Conceiving, producing and managing neighbourhoods: Comparing urban upgrading initiatives in Johannesburg

At present there are a great number of urban interventions taking place within the Gauteng City-Region, including transport and area-based upgrading projects (Corridors of Freedom/Transit Oriented Development), mega-human settlements, inner-city renewal schemes, and the establishment of City Improvement Districts (CIDs) in various locations. As they are envisioned, planned and implemented, all of these projects will make significant alterations to the urban fabric. It is therefore crucial that research engages with these processes and captures their dynamics, contradictions, contestations and outcomes.

This Occasional Paper contributes to this endeavour by examining how two very different area-based management and urban upgrading projects have been imagined and executed. The report comprises a case-study of the expanding Ekhaya precinct in Hillbrow, a densely populated, economically stressed inner-city neighbourhood, and the development of a precinct plan in Norwood, a middle-class suburb situated to the north of the inner-city. Ekhaya is a Residential City Improvement District (RCID) and was an intervention led primarily by private, commercial developers. The Grant Avenue Precinct Plan (GAPP), in contrast, was initiated by local government as part of broader efforts to manage change and facilitate residential intensification and improved inclusion in the suburb.

Comparing and contrasting approaches in two vastly different sub-local areas gives an opportunity to explore the varying actors; governance arrangements; urban upgrading ambitions and ideals; resources, practices, mechanisms and infrastructures; alliances and partnerships; and compromises and experiments that are assembled at the neighbourhood scale to bring urban upgrading interventions to fruition. The paper also draws particular attention to the fault lines, points of divergence, and conflicts in the two settings, and how these frequently hinder or frustrate efforts at urban improvement.

The Occasional Paper is divided into three main sections.

The first section, ‘Conceiving neighbourhoods’, outlines the visions and ideals that have shaped neighbourhood formation, planning processes and urban upgrading initiatives in the two case-study sites. It shows that Johannesburg’s vastly unequal landscape hinders the articulation of a single, unified vision for the city. Improvement in Hillbrow has entailed dealing with day-to-day deprivations, service delivery failings and deficits in basic urban management. The visions that informed urban regeneration in the Ekhaya RCID are therefore relatively mundane, but are capable of bringing about significant improvements to the area, as well as to the lives of its residents. In contrast, the visions behind the precinct strategy for Norwood were far more ambitious as they aimed at generating drastic change in the suburb’s built environment and social landscape. However, various socio-economic challenges – financial constraints, organised opposition from affluent residents and lack of support from the private sector – have rendered these broad ambitions unattainable.

The second section, ‘Producing neighbourhoods’, examines the various tactics, strategies, planning mechanisms and material objects that were used to bring visions to life and give form to the two neighbourhood improvement schemes. For example, it explores how different security infrastructures mobilised in the Ekhaya RCID have defined the neighbourhood and separated it from the general disorder and decay that characterise the wider Hillbrow area. While these infrastructures have had significant effects on the neighbourhood, and contributed to improved feelings of safety, they have also introduced inequality – as the area has come to enjoy improved levels of policing and safety, crime has been displaced to surrounding neighbourhoods yet to attract private investment. The section further shows that while physical infrastructure is important, it is not sufficient to generate neighbourhoods and associational life. Rather, the realisation of visions for improved forms of belonging and social cohesion rely on the creation of social networks, and opportunities for socialisation and shared recreation. Highlighting experiences of upgrading two parks, Ekhaya Park in Hillbrow and Norwood Park, this section emphasises the importance of public space, and the shared ideals and commitments to social inclusion that should inform planning processes and urban interventions at the local level. However, the section also documents the prejudices and exclusionary attitudes that frequently emerge during such processes.

The third section, ‘Managing neighbourhoods’, describes the institutional arrangements, day-to-day activities, forms of partnership and adaptive strategies being used to sustain urban interventions and regulate neighbourhoods. It investigates contrasting viewpoints and approaches to dealing with various urban challenges, particularly the role and place of informal activities in the two neighbourhoods. In Hillbrow, the official position is that informal trading is not permitted. However, in reality, actors with degrees of authority and power in the area have recognised the need to be tolerant towards people engaged in such practices, and frequently cooperate with some informal traders. The section therefore shows that urban governance requires the formation of arrangements and partnerships of convenience at the sub-local level, and that adaptive, flexible urban management practices are required, particularly in stressed neighbourhoods characterised by high levels of poverty. In contrast, although the official plans formulated for the GAPP stipulated that vulnerable groups such as homeless people, car guards and informal traders were to be protected, in reality, intolerant attitudes were evident and powerful residents and businesses used a variety of tactics to marginalise these groups and attempt to remove them from the area. The section therefore shows how everyday power and resource differentials can often supersede or subvert good intentions towards inclusivity – the realisation of visions for urban improvement unavoidably seems to generate new forms of exclusion that planners, officials and civil society need to be aware of.


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