach to upgrading and maintaining existing but currently dysfunctional open spaces and parks is to be completed by December and to be rolled out between then and March 2009.


·        The identification of possible new spaces is to be completed by March 2008 – related feasibility studies and business development plans are to be completed by July 2008 and management agreements in place by September 2008.


·        Key public open space interventions to be investigated by March 2008 include the Braamfontein cemetery; a park at the base of the Hillbrow Tower; a major park east of the High Court and west of Joe Slovo Drive and public open spaces to be created on the south west corner of the CBD close to Standard Bank.   


I gather that the intention is also to upgrade social facilities such as parks and recreation centres if they are situated on a street that is targeted for upgrading.


Projects for Public Spaces (PPS – – a US organisation that works with partners all over the world compiled these tips for creating good places – one hopes that those entrusted with the urban design of our proposed new urban spaces take heed and particularly of the last point!


Good places promote sociability
These are the spots where you run into people you know, where you take friends and family when you want to show them the neighborhood. These places become the heart and soul of the neighborhood because they offer people many different reasons to go there

Good places have lots of things to do
The places people love most are the ones where they can pursue a variety of activities. Without opportunities to do something more than sit and look around, the experience you have in that place is "thin" -- there is nothing to keep you there for any length of time.

Good places are comfortable and attractive

They beckon you to come visit. Flowers, comfortable benches with a nice view, and attractive lighting all make you feel this is a place you want to come to often. In contrast, a place that lacks these kind of amenities often feels unwelcoming and a bit threatening. It may actually be unsafe or just feel unsafe, but either way no one wants to be there.

Good places are accessible

These places are clearly identifiable from a distance, easy to enter when you get closer, and it is simple to understand how you use them. A space that is not accessible will be end up empty, forlorn and often dilapidated.

Good places are inspired by the people who live there

The big question is, of course, how do you begin to create the good places that every neighborhood craves? What process can you use to build spots where people want to hang out? Long experience has shown us that bottom-up rather than top-down strategies to create or revitalize public spaces work best. This approach is based on the simple idea that the people who live in a neighborhood are the world's experts on that particular place. Any project to improve things should be guided by the community's wisdom, not the dictates of professional disciplines. This is the most important lesson about making great neighborhoods we have learned in 30 years of work.

A couple of weeks back a tour driver listening to my upbeat patter on the future of the city stopped me as we drove through the mayhemic Jeppe Street and asked if I was serious about the environmental upgrading. “It will never happen here!” he said – we need to prove him wrong!


Ciao, neil

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