Spreading the bubble: urban regeneration

The topic of urban regeneration has fascinated me for a long time. I have been taking groups to Johannesburg’s inner city for a few years now to explore all sorts of themes ranging from social innovation, entrepreneurship, low-tech solutions, culture, the second economy etc. Being an unofficial self-proclaimed urban ambassador for the city, I decided to take the plunge by moving to the city as well. I have put my money where my mouth is; have set up home and office so I am personally invested now.

The process of trying to find a home was a challenge in itself and an eye-opener on the interaction between the city and her people. How we include and exclude people by sending clear messages about who is welcome where and how structures contribute to or take away from human dignity (re-reading this text reminds me of the architecture of apartheid). It is quite disturbing to see the evolution of living conditions based on income bracket. Quite a number of apartments that my now flatmate and I saw did not feel welcoming at all. The entrance met us with security gates, often times queues to sign in the visitors’ book, proof of identification and highly suspicious security guards.  Surely after a stressful day at work, one would not want to go home to a prison cell? On the other side of the coin is the emergence of luxury apartments Ashante, Mainstreet Life, The Newtown and The Franklin. While I do not think that this is inherently bad, I am concerned about them manifesting into ivory towers within the city. These are to a large extent aspirational spaces to live in, but are bubbles darted around the city and I am yet to understand if and how they engage with their surroundings.

I am excited to have, within a week started forming part of a community, although on reflection; this is largely a transient community made up mostly by visitors and newcomers from North America and Europe. It is interesting to compare these arrival and possibly permanent points to the African Diaspora’s “checks in” to dangerous Hillbrow on arrival in search of a better life, but the dismal conditions do not lend itself to a positive stepping stone to progression. I wonder if there is a role for our international transient community to play in shaping the environments in which we find ourselves?

I dare myself to park my car three times a week, so what do I need in my environment to do this? A local food market and supermarket that supplies the needs I would get from its suburban counterparts, on-time arrival of bus with clear schedule, a sense of safety when walking to the Market Theatre, outdoor exercise space, a local church. I know that it will take time for all of these things to come into being, but think that these are the basic needs to break the bubbles and have people engaging with the city. I count perhaps a handful of developers shaping our lifestyles in the city; I do hope that they can guide us and the spaces they create in interacting with the surroundings in which they position themselves.

Now that I am immersed in the city and not just a regular visitor, I do feel like my previous interactions were quite sterile with often a research question creating a vastly different lens of experience to aimless wondering. My challenge now is to discover how Hub Johannesburg interacts with its surroundings that include our society’s undesirables of prostitutes and the homeless. Hmm…

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