As urban housing gets squeezed, it’s time for smart street furniture

Link NYC provides wifi in the streets of New York. Image: Getty.

Increasing urbanisation, denser city living, more expensive apartment prices and higher rents are reshaping our access to and use of urban space. Room-sharing websites are one sign that the cost of city living is driving people to consider sharing rooms with strangers out of necessity. Those flats are not homes anymore.

If people can’t spend time in their flat – because it is too crowded, too noisy or not safe enough – they end up spending more time in public spaces like libraries or quasi-public spaces like gaming arcades or shopping malls. Dutch Prizker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas calls this Junkspace. Others are spending more time in the street, plazas and parks.

How does the city cater for people in these places? Imagine a home furnished with the kind of furniture we typically see on the street. Would it feel comfy?

Generally the design of this kind of public furniture has a strictly defined scope. It has to be vandal-resistant, easy to install, require little to no maintenance, not encourage littering, tie in with the style of the precinct, etc.

Public furniture also has an established typology – benches and seats mainly. This restricts what we can do in public (sit down with a straight back, we can’t lounge). These are part of the design considerations to provide a bench for people to sit on.

What if we want to do more than just sit?

The spacing, positioning and location of furniture in public space play a big part in deciding what I can look at, with whom, for how long and how I’ll feel while sitting there.

But what if I want to do more then just sit there? Where, for instance, do I plug in my phone or laptop to recharge?

It is also not easy to wash my hands in a public space. For example, I’ve sat down and eaten an orange on a bench, my hands are sticky and I’d like to wash them. Perhaps I’ve also taken off my coat while sitting there. What now?

I’ve got to seek out the nearest public toilet and use the hand basin, but where to put all my other belongings while doing that? On the toilet floor?

A basic human right is access to water and utility services. We need to provide this access in the public sphere, and not just in commercial environments like coffee shops.

Filling up a water bottle is not easy, buying water is – if you can afford it. This is not an equitable solution. It adds to the already significant financial burden of paying high rents and city living.


Think about how design can expand our options

While we have furniture for the street, the street, parks and plazas lack other services. Design embeds a narrow social script in the current range of street furniture. The design of new public furnishings needs to adapt and offer citizens a wider, more diverse range of options for being in the city.

For example, people should have access to facilities to carry out basic healthy living practices, such as washing hands. They also need access to power – perhaps even a facility to heat up food, like a home-made lunch, or a pre-prepared meal from the supermarket.

Furnishing a public space with such new public appliances could transform it, soften it, bring familiarity, comfort and a sense of domesticity to it; a public backyard. The opportunities for a smart city are not just large-scale infrastructure, public transport and traffic monitoring, but also exist at a finer-grained level.

These new kind of street furnishings can be made available to users via a contemporary, digital version of the old city gate. It can require them to log in or authorise them to use equipment via a unique identifier. We already practise this on e-commerce and sharing economy websites.

This new kind of public street furniture can have sensors embedded that monitor and respond in real time to their use. Interactive furniture can be part of a larger dedicated data system. It can inform relevant authorities if the power point is drawing excessive power, or if the noise level at this power point is too loud for the time of day and, in response, turn off the lights and the power.

Parameters can be tested and the calibration of use and user patterns can be explored in line with neighbourhood expectations. The system can then autonomously react to the data gathered.

The ConversationStreet furniture can be reconceived as connected and interactive appliances. These would then provide a gateway that gives people access to everyday utilities. And, by doing so, these new facilities could provide quasi-domestic-style amenity in the public realm, making the city a more equitable and welcoming place for all.

Christian Tietz is senior lecturer in industrial design at UNSW.

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.