Transforming human settlements and the spatial economy
Spatial transformation, with its social and economic benefits, needs to be promoted at all levels, from neighbourhoods to regions
Human settlement transformation is a critical component of addressing the impact of SA’s spatial legacy on people’s lives and livelihoods and establishing a new development path. While the fundamental reshaping of the colonial and apartheid impact on the space economy is a long-term project, chapter 8 of the National Development Plan (NDP) states that “by 2030 SA should observe meaningful and measurable progress in reviving rural areas and in creating more functionally integrated, balanced and vibrant urban settlements”.
The network of major urban areas and diverse range of cities, towns and service nodes are “home” to more than 82% of South Africans. These are places where urbanisation acts as an enabler of growth and innovation (in spite of the associated service delivery challenges). As stated in the Integrated Urban Development Framework (2014) “in the economic history of humanity, urbanisation has always been an accelerator of growth and development, bringing about enormous changes in the spatial distribution of people and resources, and in the use and consumption of land”.
SA has made significant progress in addressing the accommodation and service delivery conundrum. However, spatial challenges, such as rural inequalities and urban inefficiencies, have grown, in part because of our increasingly mobile and youthful population.
Urbanisation and townward migration have resulted in the percentage of SA’s population residing in urban regions (metros) and cities increasing from almost 40% in 2011 to 50%. Urban regions, cities and large towns house 53% of the population and almost 56% of the youth. However, there has also been significant growth and townward migration in rural towns. This is especially so along national and regional road corridors and in the coastal zone from Umhlatuze in the east to Saldanah in the west.
The coastal zone is home to almost 38% of the population and we anticipate that this trend will continue. The latest population projections for 2050 confirm the projected growth in urban regions and cities and also points to significant population increase expected in large and medium towns.
Service delivery and access to livelihoods, as well as inclusivity, life expectancy and access to education, have been improving in urban areas and cities. Consistent progress has also been made with the provision of “housing opportunities” (defined not only as a house and/or serviced site, but also as delivery of tenure, or water and sanitation) through the SA Housing Subsidy Programme.
Challenging living conditions across urban and rural areas are evident and spatial transformation at settlement scale, as well as at national scale, remains a major challenge
The proportion of households living in informal dwellings decreased from 16% in 1996 to 13.6% in 2017. However, urbanisation and townward migration and a decrease in household size (hence growth in new household formation) have increased the housing backlog in urban regions, cities, and towns. By 2018, the number of informal settlements in SA reached 1,185, with 1.89-million households still in need of decent housing.
While there is a positive trajectory in some component indicators (such as households with access to water, sanitation, energy, shelter and transport), these do not necessarily contribute to well-functioning and transformed cities, towns and neighbourhoods. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted that many households across urban and rural SA still face difficult living conditions.
To support municipalities with disaster risk management related to the pandemic, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) developed a composite indicator for built-environment living conditions. The indicator was developed to identify neighbourhoods with a high risk for Covid-19 transmission potential and provides an integrated comparison of settlement conditions in neighbourhoods/settlements across urban and rural landscapes.
It identifies areas with relatively high population density, a high share of dwellings that are informal, a relatively low percentage of households with access to services (running water and sanitation in the house), while taking the number of people per ward into account.
Challenging living conditions across urban and rural areas are evident and spatial transformation at settlement scale, as well as at national scale, remains a major challenge. The Draft National Spatial Development Framework (2020) states that “spatial transformation ... would result in a fairer balance of outcomes — in ownership, production, distribution and consumption (all with ethnic, income and gender dimensions) — as well as access to a range of opportunities, leading to a more inclusive, participative and cohesive society”.
Spatial transformation, with its social and economic benefits, needs to be promoted at neighbourhood level as well as at town/city and even regional scale. Measuring spatial transformation ideally requires tracking a range of inward- and outward-looking development outcomes within and across neighbourhoods.
Inward-looking spatial transformation outcomes include indicators such as well-being within neighbourhoods; security of tenure; the range of opportunities people can access from where they live; and vulnerability indicators related to socioeconomic and or settlement conditions. The CSIR is also considering developing an internationally comparable indicator of habitable space per person for more regular tracking of change at neighbourhood and settlement level.
In spite of the NDP’s call for enhanced co-ordination between national, provincial and local government, the governance capabilities of local municipalities have remained weak and the intergovernmental system highly complex. By providing a national spatial vision and identifying areas of national importance, the 2020 Draft National Spatial Development Framework can make a substantial contribution to the NDP’s spatial governance objectives.
Measurement remains vital as we track our progress towards reviving rural areas and creating functionally integrated, balanced and vibrant urban settlements.
• The authors are researchers and built environment practitioners with the CSIR’s Smart Places Cluster. This is the sixth instalment in a series on SA’s progress towards the 2030 goals of the National Development Plan.
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