South Africa is a predominantly urban country, with almost 70% of the population living in cities and towns. But urban services and infrastructure are increasingly strained by collapsing infrastructure in many small and medium-sized towns and deteriorating standards in major cities.
A common response to a growing urban crisis is to imagine a fresh start with new cities. The momentum crosses the political spectrum.
In his 2019 State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa envisioned the construction of a new smart city. It has since announced new towns in Lanseria (north of Johannesburg), Mooikloof (east of Pretoria) and along the rugged Eastern Cape coast.
In April 2022, former opposition leader Mmusi Maimane argued that South Africa should build many new cities, doubling the number of metros from eight to 16.
New towns are an eye-catching idea. But that doesn’t make them good.
What would it take to create a new sustainable city without ruining the national tax authorities? Are they a viable prospect or white elephants in the making?
Fortunately, there is a history of New City thinking and practice that we can learn from.
New cities can be attractive because newer, smarter and more sustainable infrastructure can be put in place. But in South Africa, these expenditures compete with the need to improve the deteriorating infrastructure of existing cities, which in fact have the capacity to accommodate projected urban growth for decades to come.
While the development of carefully planned new towns can play a role in South Africa’s urban future, it would be a serious mistake to divert attention and resources from the country’s major urban challenges.
Most major cities around the world have evolved over long periods of time, responding to the growth of the local economy. But there are cities that were consciously designed from the ground up for many different reasons – including political egos, land speculation, colonial expansion, post-colonial developmentalism, and attempts to relieve existing cities of overcrowding and congestion.
In modern times, there was a wave of development of new towns (or rather new towns) in Europe after World War II. This was done to decentralize the development of heavily bombed major cities and to create better living environments for working-class families as part of a larger welfarist agenda.
Britain’s new towns program was the largest and best known, but new towns were also built in France, Italy, Sweden and elsewhere.
Western countries moved away from new town development, but from around the 1990s new town development gained momentum in other parts of the world, notably in East Asia and the Middle East. East.
In China, for example, new cities have been built to accommodate some of the additional 590 million people in the cities of the 1980s. Saudi Arabia has an amazing plan to build a 100-mile-long megacity called Neom that won’t would only be 200 meters wide.
In Africa, Egypt has a long history of developing new cities.
Elsewhere, there have been three recent waves of new town development. Just before the financial crisis of 2008/09, an ambitious first wave was launched (e.g. Konza Tech 64 km south of Nairobi, Eco Atlantic on land reclaimed from the sea outside Lagos, Cité du Fleuve on an island in the Congo River outside Kinshasa, and Kigamboni across a large estuary north of Dar es Salaam).
Most have weakened. The late South African academic Vanessa Watson called them “urban fantasies”.
The second wave was initiated by Moscow-based property developer Rendeavour, which targeted the rising middle class in Black Africa (e.g. Tatu City near Nairobi, King City near Takoradi Port in Ghana and Appolonia City near Accra). The developments were more modest in size and had some market-based success.
The third and most recent wave is diverse, ranging from Lanseria Smart City in South Africa to Akon City in Senegal, an attempt by an African-American rapper to recreate fictional Wakanda. Most recently, in May 2022, Elon Musk made an extraordinary announcement. He plans to build a new $20 billion city, called Neo Gardens, outside Gaborone in Botswana.
This international history offers many lessons, but so does an earlier South African history that includes the creation of nearly 80 new towns under apartheid for ideological reasons. These included Welkom, Vanderbijlpark, Sasolburg and Secunda, which were created to support new single-industry economies.
These worked well for a while. But they have not diversified substantially and their industries have suffered in recent years from international competition.
These patterns mirror those evident internationally, where the picture is more often one of economic vulnerability and long-term instability.
There are places where new urban economies have flourished, such as Shenzhen in China, Abuja in Nigeria and Milton Keynes in the UK. These are very specific cases: Shenzhen was one of the first Chinese initiatives to open up to the private sector in the 1980s and is close to Hong Kong; Abuja is a national capital; Milton Keynes is home to a great university and a cluster of vibrant industries.
New places sometimes develop around new or emerging economic activities, although often the attraction of existing economic cores remains strong.
New cities have had a better track record in places of rapid economic and population growth, such as in East Asian countries, where large-scale resources have been available for infrastructure development and growth is sufficiently fast to divert some economic activity to new cities.
Thus, the prospects of new towns strongly depend on the context in which they are developed.
New cities are expensive because new infrastructure has to be developed from scratch. And they have high risks in terms of results. At the same time, they do not replace existing cities, which continue to grow.
In our view, South Africa needs to adapt to the realities of existing cities and make them work better for their residents and the country.