Northern suburbs resist Joburg housing policy

Northern suburbs resist Joburg housing policy

By Dennis Webster

It was dusk at the Bryanston Country Club. Members carried their putters off the practice greens. Walking past a busy cash bar, they joined the crowd gathering in the club’s Grosvenor Room.

The occasion – organised by residents’ associations from the northern suburbs of Melrose and Ferndale on 7 March – was well attended. Dozens of mostly white residents carried draught beer and wine in fishbowl-sized glasses above their heads as they squeezed through the crowd to their seats.

The residents had gathered in these lush surrounds to discuss a new City of Joburg policy, the Nodal Review.

The spectre of density

First published together with the City’s newly passed inclusionary housing policy, the Nodal Review is at the heart of the municipality’s efforts to densify the city in the wake of its 2016 Spatial Development Framework.

The policy will regulate densities across Johannesburg in an effort to bring more people nearer to services and jobs. An ambitious minimum density of 80 residential units per hectare (the policy encourages 150 residential units or more closer to key transport nodes such as Gautrain stations) will apply in the “metropolitan nodes” that make up large swathes of the city’s northern suburbs.

A handful of the residents seemed comfortable with increased density. One woman, turning to her neighbour, said, “We’re hitting our heads against brick walls! It’s density. This is a city. That’s what happens,” before updating him on her children, both in their 30s, while waiting for the event to begin.

Most, however, shared the apocalyptic vision set out by the event’s first speaker.

‘Radical’ change

Stephen Baylis, a Parkmore resident and town planner who worked for the former Transvaal Provincial Administration and was instrumental in drawing up Johannesburg’s 1979 Town Planning Scheme, said the densities outlined in the Nodal Review would likely “destroy the areas quite successfully”.

The character of neighbourhoods could change “radically”, said Baylis, with municipal services going “off the rails”. The policy may even “result in spaza shops and shebeens in your neighbourhood”.

Baylis’ comments – met by a sea of nodding heads and gasps – reflected those made by residents and their associations during public participation on the Nodal Review in early 2018.

At that time, residents of Houghton, Parktown North, Westcliff and Melrose said densification may decrease property values in their neighbourhoods. The Nodal Review, they said, jeopardises the trees, quiet and heritage character that attracted them to these neighbourhoods to begin with.

Townhouses forever

Jannie Potgieter followed Baylis at the lectern.

The organisers had invited Potgieter to share an “actual example” of how the Nodal Review may play out.

He recounted the nightmare of objecting to a City-authorised, four-storey, 162-unit development intended to house lower-income earners in his exclusively single- and double-storey neighbourhood.

“Neighbours will be sitting in the dark in the winter because they will never see the sun!” he said. “And privacy will be completely destroyed.”

An apparently looming downturn in property prices caused by the unwanted development means residents may now be “stuck with [their] townhouses forever”.

“It’s just railroading!” came a gruff agreement from out of the crowd.

Potgieter’s account brought on rousing applause at times, and a standing ovation from some, when he closed with a caution that the Nodal Review “could have a devastating effect on your property value”.

Sarah Charlton, a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand and former director of the university’s Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, who was also at the Bryanston Country Club, took a different view.

The densification of wealthier neighbourhoods set out in the Nodal Review, Charlton told New Frame, “provides a key opportunity to make the city less unequal, more inclusionary.” If low-income residents are able to live nearer to work, they will be allowed to “share in some of the benefits of more established neighbourhoods,” she said.

Preaching to the intractable

The period for public consultation on the policy has long since ended. The City’s mayoral committee approved the Nodal Review for the council’s consideration on 6 December 2018. Nevertheless, the municipality was well represented at the meeting.

Member of the mayoral committee for development planning Reuben Masango and City of Joburg executive director of development planning Amolemo Mothoagae were joined by Graham de Kock, the chairperson of the City’s development planning Section 79 committee, and Zain Ally of the land use management department to answer residents’ concerns.

One man sitting in the audience, however, stood to leave as the city officials took the stand. Putting down his whiskey, he barked before leaving the room: “This makes me want to piss!”

David Foley, the DA councillor for Ward 94 – 57km² of northern suburbs embracing Fourways in the west and the Kyalami Grand Prix race track in the east – sat among the audience. “Getting involved in community activities and be part of solutions and not complaining all the time” was one of Foley’s suggested New Year resolutions to become better citizens, according to the Fourways Review.

Masango’s introduction was cut short as the neighbour of the resident concerned with railroading, his brandy and Coke sloshing, shouted: “Get on with it!”

The mayoral committee member’s attempt to explain the research that went into the Nodal Review’s emphasis on inclusivity, density and transit-oriented development was again drowned out when another resident demanded that he “just answer the questions”.

As the evening drew on, City officials got no closer to convincing the residents, who eventually resolved to consider the formation of a non-profit company to fund and drive litigation against the Nodal Review going forward.

Charlton said that the suburban resistance to densification “comes across as property owners simply defending a status quo without constructively contributing to alternative forms of transformation.”

“There seems very little understanding of the moral and practical imperative for the city to change in ways that make it less unequal and exclusionary, and that some change needs to happen in the affluent suburbs too.”

One attendee, who left before Masango had responded to questions, took the wrong corridor on his way to the parking lot. “The car is this way, dear,” his wife corrected him. “Of course!” he chuckled. “For a moment there I thought I was in the wrong country club!”

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