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Chaotic cities getting you down? Enter sustainable precincts – SA's answer to the urban jungle

Apr 21 2019 08:43
Alan Cameron

Traffic is jamming, electricity is tripping, water is restricted, storm water is run off and sewage is flowing. With rapid urbanisation, the demands on South African cities’ municipal services are increasing at an unrelenting rate.

The rise of sustainable precinct development is a reaction to this, with developers designing to neighbourhood scale to unlock efficiencies; relieving pressure on both users and local authorities.

A mature example of this is Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, which depends increasingly less on municipal infrastructure. Its 5.1% average economic growth between 2002 and 2018 stands in sharp contrast to South Africa’s 2.8%.

In the Johannesburg suburb of Dunkeld, between Rosebank and Illovo, another mixed-use precinct development called Oxford Parks is rising, with the business model anchored by a high-calibre public environment, convenient public transport, and the M1 highway.

Between Oxford Road and Cradock Avenue, 54 stand-alone suburban plots are in time expected to be redeveloped in line with the City of Johannesburg’s Precinct Plan. The goal: 14 000 employment opportunities and accommodation for 2 500 residents in a single environment where people can live, work and play.

Designed for humans, not machines

"A well-designed precinct environment makes a variety of behaviour choices more convenient. So, for example, you can conveniently walk from home to access entertainment, or commercial activities.

"This means your impact on the environment is far lighter," says Martin Smith, a Technical Director for Buildings at Aurecon.

Beyond convenience, designing for people makes any space more attractive. "If you design a street for cars, you design it for people to move through at speed. The focus is on the thoroughfare, and the buildings will respond to that – they will close themselves off to those streets, " explains Guy Briggs, Head of Urban Design at dhk.

This makes the environment less safe, too, he says. Rather, spaces should be engaging.

More interaction, healthier communities

Face-to-face engagement promotes civility, accountability and responsibility, Briggs argues. He says that the opposite is often true when engaging on digital platforms. You need just to glance at social media or a news website’s comments section to see how divisive opinions are reinforced, without repercussions.

A well-frequented and popular public space where people interact with each other transparently has an important societal benefit, and urban spaces should be designed to reinforce that, he believes.

Active ground floors of buildings - that open out as shop fronts and places to eat, drink and people-watch - facilitate engaging public places and give the space character and colour.

People should also be encouraged to walk, not drive, he believes. So while parking and service access is functionally important for any development, it should not take priority away from the pedestrian.

"As a driver, travelling an extra ten metres around a corner to park makes no difference to convenience. Not so on foot.

"People are fundamentally lazy; they will take the shortest distance. Faced with an environment that is vehicle-orientated, we’re less likely to get out of our cars, and will drive to office parking garage and use the elevator to access the building."

Humanising cities

"South African authorities do roads well. However, because roads become such a dominant feature we design for cars, so we design cities for machines, and dehumanise cities.

"By emphasising pedestrians, we humanise our cities," says Briggs.

"Remember in our context many people do not have or own cars, and are pedestrians most of the time. Even car owners are pedestrians some of the time.

"The places people enjoy spending time in tend to be city centres where cars are not dominant but the pedestrian environment is."

The land value of areas with a well-managed public environment, where it is safe and convenient to walk between a variety of venues, increases faster than those without, he notes.

Growing demand

So if there is a clear business case for these large mixed-use precinct-scale developments, why are there not more of them?

Their numbers are, in fact, expected to grow. With more than 8 000 gated residential estates, second only to the United States, South Africans are familiar with the real and perceived benefits of a controlled environment. 

Estate prices tend to be less volatile and so a better investment option during challenging times, Andrew Golding of Pam Golding Properties said in 2017; and it remains true today.

Financing

Intensifying the density of urban business nodes is in line with South Africa’s urban policies, and this principle allowed Dunkeld to be rezoned. Mitchell says these permissions required an engineering services contribution to upgrade existing infrastructure. 

Buildings in Oxford Parks will be designed to reach a minimum of a 4 Star Green Star SA Certified Rating. Its attractive, safe and friendly environment is already attracting the interest of the market. Plans are underway for an owners' association to set up a city improvement district.

"With Oxford Parks we can give people a guarantee that the public environment will be managed and upgraded," says Mitchell. "We believe that by creating and maintaining the public environment, the investment longevity of the area is enhanced and secured, securing the City’s rates base."

And the more predictable the development environment, the greater the chance for synergy. The V&A Waterfront, a precinct-scale managed by a single management company, shows how controlled development and public space benefit each other.

By making sure each building complements its neighbour, pedestrians happily walk between key points of the precinct, stimulating the areas between them.

In this controlled and predictable environment, sustainable infrastructure can contribute significant value. The R49m investment made in a district cooling plant which uses frigid sea water to assist with the air conditioning of six Silo District buildings paid itself off in four years, almost 30% faster than expected.

"Our leases allow for under- and over-recovery of utilities costs," comments Andre Theys, Operations Executive at the V&A. "In 2016 the energy and electrical savings in district cooling alone was R2.4m. And we can pass on this cost saving to our tenants, which grows with every electricity price hike." 

Unlocking efficiencies savings at such a scale requires a detailed knowledge of each of the buildings, before they are even commissioned. This is an important difference between the V&A and Oxford Parks; where multiple, independent developers are at work.

Embracing sustainability

The scale of a precinct better enables sustainable practices: generating energy through solar PV and utilising the considerable rain water and grey water run-off for flushing or irrigation. The V&A’s 16 rooftop solar PV installations, cautiously expected to pay for themselves in 10.5 years, currently generate 1.5MW of the 12.5MW required, and there are plans to increase this to 3MW.  

Beyond relying less on the municipal network for power or water supply, the management of sewage and storm water can further alleviate the strain that the developments would place on local infrastructure.

Situated on a ridge, the landscaping design of Oxford Parks will slow storm water run-off considerably. "Traditional storm water solutions tried to flush it away as quickly as possible, and flash floods are often the result, showing our infrastructure is not able to cope with this demand.

"Oxford Parks uses swales to push rain and storm water into the soil. This recharges the aquifer instead of contributing to flooding," explains Briggs.

With a commercial case showing the value of well-designed and sustainable urban precincts for users, investors and municipalities, we can expect more neighbourhood-scale developments in our cities.

Alan Cameron runs Places Plus, a placemaking consulting firm working to revitalise urban public spaces and so stimulate surrounding economic development.

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