For all our sakes’, smart cities need to slow down

A smart kiosk in New York City. Image: Getty.

All over the world, governments, institutions and businesses are combining technologies for gathering data, enhancing communications and sharing information, with urban infrastructure, to create smart cities. One of the main goals of these efforts is to make city living more efficient and productive – in other words, to speed things up.

Yet for citizens, this growing addiction to speed can be confounding. Unlike businesses or services, citizens don’t always need to be fast to be productive. Several research initiatives show that cities have to be “liveable” to foster well-being and productivity. So, quality of life in smart cities should not be associated with speed and efficiency alone.

The pace of city life is determined by many factors, such as people’s emotions or memories, the built environment, the speed of movement and by the technologies that connect people to – or detach them from – any given place. As cities around the world become increasingly “smart”, I argue that – amid the optimised encounters and experiences – there also need to be slow moments, when people can mindfully engage with and enjoy the city.

Cities provide an environment for people to move, encounter, communicate and explore spaces. Research shows how these experiences can differ, depending on the pace of the activity and the urban environment: whether fast or slow, restless or calm, spontaneous or considered.

“Slow” approaches have been introduced as an antidote to many unhealthy or superficial aspects of modern life. For example, the slow reading movement encourages readers to take time to concentrate, contemplate and immerse themselves in what they’re reading – rather than skim reading and scrolling rapidly through short texts.

Similarly, the international slow food movement started in Italy as a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant on the Spanish Steps in Rome, back in 1986. Then, in 1999, came the “cittaslow movement” (translated as “slow city”) – inspired by the slow food movement – which emphasises the importance of maintaining local character while developing an economy which can sustain communities into the future.

Slow cities arise from grassroots efforts to improve quality of life for citizens, by reducing pollution, traffic and crowds and promoting better social interaction within communities. They must follow a detailed set of policy guidelines, which focus on providing green space, accessible infrastructure and internet connectivity, promoting renewable energy and sustainable transport, and being welcoming and friendly to all. Slow cities can create opportunities for healthier behavioural patterns – including pausing or slowing down – which allow for more meaningful engagement in cities.

These guidelines present a clear road map for city governments, but there are also ways that local people can promote a slow city ethos in fast-paced cities throughout the world. For example, in London, artists and activists have organised slow walks to encourage the general public to meaningfully engage with urban spaces, and show them how diverse their experiences of the city can be, depending on the speed of movement.


Slow and smart

Trying to put people’s concerns at the heart of smart city policies has always been challenging, due to the lack of creative grassroots approaches, which enable citizens to participate and engage with planning. And while technology has been able to give citizens instant access to a wide range of data about a place, it is rarely used to improve their actual experience of that place.

Getting smart cities to slow down could give citizens the means to explore the urban environment at a range of different paces, each offering a distinctive experience. To do this, architects, artists and urban planners need to look beyond the ways that technology can give instant access to information, services and entertainment – whether that’s video game lounges, or recharging and navigation pods in airports and stations.

Instead, they must recognise that technology can create platforms for citizens to immerse themselves and engage meaningfully in different experiences within the urban environment. For example, technology-based installations or projections can tell stories about people and places from other times, which enrich people’s experience of the city. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning can offer new ways to understand cities, and the way people function within them, which could help give human behaviour and experience a significant place in smart city planning.

Slow and smart cities could take the best of both approaches, helping citizens to connect with the history, present and future of a place, emphasising local character and building a sense of community, while also making use of the latest technology to give people greater choice about whether they want to speed up or slow down.

This would not only enhance efficiency and productivity, but also ensure that technology actively helps to improve people’s quality of life and make cities better places to live. It may sound idealistic, but with the range of advanced technology already being developed, ensuring cities are slow as well as smart could help people live better, more meaningful lives long into the future.

The Conversation

Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Senior Research Fellow in Future Cities, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 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.