Urban Recycling the Capitalist Way

Posted: December 11th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Manhole Covers, South Africa, Urbanism and Planning | 1 Comment »

Fueled by record high metal prices, thieves from Chevy Chase, Maryland to Mumbai, India are causing headaches for authorities by stealing copper wires, aluminum bleachers, zinc artwork, and iron manhole covers. Meanwhile, in Detroit, the problem of metal theft drove one energy company executives to confront directly those who would cut down copper wiring to sell for a quick profit.

Thanks to strong demand due to rapid economic growth in China and India, the price of a variety of metals has hit historic highs. In the words of one commentary: “The five major base metals, copper, zinc, nickel, lead and aluminum, are all in the midst of spectacular secular bull markets that have seen each of them shatter their previous all-time highs. At their recent bull-to-date highs these metals have risen 575%, 537%, 1,124%, 888% and 145% respectively. These numbers are simply astonishing, and based on these metals’ current fundamentals they are likely not done yet.” The increases have boosted the value of scrap sources tremendously.

Delft Construction SiteThe problem of metal theft has become common enough in South Africa that a new housing development I visited last summer was installing polymer sewer grates and manhole covers made from metal with no scrap value. A public service announcement that played at the movie theater dramatized the harmful impacts of telephone wiring thefts with actors playing the role of businesspeople cut off from phone service.

Last year, wiring theft in Melbourne, Australia delayed hundreds of trains before repairs could be made. Tens of thousands of manhole covers are stolen each year in Beijing. In Mumbai, an artist couple lost over 60 zinc metal plates, the product of 10 years of work. An interesting story from the New York Times published in 2004 described how high metal prices was cleaning up metal junk across Asia:

The invisible hand of high scrap prices is tidying Mongolia’s sere and treeless landscape, a tableau now picked clean of metal trash. On a recent six-hour drive across the steppe, only two wrecked cars could be seen. One had been converted into a feed dispenser for livestock. The other car had been in an accident only a few hours earlier. …

The Pacific port of Vladivostok, once disfigured with half-sunken derelict boats, has been cleaned up, restoring the harbor’s reputation as the San Francisco of the Russian Far East. Moving deeper and deeper into Siberia in search of junk metal, the INI Steel Company of South Korea opened a purchasing office in 2003 in Yakutsk, 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

The phenomenon has not been limited to developing economies. Earlier this year, thieves stripped copper downspouts off fancy Chevy Chase homes and stole wiring at Houston’s public library. Perhaps hardest hit has been Detroit. Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at around 7%, and the Detroit area’s is around 8%. With copper fetching over $3 a pound, it becomes attractive for theft.

Copper Theft ConfrontationAccording to a press release issued earlier this year, the city’s primary telephone and power utilities reported over 370 incidents of copper theft in the first half of 2007, and have begun a program offering $1,000 for any information relating to copper theft. For a recent magazine article, a reporter tagged along with a power company executive investigating a report of stolen wire. The thieves were seen in Detroit burning off the rubber sheathing to prepare stolen wire for redemption at a scrap yard. The photo shows the executive, Michael Lynch, extinguishing the wires while the man who had been tending it looks on. The article describes in some detail the connection between metal theft and drug use. The problem is not limited to utility wires, the theft of copper piping at a historic Detroit gym drew the attention of the Freakonomics blog last year.

[Most Recent Quotes from www.kitco.com]

The high prices and low warehouse reserves (‘LME’ above) of copper and other metals could have a variety of implications for our cities. We should expect to see more manhole covers and sewer grates from non-valuable, and perhaps non-recyclable materials. Greater attention will be paid to securing readily available metals wherever they are found.

The raw material costs may also filter into the building process, as they raise the cost of basic infrastructure. In South Africa we learned how architects, engineers, and planners had sought to design homes and communities using the absolute minimum piping and wiring while providing basic services, in order to maximize public housing production with taxpayer’s money. This minimalist architecture has spread to the private realm, where wealthy clients sought highly basic homes for lifestyle reasons.

If we relate this basic architecture to discussions about the virtues of small homes, we can easily see how this could become connected to a broader efficiency ethos. The resulting city could be reminiscent Richard Sennett’s “architecture of justice,” a city that convinces us to live with less

> Chief Security Officer Online, 2/1/07: “Copper Theft: The Metal Theft Epidemic

Housing and Economy in McGregor, South Africa

Posted: October 10th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Historic Preservation, McGregor, Slums, South Africa, Urban Development | 4 Comments »

McGregor Postcard

This summer I spent one month in South Africa completing a planning study in McGregor, a small town roughly two hours from Cape Town. (See it on Google Maps)

This post summarizes the contents of our report, which we presented today to students and faculty in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland.

