The important Role of Town Planning Consultants in South Africa

A brief History

In common with most occupations, the job of town planning consultants has steadily evolved, not just in South Africa, but in every country across the world where these specialist planners operate. Far from being a new concept, a Greek philosopher by the name of Hippodamus is generally accredited as having been the world’s first individual to pursue this profession and was regarded as the father of the science by no less a figure than Aristotle himself. As far back as the 5th century BC, he was claimed to be responsible for the typical orthogonal layout adopted by urban settlements of the period. Romans also recognised the importance of a planned layout, adopting a rectilinear pattern with the forum and city services at its centre. Even today, this layout of essentially square blocks of buildings arranged between streets in a chequerboard pattern remains popular.

More recently, however, there have been some doubts about the likelihood that Hippodamus could have been the first of the world’s town planning consultants. These doubts have surfaced following the discovery of similar layouts in ancient Egyptian remains that appear to predate the philosopher’s contribution. In practice, although many cities of the time were simply left to grow organically, there is evidence of efforts to formalise the layout and construction of settlements that dates back to an even earlier period and is to be seen in the remains of many of the Minoan and Mesopotamian cities of the pre-classical era, as well as in a particularly detailed account of a planned city layout described in the “Epic of Gilgamesh” – a poem from Mesopotamia thought to have been composed sometime around 2100 BC and recorded on tablets.

Meeting the Needs of Today

Given the numerous sprawling urban developments that have steadily become the norm over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the massively increased populations that many of them are now required to cater for, the role of town planning consultants in South Africa and elsewhere is no longer restricted to determining their geometry. Although the architectural layout and other such aesthetic concerns continue to remain a component of the overall responsibility of these individuals, the modern urban planner is now required to place much more emphasis upon a number of additional issues, such as infrastructure, sustainable construction methods, and environmental impact. Much of their work involves close collaboration with other specialists, such as architects, engineers, and legal professionals, as well as with the appropriate local municipalities.

Legislation regarding urban development is far more extensive and stringent today than in the past and, where once a piece of land might have been developed according to the whims of the owner, new building and zoning regulations have meant that this is no longer possible. Consequently, one of the more common reasons for seeking the services of town planning consultants in South Africa today is to determine precisely what may and may not be done with a given plot of land or a property before proceeding to develop it. This might involve determining the rezoning requirements for conversion of a residential property into business premises.

On a larger scale, when called upon to consult on the development of a new urban area, it is their role to first investigate the suitability of the site and any undesirable environmental implications posed by the new development, and to propose methods available to overcome any that may arise. Given a green light, the next phase is to ensure that any construction is designed to balance the infrastructure and lifestyle needs of its residents with those of its businesses and with all due concern for the protection of the environment. Within an existing urban development, there may be other concerns for town planning consultants. Although this is generally less of a concern in South Africa than in many European countries, the preservation of buildings that might be of historical or architectural importance may also need to be considered.

The responsibilities mentioned above are just some of those that are undertaken regularly by urban planners and only a fraction of the services that are offered by the award-winning The Practice Group. Established in 1986, our client portfolio is an extensive one that includes shopping centres, industrial parks, residential townships, airports, and urban renewal projects, to name a few.