This week I witnessed the end of a queue wondering what it was for. When I turned the corner, I thought it was for the bank, but upon turning the corner, I noticed that it went on for several hundred meters further waiting for the Department of Labour office open. This is a regular occurrence in central business districts (CBDs) especially on days when social grant payments are made and a daily occurrence at clinics. Thousands of people queue for hours before government offices open in the hope of being served before the day ends or systems go offline.
Exposed to rain, wind, and sun and with no functional public ablution facilities, grant beneficiaries’ trip over broken sidewalks, fall into uncovered inspection holes and walk past stacked up garbage. Serving them to earn slightly higher incomes than their customers are informal traders, especially food traders. The same can be said about the formal traders who ply their wares based on customers’ search for cheap food and clothing. In the face of this, every municipality has a colourful urban renewal plan which is based on enticing higher end businesses to relocate to CBDs. Those who relocated from CBDs did so because of what is generally referred to as urban decay, brought on by the absence of basic maintenance. Expecting those businesses to return seems unrealistic since the decay might well have accelerated since their departure.
The history of urbanisation shows that private investment is largely influenced by observing public investment trends. This is demonstrated by the fact that enterprises in most decaying towns are there only because municipalities and government departments are still located in CBDs and are accessible via public transport. In other words, businesses serve an existing clientele, not those whom they hope will be customers. In meeting their customers’ search for affordable food and goods, the products sold are mainly cheap imported clothing, sugar-laden confectionary and food which might be filling but of low nutritional value and prepared in questionable hygienic conditions with environmental spoilage. A mixed range of businesses will emerge when their customers are there. A broad range of customers and the broad range of businesses to serve them will return when CBDs are safe, clean, and convenient.
If municipalities implemented their own by-laws in CBDs, government departments would be expected to contribute towards the public investments municipalities make in the same way the private sector is. The intergovernmental system is based on co-operation which tilts upwards, but it also expects government departments to be good municipal citizens. While the services provided by government are essential, their impacts contribute to the problems of CBD management. In the same way a private business would be expected to deal with the externalities created by its success, so too should government departments be expected to contribute towards improving their buildings and basic facilities such as public toilets and shelter from the elements.
Municipalities have the potential to renew their CBDs through investments in functional public spaces which are conducive to meeting the needs of several different interest groups. For example, private sector investment will be promoted if public spaces are designed in conjunction with the needs of evolving business models. Investing in this type of infrastructure allows for reduced parking requirements and an increase in the gross lettable area of commercial and residential buildings, thereby promoting complex activities which is what all municipal policies promote as CBD renewal.
The renewal of CBDs and respecting the needs of all users can be immediately stimulated if municipal officials, focus on making a difference in the jobs they presently occupy. While “whataboutism” informs inertia, the opportunities lie in a “what if” approach. What if sidewalks were simply fixed and de-weeded? What if garbage is collected when it needs to be collected instead of at the convenience of municipal workers only? What if potholes were fixed and safe or hygienic and accessible public facilities were provided? What if municipal officials decided that rezoning applications, infrastructure plans and building plans would be assessed expeditiously? It is all there in integrated development plans, local economic development plans, urban renewal plans and infrastructure maintenance plans. All municipalities budget for this every year.
Improving CBDs constitutes the proverbial low-hanging fruit which will build confidence in the public sector. It will also respect the users of the services, many of whom suffer the indignity of relying on social grants to merely survive. By starting modestly significant impacts could be made in months, but municipal inertia needs to be overcome. It requires courage to overcome the inertia which leads to decay. President Nelson Mandela once said, “courage is not the absence of fear, but the overcoming of fear”. For that we need leadership in the municipal system with an attitude informed by a deep sense of community service.