The research was conducted by a team comprised of myself, Jocelyn Harris, and Brooke Taylor from University of Maryland, Matt Monroe from Rutgers University, and Iris Patten from the University of Florida. Our faculty advisor Prof. Sidney Brower. The report contains a survey of the housing and economic conditions of McGregor, and proposals for how community members might address problems in these areas. Like many towns and cities in South Africa, many residents of McGregor are living in substandard housing. We argue the solution to this problem must include not only well-designed new government housing, but also strategies to address the underlying cause: the social and economic inequality that exists in the town. The report is divided into four parts. We conducted extensive research with young residents of the town who have been working with the South Africa Heritage Resources Agency to document the town’s heritage.

Team members talking with local residents during the planning process:

Working With the Students

Part One contains a summary of the system of local governance, population, private sector groups, and previous plans for McGregor. It also includes a summary of the broader provincial and national policy context for housing production. Proposals to adopt design review for new buildings and subdivision zoning to maintain the historical character have been adopted, however proposals to provide assistance to low income residents to maintain their homes have not been enacted. I described the country’s national housing policies last summer in a post titled “Government-Built Sprawl.”

Part Two contains a summary of the existing housing in McGregor. The town contains a collection of distinctive thatch-roofed cottages. Combined with the natural setting, the architecture has made the town highly desirable for vacationers who stay at several small inns, vacationers who have purchased or build vacation homes in the town, and retirees who have chosen to reside there. However, housing in the colored community, who make up the majority of the population, is generally substandard.

The wealthy upper town:

Old and New Houses

And lower town:

McGregor Traditional Homes

McGregor Street

Part Three contains a discussion of new housing for the community. It contains an analysis of each potential site discussed for new housing including site plans obtained from the municipality, and a proposal for a site selection criteria and committee. It also includes a discussion of alternative designs for government housing and a proposal for a home renovation fund for the poor.

Alternative 1

Alternative 2

Alternative 3

Lastly, Part Four contains a discussion of both the economy of McGregor and its region, and a consideration of the relationship between the economy and housing provision. The report argues a successful housing strategy must address the town’s poverty through diversification and policies that result in greater direct participation in the local economy.

While there are no easy answers to the problems the town is facing, we were inspired by the vision and dedication to self-improvement among town residents. Graced with world-class natural amenities and a unique building tradition, the town’s heritage itself is a rich resource. We hope the citizens are able to use our report to accommodate more equitable housing and economic opportunities for all residents.

> Download a PDF of our full report (scroll to bottom)
> See all my photos from McGregor

The project team and McGregor heritage workers.

Group Photo - McGregor


Slums in Cape Town and Beyond

Posted: July 20th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Housing, Slums, South Africa, Urban Development | 6 Comments »

Part 5 of my South Africa series.

To begin this week’s final post on South Africa, let’s consider this satellite image of most of metropolitan Cape Town, population roughly 2.9 million. This map depicts an area some 40 miles across.

Cape Town Metro Area

Next, this map of the economic geography of the city from a city planning document shows the economic patterns of the city. The area shaded light yellow the planners have labeled “market avoidance.” Here, joblessness and drug use are high, and many residents are living in substandard conditions.

FutureCapeTown Economic Map

Like most cities in the developing world, Cape Town has squatter settlements, known in the country as informal settlements, where the poor have erected shacks on vacant land. In Cape Town most of them are along the N2 freeway, adjacent existing poor areas, although some communities have been established in desirable neighborhoods with sea views. I made this map using city data, but I do not know exactly the definitions or accuracy of the data. The small scale of the map and the high density of these communities should be taken into consideration.

Cape Town Metro Area

According to a government report (PDF), about 3.5 million people in the country live in such settlements, or 7% of the total population. As shown in the table, the government considers their government building program a direct response to informal settlements.

South Africa Informal Settlements

Many of the residents of the informal settlements and also poverty area would qualify under the United Nation’s definition of a “slum household,” which they define as “a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area who lack one or more of the following: durable housing, sufficient living area, secure tenure and access to clean water and sanitation.” South Africa is relatively well-off by African standards, as experts estimate 72 percent of sub-Saharan Africans live in slum conditions. Experts also estimated that for the first time in human history, a majority of the world’s population now lives in cities. One-third of these city dwellers live in a slum.

