Death and rebirth of Johannesburg

tedx newsSpeakers at TEDx Johannesburg 2.0 emphasised the need to make Johannesburg a walkable city again

Joburg died a decade ago, but this allowed a new city to be built in its place. Our Joburg is a vibrant, urban space designed for living, working and sharing. TEDx JohannesburgCity 2.0 speakers had plenty of good things to say about the new city of gold.

Gerald Garner stood in front of a roomful of students, city planners and architects like himself, and candidly told them that Johannesburg had died more than 10 years ago – but he added that the event should be celebrated rather than mourned as it had brought about the rebirth of the city.

Garner shared his thoughts on urban regeneration at TEDx JohannesburgCity 2.0, a conference where creative minds gathered to share ideas on how the city could be revived. Held at Jozi Hub on 20 September, the event was one of 140 TEDxCity 2.0 talks around the world. In the first half of the conference, four local speakers take to the stage before it crossed over live to TEDx New York.

According to TEDx Johannesburg organiser Thati Mokgoro, the theme was the city’s role in humanity’s future. He said there was a time when people thought the future was in the countryside and in the suburbs. But with rural masses flocking to urban areas, people were quickly realising that the city was humanity’s home. “People living in such close proximity are sharing thoughts, ideas and spaces. It brings about innovation.”

Local speakers focused on the use of space within the city, but it was Garner’s take on the death and rebirth of Johannesburg that had the audience paying attention. Garner, who is the founder of Joburg Places, a company that promotes the city through talks, books and tours, said the death was a necessity. “Johannesburg had to die. It could not survive. We should be grateful it died.”

But its death led to a spectacular rebirth. In the past six years, there had been a mass conversion of empty shops and buildings into affordable residential flats, which had drawn over a 100 000 people to the inner city. Garner said the newest developments eliminated the distinction between rich and poor as many city flats were affordable. People of all classes now lived, worked, shopped and even walked the streets in the city. “We have a city that creates equal opportunities, where people can share public space, use public transport and live easily and freely without the shackles of the old economy.”

Architect and director of Retail Improvement District, Brian McKechnie, said opening up these spaces had encouraged people to activate the city and interact with each other. “You can have a mielie seller, a banker from FNB or an engineer from Anglo American on the pavement, which makes the city a really democratic space. You are going to cross paths on the street and that is really dynamic because there is not this one type of person there.”

A slow death

Mokgoro said people tended to think Johannesburg’s decline started at the beginning of South Africa’s democracy in 1994. But he thought its demise took place at least four decades before.

Garner said the city started dying when it became industrialised in 1950. Thereafter, apartheid’s laws limited the amount of black people allowed to be employed in factories, which led to a number of companies leaving the city. Later, the incentives for businesses to move to the borders of the homelands left many of Johannesburg’s commercial properties empty. Additionally, when new technologies emerged, businesses started moving out of the city, leaving empty factories and offices in places like Newtown. By the time the tramlines were removed and the highway system was introduced, which led to urban sprawl, the city was asunder.

tedx1TEDx Johannesburg 2.0 organiser, Thati Mokgoro, says the inner city can be transformed by optimising living spaceBut Garner pointed to former president PW Botha’s infamous Rubicon speech in 1985 as the point at which Johannesburg’s death was sealed. World governments expected the former South African leader to announce major policy changes that would end apartheid, but instead he only reinforced the regime. It led to sanctions against South Africa and consequently the withdrawal of numerous international businesses. Joburg’s expatriate community disappeared, leaving several homes and offices in the city unoccupied.

This decline continued until 2000, said Garner. And then the private sector started revitalising the city by investing in public spaces like Gandhi Square. The City of Johannesburg followed by forming the Johannesburg Development Agency, which was tasked with urban regeneration.

For Mokgoro, one of the rebirth’s greatest achievements was transforming Johannesburg from a place where amenities were only reserved for one racial group to one that was more equitable. Despite this positive transition, Mokgoro said people were still nostalgic about the old city, referring to the 1970s as the city’s heyday. “What they forget is that the bench had a ‘whites only’ sign on it and that blacks were not allowed to be in the city after a certain time.”

Mokgoro, who has lived in Johannesburg since 1996 after leaving his hometown of Mahikeng, said Joburg was becoming a very honest place and was growing into itself. The young people frequenting the city centre were those who would make Johannesburg amazing in coming years. “They do not carry the baggage many people who refuse to enter the city have. They look at it with optimistic eyes. They imagine this beautiful place, which they want to be a part of.”

Our stories will boost tourism

Johannesburg, the city of gold, is the most visited city in Africa, with 2.5 million tourists arriving every year. Its appeal, said Mokgoro, lay in the notion that it was reflective of South Africa and the continent.

Garner said that though tourism was one of the biggest drivers of Johannesburg’s regeneration, many of its tourists did not enter the inner city. The city centre would need to position itself as a destination if business and tourism was to be boosted. One way of doing this, he noted, was by telling the stories taking place there. “We have such fantastic stories. If we use our stories we can actually activate our economy by making this a place worth visiting.”

For McKechnie, one element in making the inner city more appealing was making its streets more walkable. By increasing foot traffic, it would activate spaces and encourage people to interact with others and their environment. The Johannesburg CBD was compact enough for commuters to actually walk from “where they are to where they need to be” without the need for public motorised transport. He added that the more people walked and used spaces in the city, the safer it would become.

The idea of a walkable Johannesburg came from McKechnie’s experiences in New York and London, where one could tangibly experience these cities by exploring them on foot. In Johannesburg, however, commuters were bound by motorised transport, which disconnected them from the city.

McKechnie suggested Joburgers get out of their cars and start experiencing the city by foot. “You start to develop an interaction with people and it is this interaction that makes cities like New York and London so vibrant. It is something missing to a certain extent in Johannesburg.”

Joburgers needed to bring the city to life by participating in it, added Mokgoro. “When the city comes alive, we throw ourselves into it, we smell the bananas on the side streets, we know the people on the way and we know the coffee shop around the corner. It becomes a living city. We cannot sit here and wait for it to come to life.”

Having grown up in suburban Johannesburg in the 1980s, McKechnie was not familiar with the city centre, but once he discovered the life there, he found the experience authentic and exciting. “We did not go to town and our parents told us stories of how dangerous it was. Suddenly when you discover it, you think: ‘Why have I been going to London and New York trying to find urban experiences when all this time it has been down the road?’”