Maputo, Havana, Tokyo, Rotterdam: Four urban planning experts name their favourite cities

Sunset over Tokyo. Image: B Lucava/Flickr/creative commons.

More and more people are moving into cities. As growing populations place pressure on urban housing, infrastructure and transport systems, residents, planners and politicians are having to come up with clever solutions to make their cities decent places to live.

Yet the quality of a city is not simply defined by the grandeur of its buildings, or the efficiency of its transport system. Here, four urban planners name their favourite cities, and explain what makes them special.

Maputo, Mozambique

Vanesa Castán Broto, University of Sheffield

We do not see cities: we experience them through a multitude of encounters. Trying to explain why I like Maputo is like putting together all those encounters in a unique, yet partial, vision of the city. Not only have I had great times there, but Maputo has taught me most of what I know about the contemporary city.

As my research became entangled with the future of this city, my own success depended on understanding Maputo. Liking Maputo became a necessity. So when I try to explain why I like Maputo so much, it’s impossible to detach the reasons from my own biography. I don’t have a straightforward, bounded picture of the city ready to offer up to others. Instead, I can tell you what I learned there.

Maputo revealed to me how contemporary cities go beyond that absurd dichotomy of the “formal” and “informal” city. In Maputo, city managers talk of the separation between a “city of concrete” – the old colonial city, designed by the Portuguese – and the “city of reed” – the neighbourhoods, or barrios, where most of the population live. The latter often lack basic infrastructure such as water, sanitation and electricity.

Chance encounters. Image: cordelia_persen/Flickr/creative commons.

For a while, this way of looking at things made a lot of sense to me. Then I took a liking to walking around the city, as a means of discovery. As you walk Maputo, you experience how the formal and informal cross into each other, to the point where the boundaries become hopelessly blurred.

You may be walking down the Costa do Sol on a Sunday afternoon, watching new hotels being built with Chinese capital, while Maputo’s incipient middle classes eat seafood in front of Maputo Bay. Suddenly, without you noticing, you find yourself in a neighbourhood of makeshift huts, where flooding is obviously a routine problem.

Maputo also showed me how the built environment intrudes into people’s lives. I experienced this myself walking around Chamanculo – an historical but under-serviced neighbourhood near the centre. Life in Chamanculo is organised around a few large open avenues. The buzzing economic activity of small traders selling mostly food, drinks, charcoal and kitchenware, and businesses such as internet cafes, hairdressers and local shops, is occasionally interrupted by the roaring of a four-wheel-drive car with tinted windows.

These big avenues are connected by small passages in between the houses, which can considerably shorten walking distances. Every time I go to Chamanculo, I study the map, and I tell to myself that this time I will know my way around the neighbourhood. But once I enter, I am lost. I have never had this experience anywhere else in the world.

Labyrinthine Chamanculo from above. Image: Hansueli Krapf/Wikimedia Commons.

I have been lost in Chamanculo numerous times, alone and accompanied, and always experience the same: the streets seem to fold onto me and when I turn back the way I came from, it is completely unfamiliar. I feel both fear and wonder about how the city reinvents itself around me. Unsurprisingly, local residents demand public lighting to increase the security in those areas, and you have to wonder how people – especially women – feel when they have to venture into this labyrinth at night to reach the collective toilet.

Most of all, Maputo has taught me to think of the cities as places of possibility. For example, in Maputo I dropped my obsession with electrification. Talking with people about how electricity and fuels matter to them, I realised that people have found many ways to obtain the services they need – whether they have reliable access to electricity or not.

I am not downplaying the tremendous injustices that nearly a billion residents of informal settlements around the world experience every day, because they don’t have access to basic services. But Maputo invites you to think of different ways in which urban life, right across the globe, could be reimagined. For me, this is a comforting thought in a world that seems to be riding towards a global resource crisis.

Havana, Cuba

James Warren, Open University

In Havana, everything is old - so old, in fact, that the city will celebrate its 500th birthday in November 2019. Its age appears magnified by the fact that many of the buildings don’t receive the level of maintenance that they really deserve. Even so, the city has made efforts to preserve and protect what is historic, while applying new practices such as earmarking income from tourism to rebuild local housing and protect architecturally or culturally significant sites.

Street life. Image: Franx'/Flickr/creative commons.

The city’s masterplan aims to ensure mixed land use wherever possible, so housing, shops, offices and institutions can often be found in the same building. This creates dynamic, walkable spaces, where everything you need is nearby, and avoids creating places which are only for specific groups, such as tourists or locals.

From my perspective as an urban planner, it is amazing that Havana has been able to do so much work with such limited materials. But perhaps this was inevitable, since high-quality labour is so readily available. An old Cuban joke goes that half the population are qualified builders, since everyone has to pitch in and work on their own properties.

Like other major capitals, Havana is a collection of many “villages” or smaller cities within a city. At every turn, the streetscapes are different: many municipalities can be identified by their distinctive balconies and doorways. These places are full of life, as people are constantly out on the streets: sitting, chatting, singing, selling, buying, repairing and just living.

The city is open for visitors. You can meander down the Malecón, to the urban greenery of Vedado and beyond. And the historic Habana La Vieja acts as a tourist magnet, while retaining plenty of local life for residents.

The Malecón, at dusk. Image: szeke/Flickr/creative commons.

Yet the city still has corners where tourists don’t go, sometimes called “Habana profunda” (deep Havana). It’s an area where locals live and work, though many still have connections to the city centre through jobs and education. There might not be many tourist attractions there, but the barrios are visually wonderful.