The 2003 UN report “The Challenge of Slums” for the first time marshaled reliable data on cities from around the world. The report estimated 928 million people living in slum conditions, and world urbanization was occurring at a rapid pace. In his book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis compared the report with those produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “If the reports of the [IPCC] represents an unprecedented scientific consensus on the dangers of global warming, then The Challenge of Slums sounds an equally authoritative warning about the worldwide catastrophe of urban poverty.” He concludes that “The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood … surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.”

In June, United Nations experts reported global shanty towns are growing by more than a million people every week, and estimate they will reach two billion people by 2030. Davis and others have long argued this enormous population of the impoverished will be vulnerable to religious fundamentalism and fear their political repercussions. The intellectual world is only beginning to catch up with enormous urbanization, and in English at least there are few books on the topic. The two usually discussed are Davis’ Planet of Slums and Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities. Davis’ book makes clear there exists a tremendous potential for researching and understanding these places, a task that has only just begun. The relevance of urban planning to global slums will remain to be seen: what is the meaning of a regulatory discipline in a context where regulations do not exist or are not enforced? The biggest role for planners, it seems, will be overseeing upgrading of basic infrastructure and also the legal processes of documenting property and tenure necessary if these places are ever to participate in the formal economy.

> Forbes: “Two Billion Slum Dwellers
> The Independent: “Planet of slums: UN warns urban populations set to double
> UN-HABITAT: The Challenge of Slums
> UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs: World Urbanization Prospects
> Robert Neuwirth’s Squattercity blog

The Minibus Solution

Posted: July 19th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Cape Town, South Africa, Transportation, Urban Development | 4 Comments »

Part 4 of my South Africa series

Imagine a public transportation system that combines the low cost and fixed routes of a bus, with the frequency and availability of a private taxi. The system would be idea: convenient, low-cost, and predictable. There’d be no fear the driver was taking you for a ride, and catching one would be as simple as waiting a few minutes at most on the roadside.

Sound intriguing?

If you are lucky enough to live in Cape Town, you could enjoy such a system daily. That city’s minibus taxis are the local version of a type of transportation common throughout the world Wikipedia calls a “share taxi.” According to government data the country has some 126,000 of these vehicles operating mostly in the country’s cities.

More MinibusesLike a train system (which Cape Town also has), the buses run along fixed routes named after their final destination. Each bus is a small Toyota van with customized seats designed to maximize the vehicle’s occupancy. Most displayed signs advertising a maximum occupancy of roughly 16, but we rode in vans with as many as 21 people. Most buses are staffed by a two man crew. The driver drives as quickly as possible and controls the music, which can range from American disco and rap to Cape Malay music, almost always played loudly. The second person mans the van’s sliding door, and carries a sack of change. Most fares are around 4-5 Rand, or roughly $0.75, and generally paid with coins. The door operator also generally leans out the open window continuously whistling or shouting the destination, and otherwise heckling passersby to convince them they really need a lift where he is going. I noticed the city had created minibus-only lanes on the street along busy routes approaching the center city.

The vans will stop to pick up or let off passengers at any point on their route, although bus stops and major landmarks like the supermarket are common points. The routes terminate at government-built transit depots. In a huge structure above the Cape Town train station, thousands of vans converge from throughout the metropolitan area on a depot organized into dozens of lanes, one for each route. The service was clearly for locals: during our month stay were unable to locate a route map.

Minibus Taxi Station

Although riding the minibuses can be a somewhat snug experience, particularly during peak times, we found the system to be inexpensive and efficient. Despite some harrowing driving, the van operators were almost uniformly polite and professional.

There are at least a couple reasons why such a system might not work in the U.S. First, I estimated that operating at maximum capacity a Minibus crew could earn 100 Rand an hour. If they had seven hours of peak operation a day (an optimistic estimate) they could earn 700 Rand, or roughly $100 dollars. After paying for gas and the van (many are rented from a company) there’s not much money left for the driver and door man. Although the actual wages must be low, we heard of factory jobs that paid $40 a day. Clearly, such a system would have to charge much more to make sense where labor was more expensive.

Second, the system thrives in an environment with low car ownership and relatively high density along most corridors. This ensures enough riders to support very frequent service along busy routes, making the service even more attractive to riders choosing between private vehicles, bus, or train. In rural areas transport was a problem and hitching a ride was common as taxis were much more expensive.

