Streets can kill cities: on the Fossil-Free-Fuel Streets Declaration

An electric bus in Marrakesh, September 2017. Image: Getty.

Liveable Streets is a seminal 1981 work, in which the urban designer and theorist Donald Appleyard that compared the experiences of people living on three similar streets in San Francisco. The main variable between the streets was different levels of car traffic: one with 2,000 vehicles per day, one with 8,700 vehicles per day and a third with 15,750 vehicles per day.

Appleyard’s key finding was that residents of the high traffic streets were less likely to know their neighbours, and more likely to feel lonely and isolated from their community. The evidence of the negative physical, mental and social effects caused by living near busy roads has only grown in the subsequent years.

Appleyard’s research led him to warn urban planners in developing nations: “Streets can kill cities.”

Poor urban planning decisions that prioritise private cars over everything else create cities that are criss-crossed by gridlocked barriers, excluding those who can’t afford motor vehicles, and where pollution belching vehicles poison the lungs of humans forced to share the streets with them. We now know that a quarter of total global premature deaths are caused by some form of human-induced pollution. Those same emissions are also a major contributor to climate change, that poses even bigger risks to human health and well-being.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of choking urban life, streets can be a key resource in the fight for more liveable cities and reduced climate emissions. Streets will always serve as transport routes, allowing citizens to move around the city – yet the forms of transport that dominate those routes will determine if streets can fulfil their other key role, as centres of communities. Streets that prioritise pedestrians, bikes, buses and other types of mass transit are far more likely to be places where people want to meet, socialise, shop and live.

In many cities, streets take up about a third of the total available urban space – but this provides mayors with a tremendous opportunity. If a city manages to improve the quality of its streets by converting them into inclusive, healthy and attractive spaces, it will successfully improve a third of its land directly.

The additional benefits that flow from such a shift are remarkable: millions of pollution-related premature deaths avoided each year; economic growth from thriving communities; money saved from health budgets as public health improves thanks to more active lifestyles; less inequality between rich and poor neighbourhoods; and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

In an effort to initiate a global shift to truly liveable streets that boost their cities, 12 mayors from across the C40 network recently launched the Fossil-Free-Fuel Streets Declaration. This commitment to procure only zero-emission buses from 2025 and make major areas of these 12 cities zero emissions by 2030, will lead the way to a more pleasant urban environment for over 80 million people.

What is so significant about this declaration is the diversity of cities that were able to sign. If Paris, London, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Quito, Vancouver, Cape Town, Seattle, Mexico City, Auckland and Milan can do it – cities of vastly different size, location and history, united by their sheer will to improve the urban environment – there is no reason for any city to hold back from adopting similar people-friendly policies.

The commitment of a group of mayors who represent more than 80n people has an additional benefit in the message it sends to markets. Almost 60,000 buses operate on the streets of these 12 cities. The Fossil-Free-Fuel Streets Declaration gives a powerful signal to all vehicle manufacturers that cities are demanding emission free products and services. The future of our cities is not powered by burning fossil fuels, and any business who ignores that reality will get left behind.

This transformation is already underway. For example, London has the biggest fleet of electric buses in Europe with 170 already on the road; Los Angeles has just signed contracts to procure 95 electric buses; Copenhagen has committed to ensure all new buses will be zero emission from 2019, and in Paris 4 out of 5 buses will already be electric by 2025. In China the numbers are of a different magnitude altogether, with tens of thousands of electric buses already on the roads. Major cities like Beijing and Shenzhen will have fully electric bus fleets before 2020.

Similarly, a quiet revolution in cycling is taking place, and almost overnight hundreds of thousands of cyclists can be seen on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I visited China a few months ago, but cycling is back in a big way and it is thanks to an innovation in cycle hire that enables users to pick up and drop off high quality bikes wherever they finish their journey. The young entrepreneurs behind providers of these brightly coloured bikes, such as Ofo and MoBike, are now successfully replicating the model across the world. I am sure it is going to massively change the way people travel, and our streets will be cleaner and quieter as a result.

Donald Appleyard was tragically killed by a speeding vehicle on the streets of Athens in 1982. His legacy is now being realised on the liveable streets of our great cities. Streets can kill cities. But the solution is not to try and close off our streets.

Instead, we need to reclaim streets from motor vehicles and re-purpose them for the benefit of the maximum number of citizens. That way, streets become the lifeblood of cities, and help create the inclusive, prosperous, healthy and liveable cities of the future.

Mark Watts is executive director C40 Cities.

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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.