Urbanisation is one of the most important drivers of both social and economic life. Most of the world’s economic innovation occurs within cities and large metropolitan areas, and these are the places that prosper the most. Cities are like the Internet: they connect people.

Katherine Cox, Research, Development & Innovation Manager, TUHF. Photo by TUHF

Katherine Cox, Research, Development & Innovation Manager, TUHF. Photo by TUHF

Katherine Cox, Research, Development & Innovation Manager, TUHF, says: “Research indicates that 80% of the world’s wealth is created in cities. People in cities thrive on the opportunities for work and play, and the endless variety of available goods and services.” Cities are where people find opportunities, especially women in the developing world. They are also the perfect testbeds for new innovations. Currently, there is massive urbanisation occurring not only in South Africa, but across the continent. This can be attributed to the significant economic opportunities to be had.

Proximity critical

“Sharing spaces has become integral to this urbanisation. People are now reliant on affordable transport even if that means walking or cycling to where they need to go. This makes proximity critically important. People are therefore attracted to the idea of being able to live and access retail, commercial areas, education, social amenities
and their work within walking distance. To this end, inner-city living is becoming a key building block for the future of urbanisation,” she says.

Advanced cities such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Bristol in England, and Melbourne in Australia, are already developing plans that prioritise circular economics and climate resilience. Cities have prolific benefits other than basic needs, housing, and jobs. These include universities, cafés, art galleries, restaurants, and cultural facilities.
Yet, they also have traffic, overcrowding, crime, pollution, and disease.

“Cities, particularly in the developing world, are already facing rapid urbanisation. More than half the world lives in cities. By 2050, this will be two-thirds with 380 million new urban dwellers expected to have arrived in African cities. After all, it is in cities that we experience the power of proximity and economic opportunities,” she adds.

Pandemic changes

Under the growing urban agenda, it has become clear that building sprawling, car-centric cities no longer works. Prior to Covid-19, cities were focusing on sustainable development, increasing density, resilience, and smart urbanism while remaining cognisant of the rapid
urbanisation and massive housing and infrastructure backlogs also taking place.

However, cities and urban populations have started undergoing a radical shift – from the dream of ownership to that of interdependence and sharing. Out of economic necessity, citizens either choose to or are forced to share living spaces, occupy micro-apartments, and invest in bike and car shares. Furthermore, shared working spaces are giving rise to inclusive cities with inclusionary housing and crammed multimodal public transport hubs.

“Some are arguing that the Covid-19 pandemic may appear to be one of anti-urbanism, with dense urban areas being the hardest hit in terms of infection and mortality statistics. Yet, cities have always faced severe challenges. For example, terrorism, and xenophobic and religious fundamentalist attacks repeatedly buffer urban areas. Cities have been the epicentres of infectious disease since the time of Gilgamesh and they have always recovered and will continue to grow,” says Cox.

Having said that, some aspects of cities will need to change; fear of density may push some to rural areas while others will see the reverse happen. Ambitious young people will continue to come to cities in search of personal and professional opportunities. The creative
class may be drawn by lower rents, thanks to the economic fallout from the virus.

Buildings and public spaces may be retrofitted for social distancing. There will also be longer-term trends affecting cities such as digitalisation of retail and work, leading to a repurposing of office spaces and malls. Most cities are seeing a shift to micro-mobility schemes including walking and bikes with increasing numbers of streets being pedestrianised and the number of dedicated bike lanes increasing.

“If anything, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of being able to access more green spaces in cities. There is an increasing demand for such public open spaces that are well-managed, cleaned, and more reflective of a post-pandemic world. This will see the green city approach become essential as the high cost of services such as electricity and water are driving people to become more self-sustaining and ultimately moving off the grid,” adds Cox.

Such post-pandemic developments, therefore, create opportunity to promote smart density in the affordable housing space through TUHF, Intuthuko, and uMaStandi, as well as green investment through Luhlaza. Cities are resilient because their inhabitants are resilient.

“At TUHF, we believe in a ‘Massive: Small’ approach. This is implementing and financing small scale entrepreneurs in a way that is scalable and replicable to have a bigger, more inclusive, and sustainable impact than mega-projects, for example. We believe in how people from the street are becoming entrepreneurs and scaling up in previously unimaginable ways. The future of the urban environment will centre on these projects as people start looking at more innovative ways of living,” concludes Cox.