Two South African urban scholars have recently examined urban transport in that country in a text titled “Rethinking Urban Transport After Modernism: Lessons from South Africa.” Although the book is expensive to purchase in the states, Google Books has a preview with many pages from it. They conclude that current public transportation systems are not sustainable and urge a paradigm shift in the way transport is conceived, including:
- creating a decentralized pattern of accessibility to decentralize opportunity in the city (versus the modern, radial model centered on a downtown)
- create pedestrian friendly environments
- link transport to high densities of housing and land use
- design complete streets with a full range of uses in mind, not simply roads for cars
- and link transportation planning with urban design and urban planning.

These principles will sound familiar to American readers as they are also commonly discussed concepts in planning circles here. Although the book rightfully describes how the transportation structure of South African cities should evolve, I can’t help but be struck by the extent to which the minibus taxi system exemplifies many of the goals they envision: providing public, low-cost, pedestrian-oriented, point-to-point transport throughout the city.

Government-Built Sprawl

Posted: July 18th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Cape Town, Housing, South Africa, Urban Development | Comments Off

Part 3 of my South Africa Series

N2 Gateway Project HouseThe lack of progress bridging the social divides in South Africa has not been due to political will. In addition to a variety of political rights (many which Americans will be familiar with from our Bill of Rights), the South African Constitution includes workers’ rights to join unions, a right to education, a right to a clean environment, a right to access to government information, and a right to “adequate” housing, among others. The housing section reads as follows:

1. Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.
2. The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.
3. No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions.

In order to achieve that goal, the government’s National Department of Housing has spent considerable funds to construct free or very low cost housing for citizens housed in sub-adequate conditions. Since 1997 the department has constructed 2,355,913 homes. Although I cannot find the precise break-down, I believe most of those were free homes provided first time home owners. This graphic illustrates where in South Africa most of these homes have been built.

Housing Delivery in South Africa

Despite the millions of new homes, the government continues to struggle to accommodate the long lists of needy citizens. The model of housing adopted for the early phase was a 6 meter by 6 meter square house, or less than 400 square feet, located on a roughly 2,000 square foot lot. The houses are provided a small bathroom and power and the poor are provided a small allocation of power and water free of charge. These admittedly “starter” homes are intended to house the most needy, although the program has been fraught with criticism. Moralists critique the lack of privacy resulting from more than one family living essentially in the same room. Extensions to the original house often amount to little more than a tin lean-to. Finally, the mass development of these homes at the city edge, where land is cheapest, has created large communities of poor far from jobs and municipal resources. To make matters worse, most of the poor do not own automobiles, and are heavily reliant on public transit. (Luckily, unlike in America, the commuter rail system and shared taxis do service the periphery.)

During my stay in Cape Town we were able to visit a government-funded housing project under construction in the area known as Delft. Here the homes being constructed in an area known as the “Cape Flats,” beyond the airport on a vast flat sandy area miles from downtown. At the site two demonstration houses stood next to a container retrofitted as a mobile office.

Yohan Construction Site

We spoke to the employee of a civil engineering firm who was overseeing the construction of basic infrastructure – sewer, electrical, water pipes, and streets. Here a pile of manhole covers and drain grates (designed to have no value as scrap iron to deter theft) stood stacked waiting for installation. We were told the entire project would include some 50,000 homes when complete.

Delft Construction Site Delft Model Home

Google Earth captured a similar project under construction that conveys the scale of these developments:
Housing Construction

The problems associated with the mass construction of these homes have sparked a sea-change in the thinking of government officials. Currently officials talk about the need to move beyond the single-minded focus on mass construction, and attempt to create “sustainable human settlements,” and this summer have issued a new official policy statement dedicated to creating sustainable communities. The current model of housing construction is also fundamentally at odds with the government’s strict approach to urban growth: each city has an urban growth boundary, and the government is attempting to pursue a policy of “densification” to focus development in already-urbanized area. Newer projects, such as the N2 Gateway project in Cape Town, have experimented with a variety of housing types (condominiums, duplexes, single-family homes) as well as tenure (rented and owned). The reason most housing to date has been small single-family homes is complex, and has to do not only with user preference and the high cost of high density housing, but also a stigma against government apartment complexes dating from Apartheid-era policies.

However, despite inspired policy documents issued from housing authorities, the simple fact remains that the cheapest land is the farthest from the city center, and a house designed at a minimal cost leaves much to be desired. While American government policies such as home loans, freeways, and the mortgage tax deduction have sparked suburban sprawl, in South Africa the government itself is the builder of impoverished, sprawling, low-density communities.

In both cases, residents and city builders are now facing a similar challenge: how to transform these landscapes into something more sustainable and urban to better serve residents’ needs.

