A group of postgraduate students of urban design and architecture from the United States are currently in Johannesburg to examine the City’s Corridors of Freedom programme and the impact it is expected to have on the lives of residents.

The pedestrian-cycling bridge being built over the M1 highwayArtist’s impression of the pedestrian-cycling bridge being built over the M1 highway. The landmark structure will provide a quicker, safer route for the estimated 10 000 people who walk or cycle daily between Alexandra and Sandton.Over a four-week period, the Masters students from the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University will investigate the multiplicity of urban forms, social juxtapositions, and spatial apartheid that exist within Johannesburg.

Each year, the school chooses a fast-growing international city to compare and contrast with an American, Asian or European city, using comparative research to develop a detailed design project that offers a distinctive, place-specific urban response.

On Wednesday, 25 June the students met with staff from the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), one of the key agencies tasked with implementing the Corridors of Freedom programme.

The group was led by Washington University Associate Professor John Hoal, who said that they had chosen to focus on one of the City’s three priority corridors, the Louis Botha Avenue-Katherine Drive corridor between the inner city, Alexandra and Sandton, because of its prominence and history.

“We want to learn how the BRT system can achieve community development and redevelopment of the city and at the same time address social inequities,” Hoal said.

Joburg’s Rea Vaya bus rapid transit (BRT) network, which is currently being extended between Sandton, Alexandra and the CBD, will form the backbone along which Corridor housing, retail, commercial and other developments will be concentrated.

The group was welcomed by JDA Managing Director Thanduxolo Mendrew, who explained that the Corridors programme was still in its early stages, and that its full impact would be realized over the decades to come.

“Joburg is one of the youngest metropolitan areas in the world, and is re-establishing itself to fulfil a Corridor of Freedom vision,” Mendrew said, encouraging the students to come up with insights that would help the City shape the project.

Senior project manager Siyabonga Genu then briefed the students on the R130-million cycling-pedestrian bridge that is being built over the M1 highway alongside the Grayston interchange, as part of a five-kilometre pedestrian and cycling pathway currently being carved out between Alexandra and Sandton.

“The bridge is an iconic structure that will help integrate the community and bring Alexandra closer to Sandton,” Genu said. “It will be a combination of pedestrian lanes, cycle lanes and a low-maintenance vegetation strip that will also appeal to motorists using the highway.”

An overview of the opportunities that the Corridors programme will create was provided by architect and urban designer Tahira Toffah from Iyer Urban Design Studio, the appointed designers on the project.

Toffah explained that transit-oriented development, the key concept underlying the Corridors programme, was an approach to development that focused on land uses around transit nodes or along a transit corridor. “It is typically characterised by a significant provision for public or civic spaces, and comprises a mix of residential employment and retail activities.”

Matt Jackson from the JDA’s development facilitation unit then spoke about the vision behind the programme, which seeks to overcome the legacy of apartheid town planning, which shunted the majority of residents to the outskirts of the city, far from economic opportunities and access to jobs and growth

Jackson pointed out that the greatest challenge was to shift the mindset of the middle class, particularly the “not in my backyard” resistance of wealthier communities to the City’s plans to densify development along the new corridors, as well as a reluctance to abandon the private motor car in favour of public transport.

David Leitman, one of the students, described the session afterwards as both informative and exciting. “The session has left me convinced that the BRT will play a significant role in helping the city achieve its goals as a global African city,” he said.