When it comes to urban renewal, waterfront developments are relatively easy (except, perhaps, for Durban and Port Elizabeth, which seem to take a stop-start approach to their respective waterfront projects). For most other coastal cities around the world, there’s the cookie-cutter method: take an old working harbour – preferably with 1900s-era abandoned or underutilised warehouses – and add government/private-sector money.

The end result is a mundane mix of internationally branded hotels and retail offerings, luxury apartments and waterside restaurants. Bingo! Seaweed becomes Cinnabon. It’s a format that’s worked everywhere from Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires), Porto Maravilha (Rio de Janeiro), the Inner Harbor (Baltimore) and the V&A Waterfront (Cape Town) to Darling Harbour (Sydney), Faneuil Hall (Boston) and Fisherman’s Wharf (San Francisco).

By comparison, it’s no secret that Johannesburg is a dump, albeit an addictively fabulous mining dump – and the source of 40% of all the gold ever mined in the Earth’s history. More importantly, it’s a definitive dump, one that’s remarkably relevant and that serves as an insightful barometer of change.

“Where Jo’burg goes, so goes South Africa – which is why recent developments around its city centre bode well for the future”

Over the past decade, Jo’burg developers have – for the first time in the city’s history – been returning to areas previously abandoned by big money, creating new-use precincts out of no-go zones with varying degrees of success. New areas such as Victoria Yards, 1 Fox, Maboneng and Jewel City have been developed out of underutilised buildings, while other areas like the southwest financial precinct, Braamfontein, Gandhi Square, the ABSA precinct and Newtown are being reinvented as fresh-look urban zones.

Jo’burg’s mining-town history defines its skittish character. It was never destined to be a grand city with landscaped public squares and sweeping boulevards. Above all, it’s a working town with a firm focus on today (and getting the cash to the bank before sunset), and not yesterday (preserving its heritage) or tomorrow (planning its future).

Carefully crafted urban renewal projects can redefine cities. Miami’s Wynwood – previously full of chop shops and abandoned warehouses – has transformed from a don’t-look district into a must-see destination. The neighbourhood, once known as “Little San Juan”, has evolved into a series of inter-connected sub-districts centred on art, technology and fashion. Its rebirth was driven by a public arts project, Wynwood Walls, which now attracts about 150 000 visitors per month.

Likewise, Melbourne’s laneways project has seen the revitalisation of dozens of the inner city’s alleyways over the past 25 years into new-look laneways bursting with galleries, public art, greening, retail, restaurants, cafés and bars.

Reinterpretation of urban space is a global challenge, driven by urbanisation, economics, property development and increasingly savvy city governments competing for tourism and investment. Inclusivity is key – more so in the South African context, because of our exclusionary apartheid spatial development policies. For us, “gentrification” is something to avoid; “regeneration” is far more appropriate.

In Braamfontein, property developer South Point’s success (and good karma) is the result of its redevelopment of underutilised 1950s office blocks into student accommodation, creating more inclusionary high-density housing to underpin an eco-system that includes freshened retail, conceptual office space (including an NGO-dominant building) and public-space interventions. It’s about riding the wave, rather than trying to create a new one. And it’s something many of the Johannesburg city centre’s most successful urban-renewal developers have in common: developing concepts that create tangible links to existing and surrounding communities rather than importing new ones.

 

JOSEF TALOTTA

Josef Talotta is the executive head of precinct development for South Point,  an award-winning property development and student-accommodation company in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.