The Defensive City

Posted: July 17th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Cape Town, South Africa, Urban Development | 4 Comments »

Part 2 in my South Africa series

The combination of affluence and desperate poverty in South Africa I described yesterday has made the country a world leader in both crime and security technology.

In particular, security measures are pervasive in the physical form of the city. Although some of the security measures date from the apartheid era, sadly many are new. Cement walls or metal fences surround almost every house or apartment building. These walls can range quite widely. Some deter intruders with a traditional spiked wrought iron fence, perhaps embellished with sharp fleur-de-lis. Many have barbed, razor, or electrified wires. One house we found in a trendy neighborhood was defended by shards of glass set into the concrete wall. Oddly, this wall was decorated with widely spaced letters spelling “LOVE”

Electricified FenceFence

View of Table MountainSecurity Spikes

Other measures were also common. Windows on homes are barred, even in the rural area we visited over two hours’ drive from Cape Town. Metal gates and turnstiles were common to regulate access to businesses, government buildings, and apartment buildings.

Security Gate

Store GateMany businesses, particularly in the downtown area, had locked gates at the door. If you would like to enter you had to wait for the store attendant to buzz you in. The store to the right was open.

Nonphysical measures were also common. Uniformed and armed security guards are common in businesses, public spaces, and even patrolling private neighborhoods. Each train station in the commuter rail system has two security officers – one for each platform. A newspaper account I read described how private police were increasingly conducting investigations for the overworked police. At the end of apartheid in 1994, the country created a national South African Police Service to provide police protection throughout the country, and this agency’s retrofitted trucks and vans are ubiquitous.

With urbanization and inequality growing around the world, we should expect a hardening of the public realm. While bollards and gated communities are much discussed in the U.S., the defensive cityscape is much more subtle and persuasive than anti-terror measures around major sites. In this way, South Africa could be a sad harbinger of things to come elsewhere in the developed world.

A Cityscape Divided

Posted: July 16th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Cape Town, South Africa, Urban Development | 1 Comment »

Part 1: Setting the Scene

I recently returned from spending one month in Cape Town participating in a study abroad program. Each day this week I will post a new article exploring, in order, the social context, the defensive architecture I observed, government led low-income urban sprawl, Cape Town’s ingenious Minibus taxis, and a selection of photos from the trip. The posts are intended to be a guided exploration of a topic of interest, based in my observations in Cape Town. This trip was my first to South Africa, and I welcome and encourage comments.

Cape TownDuring my recent study abroad trip to South Africa, our faculty adviser described the country as “a first world country and a third world country squished together.” Indeed, for much of South Africa’s history, inequality based on racial categories was legally enforced. Privileged classes benefited from the country’s productive farms and rich natural resources while non-whites were largely excluded. Although it has been thirteen years since multiracial elections under the new democratic constitution, the country remains deeply divided.

Clifton BeachAccording to World Bank statistics, the country has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor of any country in the world. The official unemployment statistic – around 25% – doesn’t adequately explain the context. (As a matter of comparison, the state with the highest unemployment in the USA and generally thought to be in deep economic trouble is Michigan, with unemployment around 10%). In South Africa, the poorest communities can have official unemployment levels as high as 50% and above. In reality, most people in these communities are working: selling candy, beer, drugs, or working in a low-wage or seasonal formal sector job that pays too little to feed their families. A recent teacher’s strike raised concerns students in poor areas would be weak and half-starved after the two week strike because their families have so little money to feed them. Shantytowns are common around large cities, and poor people in rural areas often lack resources to build or maintain homes, and live in overcrowded or substandard conditions.

Langa Apartment BuildingThe desperate economic situation has profound social implications. Cape Town, where I studied for a month, has been struggling with high rates of AIDS/HIV infection, and has a serious crystal meth (or Tik, as it is known locally) problem. During our visit in one neighborhood anti-drug crusaders were battling drug dealers – burning their cars and marching on their houses — while police struggled to contain both the drug gangs and the vigilantes. While in general I’m skeptical of exaggerated concerns about crime, our personal experiences suggested the rates are high and concern is warranted.

The government struggling with these problems is socially progressive by world standards, and operates under a progressive constitution that mandates local municipalities “structure and manage its administration, and budgeting and planning processes to give priority to the basic needs of the community, and to promote the social and economic development of the community.” Although there has been plenty of criticisms of the government’s success implementing the ideals of the constitution, South Africa is in the unique position of having first world funding and technical expertise to tackle the country’s third world problems.

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