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The rise of the Mega City Project in South Africa

Yesterday, the Premier of the Gauteng Province launched the Vaal River City Development that is being built to the south of Johannesburg in the Sedibeng District. This mega city project marks a new approach to human settlements delivery where only projects of 15 000 houses will be considered. The aim is to create a new post-apartheid spatial structure which offers urban areas that are of higher density; have increased cultural, race and income diversity, and incorporate economic opportunity and jobs (both temporary in construction and permanent in industry and commerce).  One of the more interesting aspects of this project is the inclusion of agriculture to produce barley, grain and hops for the local Heineken Brewery, which is expected to generate permanent employment for 3000 people over a three year period. The benefit of this approach is that it offers the opportunity to partner with the private sector and to have economies of scale, especially with regard to waste, water and energy management. However, it is in stark contrast to the call for infill development to better integrate already existing urban areas which remain divided due to the apartheid spatial legacy.

The rise of the mega city project raises many questions and seems to counter certain fundamental planning principles.

Firstly, while it does seem easier to work on a greenfield site, a clean slate, how will we change our existing urban areas, where the majority of people still live and will continue to live for years to come, if investment is being placed outside of the existing structure?

Secondly, these projects are often placed outside of the existing urban edge which is purposed to prevent sprawl, increase urban density and intensity, and reduce the loss of important agricultural and environmentally sensitive land. Locating it outside of the urban edge also increases the cost of infrastructure and service provision, which raises the concern of who will pay for this extra cost? The developer, investors or the city and its tax payers?

Thirdly, with such an emphasis on public participation in South Africa, with these mega city projects, who can be considered ‘the public’ and who should be participating in the process?

Fourthly, as private investment is key to the success of these mega projects, will our cities, their form and growth patterns, be purely defined by investors and economic reasoning rather than locating investment where the social need is, as per the developmental state mandate.

Finally, the architectural styles employed in these cities are often highly complex and leave little room for change, growth and additions over time. This is troubling as inflexible design and structure is not resilient and has often been noted as a key failure of modernism leading to its downfall.

The other interesting aspect to these mega city projects is the grand visual depictions of what these cities will look like, which echoes the modernist era project of the City Beautiful; with futuristic depictions of pastel skies and haute couture, high rise architecture with little representation of the lived experience.  These representations often leave out the realities of urban life in South Africa, the daily experiences of good human-scaled urban design aspects, interactive street facades, informal trading, public transport, informal settlements and schools and clinics.

This is one of a few mega city projects in South Africa, and one of many mega city projects planned for Africa, which all aim to provide similar urban qualities. It will be interesting to watch these develop and to learn from them in the coming years. Some of these developments are engaging with the questions raised in this thought piece, while others steam ahead. A few of the other mega city projects being planned or currently underway in South Africa include:

1) Vaal River City Development, Gauteng: 

2) new Modderfontein, Gauteng:

3) Cornubia, Umhlanga:

4) Wescape, City of Cape Town:

5) Steyn City, Gauteng:

6) Waterfall City, Gauteng: