Future of our cities: Report back

This brief reports on the Helen Suzman Foundations Roundtable event on the Future of our Cities.

On 30 July, the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF), supported by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa and in association with the Gordon Institute of Business Science, hosted a Roundtable discussion on the future of our cities. The HSF’s Roundtable events take the form of a panel discussion – featuring a specially selected set of panellists – followed by a Question-and-Answer session with the audience. This Roundtable featured:

  • Prof Adrian Saville – Executive Director and Chief Investment Officer of Cannon Asset Managers;
  • Dr Tanja Winkler – Urban Planner and Senior Lecturer School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town;
  • Mr Andile Skosana – Town Planner and Associate Director at KPMG; and
  • Prof Jean-Pierre de la Porte – Research Director at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Architecture and Infrastructure.

Main themes


Prof Saville spoke about the ‘the global city’. Prof Saville explained that ‘connectivity’ – the way the world and its cities are becoming ever more connected – has made it possible to think of a ‘global community’. The internet, media, and cheap travel, have rendered distance almost irrelevant. Prof Saville pointed out that the digital age creates the potential for a borderless world. However, despite this perception (or ideal) of a ‘global community’, we are not there yet. There are many obstacles. Prof Saville argued that South Africa has a ‘connectivity problem’, which impedes its ability to reap the benefits that can be gained from greater participation in the global community. Education, for instance, could be greatly enhanced by providing learners access to online resources, and online text-books. Prof Saville argued that South Africa needs connectivity within its borders, to connect communities, in addition to the ability to connect to the global community.

Dr Winkler warned that, despite a decline in the rate of growth, informal settlements are still growing. Rural-to-urban migration and urban-to-urban migration contribute to our continually expanding informal settlements. How do we house the growing urban population? Dr Winkler argued that the population-density in 'shack communities' is unacceptable – more land is needed, or better housing. But municipalities fail to consider the reality of these situations (for instance, preparing plans where the number of people currently living in a community are not factored in).

Dr Winkler noted that the Reconstruction and Development Programme and Breaking New Ground programs of the past are unaffordable. She suggested that one way to address the problem is to work with existing legislation. The national housing code (USIP programme) proposes a four step process. This involves (1) finding land that is owned by the state and suitable for human occupation; (2) establishing the buy-in and approval of the community, and producing a comprehensive account of community members; (3) formulating a detailed plan which must take into account sustainability considerations for the long term; and finally, (4) if previous steps have been satisfied, this plan can be (partly) funded, but may still be beyond the residents means. Dr Winkler noted that the process is cumbersome, and that attaining security of tenure requires a massive effort on the part of communities and project leaders. The legislative framework needs to be changed.

Dr Winkler and her team have managed to progress to step 3 of the process in Langrug, Western Cape. No municipality has managed to get this far. Her team has done so by working with the community, and including the community at every stage of the process. Dr Winkler argued that informal communities need to be integrated into the larger community. This means schooling, health care, and transport must be made available. And residents have to play a pivotal role.

Mr Skosana argued that change and improvement of communities can only be brought about at a local level – whether that is at a municipal level, or at an urban-planning level. Creative initiatives develop (and can be observed) at a local level, however: since power resides at a higher level, these initiatives are often stifled, or not considered.
Mr Skosana pointed out that the ‘social net’, often considered to exist in the cities is not always there. The poor and jobless face massive obstacles as a result of their social status. Mr Skosana commented that the benefits of a government job may contribute to an unsympathetic outlook –amongst those in power.

Mr Skosana made the point that while the cities are burdened by the needs of the many jobless citizens, these citizens are, in fact, an untapped resource.

Mr Skosana drew attention to the informal economy – a whole sector that thrives below the radar. He observed that “the most interesting things happen where the state fails”. This is a massive market that has not been accurately measured, and is worth many billions (perhaps as high as 14 billion rand). He mentioned that ‘informal’ is often equated with ‘illegal’ – this is a misperception. Mr Skosana also noted the sophistication of informal markets, where clear hierarchies and controls can be observed. He argued that this kind of sophistication is not reflected in our policies, and ought to be incorporated.

Ultimately, Mr Skosana argued the importance of developing public participation and getting people to work together.

Prof de la Porte was tasked with summarizing the main points of the discussion. He emphasized that it is the permanence of cities – and the ability of citizens to exploit this permanence – that allow cities to flourish (by accumulating resources and capital), and to drive development (by creating the space for enterprise). It is the permanence of cities that allows innovation, automation, and great diversity. Prof de la Porte argued that a city could be viewed as a barometer for the effectiveness of legislation.


Audience participation


The event saw lively audience participation and interaction around a number of challenges. These included:

  • Maintaining cities and infrastructure;
  • The real risk of ‘locking people in spaces’ by not creating options for citizens and not enabling them to choose where they live;
  • The cost effectiveness of new housing projects, and comparisons with past projects;
  • New urban developments that only cater to niche markets; and
  • The big question of the night: Given serious environmental concerns, what is the future of cities?



The HSF was pleased with the success of the event, and plans to pursue this topic in more detail in future. A post-event publication that includes photos and an edited transcript will be made available on the HSF website and will be sent out to the database in due course.


Wim Louw – wim@hsf.org.za
Helen Suzman Foundation