October 1, 2003 - From the October, 2003 issue

An Articulate Critique of City & Regional Planning Worldwide

The planning and design profession's focus on everyday political negotiation and budgetary constraints too often come at the expense of professionally considering both the social values that compel public spaces and how design ought to promote such values. As a refresher course, TPR is pleased to present this excerpt from University of Cape Town Professor Dave Dewar's presentation at the California AIA's 16th Monterey Design Conference in September.

The focus of the talk is on design particularly, although not exclusively, at the scale of settlement-making. I will be illustrating the argument with images from Cape Town, South Africa. What is the relevance of that to the United States of America, I hear you mentally cry?

First, while of course, there are contextual differences between South African settlements and settlements elsewhere (not least of which is the extent of poverty), I believe there are similarities as well. The philosophic basis underpinning the spatial development of cities in many parts of the world is remarkably similar, not least because of the considerable international spread of the urban precepts of modernism.

Second, with increasing globalisation, patterns of poverty and inequality are redistributing. Increasingly, no country in the world will be immune from the challenges these pose.

Third is that the issue of scarce natural, fiscal and other resources, and the impact of these issues, is increasingly becoming a global issue and the need to use these resources wisely and sustainably will increase in importance on all national agendas.

In 1999, I was appointed core consultant to head up a small group of city officials to develop a ‘Spatial Framework for the City of Cape Town', then the largest of six municipalities making up the metropolitan area of Greater Cape Town.

A number of key realisations underpinned the approach to the plan:

• There are no ‘big bang' solutions to the city's problems. Positive change needs to occur incrementally, mainly through a series of relatively small actions that need to be co-ordinated and integrated. This means that the framework needs to identify the beginnings of things, rather than end-state outcomes

• Public investment is the key. A major problem underpinning inequalities in spatial investment patterns has been a lack of investor confidence in poorer areas. It is therefore necessary to lead with public investment, in order to create economic opportunities, particularly for small business in these areas.

• It is not possible to solve every problem facing the city. The challenge is to identify appropriate forms of investment.

• Similarly, it is not possible to invest everywhere. Given the scale of need relative to the available resources, the city represents a bottomless pit, if investment is spread too widely. It is necessary to concentrate on a limited number of places in order to make a discernible difference. The approach to investment cannot be simply based on opinion, nor can it be politically determined through conflictive competitive political processes. It requires an argument.

• The starting point for the argument must be the required urban performance qualities, particularly equity, integration, sustainability and dignity.

The Argument

In simplified form, the argument, which emerged, goes like this: The concept of broadly equitable access is central to making spatially equitable, integrated and sustainable cities. All South African cities, including Cape Town, are non-equitable, non-integrated and non-sustainable precisely because people do not have even remotely equitable access to the natural and urban opportunities, which they offer. Equity does not mean that all parts should be the same. This is neither possible nor desirable, for choice is central. Equity does mean, however, that all people should have easy access to broadly similar opportunities, facilities, special places and events.

This poses two challenges: First, to make existing opportunities more accessible to the majority of inhabitants; Second, to create a new pattern of agglomerated (clustered) opportunities and special places closer to the places where the majority of people live.

The term ‘ease of access' requires refinement. If the concept of equity is taken seriously, the starting point for thinking about access and convenience is movement on foot. This describes the reality of a large number of Cape Town's citizens. The most equitable situation pertains when people can engage in most daily activities on foot.

Once the possible cycle of movement on foot is broken, the next most equitable situation is when people have easy access to public transportation. Cheap, efficient, and viable transportation is essential if convenience, and therefore the quality of life of all, is to be improved.

Based on these starting points, the core concept can best be explained as a logical sequence of steps. Creating a hierarchical system of opportunities requires differential

Thinking about space it is necessary to define a hierarchical system of relative accessibility. To determine how many levels should be in the hierarchy, it is necessary to balance two potentially conflictive dynamics: the need to increase convenience, and the need to maximise the use of limited public resources.

In terms of public transportation systems, the most equitable systems are the ones where people can switch direction, as well as modes of movement, as quickly and as easily as possible. Where this is possible, the system provides ‘access to access' rather than being primarily reactive to existing patterns of opportunities. To activate this, the notional system of access points is now conceptualised as a system of transportation interchange points.


By definition, transportation interchange points generate and attract large numbers of people. In every case, therefore, the interchange point is expanded to include a pleasant landscaped public space, which always accommodates a market for small traders. This concept generates a citywide ‘peoples, places and markets programme'. This point is seminal. In positive environments, public space is the primary form of social infrastructure. How it is made impacts fundamentally on the dignity of people.

