Towns & villages need help!

When I met Dupré Lombaard, a professional planner, soon after he took up his position as Stellenbosch municipality’s executive director of economic development & tourism, he started our meeting by saying how fortunate he had been at his first professional job to work with David Jack and Peter de Tolly at the City of Cape Town and sit in on meetings.  “Developers came in to discuss proposals and invariably Dave and Peter made suggestions to improve the project, so both the developer and the City scored,” he said.  (The City benefited from projects which related to their environments better, creating better public spaces.)

David and Peter were the City Planner and Assistant City Planner respectively.  Both were architects and urban designers with considerable international experience.  (David Jack moved on to become the MD of the V&A Waterfront company — arguably SA’s biggest success story.)

Very few towns in South Africa have professional planners in the employ of their municipalities.  Planners, per se, are trained to ensure that the town planning laws are upheld — they are not trained to create spaces that work well and provide delight.  Many engineers think they can do that… and urban blight is testimony to that!

And fewer municipalities will even know what urban designers and landscape architects are and do.  And these are the professions towns need most.

But the reality is that — even if municipalities could afford additional professional staff and were able to act as competent clients — there are just too few really good urban designers and landscape architects to fill a fraction of the positions.

So then I thought about how a few of the better shopping malls get it so very right… through centralised management… but that’s also not a complete solution.

And then I visited Port Elizabeth where an old friend, Pierre Voges, is CEO of the Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA) which was established in 2003 by the municipality with support from the Industrial Development Corporation.  It’s a special-purpose development company which has become the driving force behind urban regeneration in Nelson Mandela Bay.

I tried several times to contact Pierre to find out more but was unsuccessful.  I did learn a bit about their projects and was superficially impressed.  In 2013 (the last annual report available) they operated with an annual budget of almost R70 million.  In 2014, their successes saw their terms of reference expanded to become a regional agency for the whole metro area.

MBDA did get me thinking about the need for a similar special-purpose development company that could address the shortcomings and shortfalls of local municipalities — an agency that could bring world-class expertise to bear on Tourism Towns — those towns that commit to growing tourism and its benefits to the entire community and country.

In the Western Cape, this would be so easy to set up and there are so many towns crying out for the interventions it could initiate.  The Western Cape’s Department of Environmental Affairs & Planning would be best placed to establish and provide oversight for a provincial agency — Piet van Zyl, the department head, has the experience and track record to understand all the nuances that are essential for such an agency to succeed.

It could become an example that will create tourism game-changers throughout South Africa.

3 responses to “Towns & villages need help!”

  1. Great article. Yep,many of our villages and towns could do with additional creative expertise but that need not be via an urban designer or landscape architect – that would be simplifying the problem. Please note, any town planner worth his / her salt is not trained simply to uphold laws. Although driven fundamentally by whether one is employed in the private or public sector, a town planner’s key role is integration (social, economic, legal, environmental, built and political) to thereby generate a better reality for all. As strategic thinkers, skilled and experienced town planners should be playing a far more more “hands-on” role in management and transformation of local government – think local economic development, think tourism, think IDP. Some Municipality’s have realised this, the bulk haven’t. Yes, an intervention is necessary. The question to be asked however is; will any of our Municipalities be prepared to accommodate interventions that will FUNDAMENTALLY redress their modus operandi for a longer term greater good – not likely, not now.

    • Great response, Ron! A few points:
      I agree that town planners play an essential role but they are not (generally) trained or skilled in design issues and details.. and God is in the detail.
      In Montagu’s case, Langeberg Municipality is clueless when it comes to tourism. They advertised for a Tourism Manager years ago but never filled the position, although they had many excellent applications. This article needs to be read in conjunction with the previous one about categorising Tourism Towns. Province could withhold categorising Montagu as a Tourism Town and withhold the additional resources and funding that these towns could receive. And the DA could decide the current mayor is not tourism-friendly and select a new candidate for next year’s municipal elections who WILL deliver on Helen Zille’s call for tourism to become a gamechanger in the Province. Maybe NOW is the time?

  2. I seriously doubt from my experience in both the public and private sector whether town planners on their own have the skill to address the issues facing SA towns and villages. Planning and design is increasingly complex and one needs interdisciplinary teams that include urban designers and landscape architects. Dave Jack and Peter de Tolly understood this.

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