Introduction to the Development and Current State of City Planning in South Africa

A brief introduction to city planning in South Africa is provided to give some insight into the urban and town planning consultant’s role in the country, in addition to the need for a new approach to city planning to cater for rapid urbanisation.

What is Urban Planning?

City planning entails the calculated arrangement of the spatial surroundings with the aim of creating order where otherwise chaotic or sporadic human settlement would have taken place. The science of city planning, also relating to South Africa, entails deciding the order in which it must be done and what tools should be used to ensure orderly development. South African city or urban planning is mostly based on the British urban planning models. This type of urban planning is considered modernistic or contemporary in its approach. The main focus of such planning is to order physical elements, rather than considering the importance of cultural and social factors. With this approach, the government has the responsibility to control the spatial order and structure development.

However, the current situation of informal settlements developing sporadically, infrastructure limitations, and the current environmental impact of urban sprawling require a new approach in South African city planning to ensure the sustainability of practices. Modern planning should make provision for large-scale of urbanisation and the rate at which it takes place. It must take issues such as poverty, long distances from home to work, community participation needs, health and safety, as well as the focus on climate change into consideration. The planning should focus on creating healthier, more environmentally sustainable, better-organised spaces, rather than leaving its development to sporadic settlements and then reacting to these.

Where it Originated

Urban planning, also known as town planning, is not a modern practice. The Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Roman, Aztec, and Chinese civilisations, like those of the modern day, are characterised by man’s influence on the arrangement of human settlements. The cities of old are examples of effective town planning in the early years of civilisations. The principles of planning, for getting water to the people, of ensuring that food supplies are centred in specific areas, and of military training only performed in specific areas can be seen in the cities of old.

The modern city planning had its origins in the industrial revolution of Europe when rapid urbanisation took place. Ill-prepared for the influx of people, the planners did not make enough provision for living spaces, hygiene, and general health conditions. The conditions proved perfect for the development and spread of disease, which quickly became epidemics, and many people lost their lives as a result. People used to set up towns where they settled for a while and new buildings were simply added around the town centres. The towns would sometimes eventually become cities.

When we look at South Africa, we see that earlier town planning focussed on rigid grid patterns with little concern for the physical features of the underlying land. The earlier town planning made no real provision for land use zones. It changed somewhat after 1953 with zoning for Durban’s Berea. Zoning principles would also be applied to other parts of the city. What is needed for modern South Africa is a focus shift to allow for more meaningful placement of structures with consideration for factors such as physiological attributes of the land, social and economic influences, and health and environmental factors. City planning in South Africa is governed by various laws including the Constitution of South Africa, the Development Facilitation Act, the Municipal Systems Act, Township Establishment Act, and various ordinances of the provinces.

New Approach Needed

Now, more than ever, it is important to pay close attention to strategic urban planning. Rather than reacting to factors such as rapid urbanisation and urban sprawl, strategic planning must make proactive provision for housing, road infrastructure, public transport, and drainage. Strategic planning has a long-term focus and provides the framework in which urban development takes place. It is thus important to make use of urban planners such as The Practice Group for advice, guidance, and assistance to ensure better planning for improved urban spaces and reduction of human impact on the environment.

We provide a range of urban planning services to municipalities, local government bodies, and the private sector throughout South Africa.