The markets and special places increase the attraction of the place: their high accessibility makes ideal places for government and service providers of all types to reach the people with the services they provide. Accordingly, clusters of social facilities (public kits of parts) are associated with the interchange points. In this way, it is hoped that a cohesive system of nodes (urban centres and parks) and an inter-connected network of linear elements (green space and activity corridors) will systematically evolve over time, generating much greater integration, equity and sustainability, as well as greater convenience, choice and a far wider range of opportunities for historically disadvantaged individuals and communities than currently exists.

The Public Places Program

Numerous projects of various kinds have been identified through the mechanism of the plan. Among the most important is the dignified public places programme. This involves the identification of strategic places in poorer areas across the city for improvement through public investment. The realisation underpinning this programme is that in all positive urban environments, the primary form of social infrastructure is the public spatial environment. All public space should be made as social space. While being important for all people, public space is particularly important for the urban poor.

A defining condition of poverty is that households cannot carry out all or even most of the household's activities within the unit. They occur in the public spaces. These are the places where old people meet and gossip lover's court, children play and so on. When the public spaces are positively made (when they are defined, enclosed, surveyed and landscaped) they greatly enhance the enjoyment of the human activity which occurs within them. Conversely, when they are poor, the entire environment is hostile, regardless of how much investment occurs in individual buildings. This distinction is graphically illustrated through the difference between a street (a mullet-purpose social space) and a road (a channel for cars). The primary responsibility of all buildings is to help make the public space which they abut.

Sixteen of these projects have been completed. The intention is to steadily role out from this beginning at a rate of 10-15 projects a year. Significantly, the budgets for all of these projects have all been negotiated. They are all made up of voluntary contributions from a number of different line function departmental budgets (particularly design services, transportation, economic development and parks and bathing). This is the first time this has ever occurred in the history of Cape Town. The process has not been easy: there are still dimensions of conflict around different departmental agendas and issues of management. Nevertheless, the projects have had a profound impact in terms of promoting interdisciplinary thinking and there are rapidly growing levels of co-operation and trust. In the longer term, there is a real chance that these interdisciplinary projects will have significant impacts on institutional design. Incidentally, the programme has just been awarded the Ralph Rescan Prize for Architecture for 2003.


I have argued that, objectively viewed, the recent record of the design professions in the art of settlement making, has, with some notable exceptions, been very poor. The seminal question, therefore, is how do we turn the ship around? How do we make substantial improvements to the quality of urban environments?

We need to acknowledge the problem: current practices are not working and the design professions, largely through losing their way, have become increasingly marginalized in the making of settlements.

We need to reaffirm our belief in the fundamental importance of spatial design in the lives of all people and as an instrument of social change in society. Our primary role in society is monitoring spatial trends and placing before society a new and better sense of possibilities, however radical or unpopular this may be perceived to be. In short, we need to proudly embrace our fundamental social role as promoters of social justice.

We need to accept the normative bases of our professions with pride and commit to fight for the values of equity, integration, sustainability, dignity, justice and place, for these are the values of our time and it is our role to defend and promote them.

We do not need another Athens charter, led by an elite, to change. Rather, we need widespread recognition that all designers, in large practices or small, in the public and private sectors, have a role in the struggle. In this sense, we must recognise that the distinction between ‘public' and ‘private' projects is a misleading one. Every project offers an opportunity (however great or small) to give something back to the public at large and it is the responsibility of every designer to seize that opportunity. Good design begins with recognising the public good issues associated with the problem.

We do not need to throw away the past, in order to change. Meaningful change is incremental. It is our role to continually reinterpret precedent, in order to retain and enhance that which works and creatively to change that, which does not.

We need to return to a position, which locates the beginnings of all design on the two ethical legs of environmentalism (the needs of nature and the importance of designing sympathetically with these) and humanism (the needs of people), as opposed to preoccupations with technologies and form.

We need to re-recognise that any design problem is only part of a broader whole. The primary responsibility of any project is to improve the quality of the whole. It is a great design decision for example, to recognise that sometimes buildings or other objects are appropriately background objects, as opposed to putting all design on an aggressive competitive bases with all other buildings or objects.

We must recognise that, in the first instance, spatial quality is defined by the quality of the public spatial environment, not the individual object, as important as this is. It is the primary responsibility of all buildings and spatial objects is to contribute to making the quality of the public spatial environment.

I believe that if we begin to do these things, consistently and honestly, on a daily basis, we will begin to regain the respect of the public at large and the absolute need for good spatial design will be increasingly recognised and demanded. If we do not, our role is likely to become increasingly marginalized.



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