Perhaps unlike the other cities, Havana is a shrinking city. Its population has remained fairly static for a long time now, due to people migrating abroad, combined with low birth rates. The ageing population is not being replaced, which is some cause for concern. Havana remains the jumping-off point for many younger Cubans making their way elsewhere, or coming from other parts of the country to live in the capital. But more seem to leave than stay.

Despite some poor roads, a stretched waste removal system and somewhat erratic energy and water supplies, Havana retains a warm welcome to visitors, and seems determined to become a better place for all those who live there. I think Havana is what it is due to the resilience of the “habaneros” (Havana locals); always ready for the next hurricane, even as they are picking up the pieces after Irma. The Habaneros have excellent mobilisation plans and risk reduction systems in place for any situation.

Dominos in Diez de Octubre. ImagE: ashu mathura/Flickr/creative commons.

Residents seem undaunted, even as the sea encroaches on Havana’s low-lying shores. Yet I am optimistic that somehow Havana can survive the longer-term issues linked to climate change – or anything else that comes their way. As Havana and the Habaneros grow older together, is there something we can learn from the way that their society is trying to bring all generations together to solve the city’s various planning issues?

Tokyo, Japan

Greg Keeffe, Queen’s University Belfast

Tokyo is the city of my dreams. For the “gaijin” (foreigner) the first few days are a sensory overload. But, as you settle in, that sense of chaos evaporates and suddenly everything seems to be in the right place. As I travel around on double-decker freeways, driverless bus-train hybrids and monorails in the sky, I appear to have found how a city should be.

Whenever I need to do anything, there’s a convenient way to do it right there in front of me. This is true at any scale, from the city-wide transport system, to finding a hot cuppa – it seems there’s always a vending machine for it, just within reach.

Convenience, at the push of a button. Image: Nate2b/Flickr/creative commons.

In fact, Tokyo really is a huge vending machine, where every necessity is there at the touch of a button: even access to nature. It makes me think that a lot of our social and urban problems are actually born out of frustration, because things don’t work well enough, because things we don’t need get in the way of the perfect urban function.

Like all dreamscapes, you can customise Tokyo to your own desires: hanging out in Shinjuku or Shibuya at night, you can dance, eat, drink and party until dawn to the banging tunes of J-pop. This bit of Tokyo is a sort of global portal to the stars; a timeless place without memory or history.

Yet the very next day (with or without a hangover), you may be in the Roji of Nezu – small, narrow alleys that evoke the memory of a life that was frugal and modest. Visiting temples and shrines in utter silence, you can immerse yourself in the wooden world of the Edo period, dating back to 1600. Here, it seems one mile in space can measure a thousand years in time.

A glimpse of a temple built during the Edo period. Image: ai3310X/Flickr/creative commons.

Old and new, fast and slow: just-in-time Tokyo is a city of contradictions. It’s a place where fast-paced culture and introspective meditation work together, creating a space/time warp which feeds not only the physical needs of the population, but also their hearts and souls.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Kaeren van Vliet, Sheffield Hallam University

Like many other European cities, Rotterdam suffered considerable bomb damage in the Second World War. But its postwar reconstruction took a distinctive path, looking to the future instead of the past – and this continues to give the city a unique character, based on movement, light, energy and progress.

Rotterdam is a city on the move. Trams glide and clang through the city; spotlessly clean barges travel up and down the river taking goods to and from the continent; bright yellow water taxis zoom across the water and cyclists travel rapidly in vast shoals – sometimes to the alarm of slower pedestrians.

In the face of rising sea levels, sinking land and ever fuller rivers, water has to be respected, not resisted. Water engineering is an art – the lakes and canals in the city and its surrounds are connected, monitored and managed. School playgrounds, fields and underground car parks cooperate to prevent homes from flooding. New housing is provided with canals, and some residents are even fortunate enough to be able to keep a boat at the bottom of their garden.

The art of water. Image: jev55/Flickr/creative commons.

In this city, there is space for people. Most of the population live in flats or small homes, so there are playgrounds for children, tree-lined waterside walks, seats for resting and city centre parks, which feel like a home outside of home. People are particularly proud of the fronts of their houses, and many have benches for sitting and talking to neighbours. People here seem to trust their neighbours, leaving flowerpots and bicycles out on the street. And there are allotments around the city edge, to escape to on summer evenings or at the weekend.

At night, the city centre is aglow. The lights of the Erasmus bridge and new tower blocks along the Maas link the southern part of the city to the centre. As you cross the bridge, the pavement sparkles like the milky way. The houses in the suburbs are radiant in the nighttime, with large windows offering a momentary glimpse into the home life of the locals.

Nature here seems ordered and managed, water is held in straight courses and trees and grass are kept neatly trimmed. The city ducks seem friendly – the suburban geese, not so much. The landscape is big but predictable, stretching towards an endless horizon. There is light here and, though often pale and grey, the sky is vast. You feel as though you could cycle on forever.

The ConversationIf you look hard, you can find traditional windmills and tulips. But you’re more likely to find ecological prairie planting or vast windfarms rotating in unison, powering the city into the future. Rotterdam reminds me of what planning, landscape and urban design can achieve.

Vanesa Castán Broto, Professorial Fellow, University of Sheffield; Greg Keeffe, Professor of Architecture + Urbanism. Head of School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen's University Belfast; James P. Warren, Senior Lecturer, Engineering and Innovation, The Open University, and Kaeren van Vliet, Senior Lecturer In Planning, Sheffield Hallam University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.