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Johannesburg, South Africa

The sky can be the limit for Joburg

Saturday, March 7, 2015

 

This crazy city of ours throbs along at a pace that is sometimes breathtaking, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes just plain exhausting. What would it look like as the perfect city?

 

In an article last year in The Guardian entitled “The 10 things a perfect city needs”, Paul Mason saunters through what makes a perfect city.

 

He reckons it should have theatres where you can “look across the stalls to celebrities and states people, misbehaving in public”; and bicycle lanes and trams and a heavily regulated taxi system as efficient as the smartphone taxi service Uber.

 

The perfect city must be happy with its Victorian and Edwardian architecture and re-imagined old factories and warehouses; it must be ethnically mixed, tolerant and women-friendly – he cites a city in northern Spain which “plasters the streets with ever more inventive propaganda against sexual harassment, domestic violence and general sexism”.

 

If the city must have slums, they should be organised and policed and be stepping stones to upward mobility. It must have a democratic political culture that sees residents out on the street, having vociferous arguments in squares, but also keeps their police demilitarised and in check, allowing for the easy assimilation of migrants and the emigration of its citizens globally as proud representatives.

 

So, how does Joburg measure against these standards? Our theatres are good, my favourite being the Market, where I do see the occasional celebrity, not misbehaving, politely, of course. Bicycle lanes are happening although I’m not ready yet to ride the roads, not until taxi drivers obey the rules of the road. Is our minibus taxi system as efficient as Uber? I don’t know but I know Uber is smart and vibey and quick. 

 

Museum Africa is a good example of revamped Edwardian architecture that sits grandly in the city, and revamped warehouses and factories have been reborn into Maboneng and at The Sheds on either side of the CBD. 

 

We have some way to go to make our city more friendly to women but I like the idea of a prolonged campaign of billboards and posters condemning sexual violence but also reckless driving, littering, and xenophobia. 

 

Of course government policy is to move people from slums and informal settlements to formal housing, and housing projects like Fleurhof have done that, with more to follow.

 

Do we have a democratic political culture that has us on the streets in loud arguments? Yes, of course, even if at times we’re too violent about it. Assimilating foreigners has been peacefully happening for the past two decades - Little Ethiopia in the CBD is evidence of this. But equally, recent waves of xenophobic attacks on foreigners leave an ugly scar.

 

Mason has more. The perfect city should have whole neighbourhoods designed around hipster economics as hipsters “are crucial signifiers of a successful city economy”. These neighbourhoods typically contain, says Mason, vintage clothes stores, a micro-brewery, a gay club, burger joints, home brew coffee bars, and small workshops for creative microbusinesses. Maboneng comes pretty close to this.

 

Mason says the perfect city should have a “finance sector [that] has to be big enough to mobilise global capital and local savings, but not so big that it allows the global elite to run things through their usual mixture of aristocratic men's club and organised crime”. Well, Joburg is the financial hub of the country, with the stock exchange and the country’s wealthiest citizens, and some suburbs, like Bedfordview, the flashpoint of organised crime.

 

Mason believes too that the perfect city should have “a massive ecosystem of gay, lesbian, transgender, BDSM and plain old sleazy heterosexual hangouts: clubs, bars, dancehalls, cabarets and all the dim-lit alleyways and grassy knolls in between”. 

 

Joburg doesn’t have such an ecosystem but it reminds me of what architect Fanuel Motsepe said to me recently when I asked him what his perfect city would look like: “Joburg desperately needs a red light district.” He believes that if such a district existed, it would be easier to improve the safety of sex workers, and control abuse of them. 

 

Motsepe would also like to see more consultation with residents of the city to create a more perfect city, to study our “human capital”. “Human capital would give direction on where and how to create economies and jobs”. He feels Joburg could be improved with more visible policing, “on the scale of other great cities of the world”. He’d like to see more public space – more gardens and squares in the CBD. He would like to demolish some of the buildings north of Beyers Naude Square so as to double the size of the square. Essential, especially as some 20 000 people live in the city nowadays.

 

“I would like to design the city around children, which would also go a long way to address what adults and the elderly need,” he says. This would mean making the city safer and cleaner.

 

Motsepe feels strongly that designers and companies involved in the city should stop using precedents from overseas, and examine more the patterns of movement of Joburgers, and to understand Joburgers and who they are and what they need. 

 

I asked a city official, Sharon Lewis, the executive manager of planning and strategy at the Joburg Development Agency, what she sees as the perfect city. “Trees … lots of them to shade and cool and shelter.” Also, places to watch people and places to see ordinary people going about their everyday lives. And places to take photographs. “I love views of the landscape, beautiful buildings and structures, and, of course, public art.”

 

And, “good and bad spaces, rich and poor neighbourhoods; and bustling and quiet places: providing spaces for my every mood”. The perfect city, for her, must be a place where there is respect for the past, with museums that present the history of Joburg and provide reminders of the lessons learnt. The Apartheid Museum, the Origins Centre, the Hector Pietersen Museum, the Constitutional Court, Liliesleaf, fulfil that goal. The perfect city must give residents “a sense of hope and enthusiasm for the future”. Does Joburg do that? Or is it just a place to survive day to day for a lot of people?

 

Twenty-something architect Karabo Mokaba says the perfect city must be “multilingual, multicultural and diverse”. It must have tall buildings. “There is something I enjoy about New York and Hong Kong, a sense of built presence”. 

 

Mokaba says the city should be a holistic animal, a “place where all 'ingredients' from daily activities are recycled and re-used. Everything has an end use!” 

 

I quizzed the late art entrepreneur Lesley Perkes - who died far too young in February - last year about her perfect city, and in her typical generous and caring way she said: “My perfect Joburg would have a mayor who encourages us to be ourselves and celebrates us for who we are. My perfect Joburg has police who help old ladies across the road, fixes the street traders' tables that are falling down and makes sure that if Pikitup don't come and clean, the metro police help out to make sure we can eat off the floor.”

 

In her adventurous spirit she said too: “My perfect Joburg is where I walk at night at 2am in the morning from Troyeville to Maboneng and from Maboneng through the city to Hillbrow to go dancing at the top of the tower. And the only men and women that I encounter on the way are friendly folk like me. In my perfect Joburg all the homeless children and old people have homes now and are not sleeping underneath Joe Slovo Bridge or in the park next to my house. My perfect Joburg has a gentle side to it not seen since someone found gold here and the place went bezerk.”

 

I can see her now, dancing at the top of Hillbrow Tower, with her wide smile and happy laugh. ​

 

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