Taking our Cities Back: A Case of Urban Colonisation or Urban Revival?

20 May of 2014

By Vimbai Gwata (@VimfromZim), additional reporting by Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

The phrase, ‘taking our city back’, is often used in one form or another when speaking of the urban revival projects, be it the likes of the City of Joburg in it’s advocation of  it’s Urban Regeneration Strategy or Nike in it’s Run Jozi campaign where they aim “take back the streets”.  The question arises – who are we giving the city back to?

Photo credit: Koketso Moroka

As a former unrepentant suburbanite it was not too surprising that it took me just over 4 years before I got my first taste of what urban living in inner-city Johannesburg. I had been visiting a friend of a friend, who had recently moved into one of those restored and renovated buildings that had once been a derelict building in the middle of Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD) and was now hailed a chic, architectural oasis of urban living.

Like an oasis, this building and the apartments it housed was considered a well sought after paradise for those who wanted to experience the first world, metropolitan lifestyle in South Africa. However, when you looked closely you could see that, just like an oasis, this building was not at all what it initially seemed. Johannesburg’s urban renewal was meant to bring (middle class) people back to an area that they were once afraid of after it’s decline precipitated by the post 94 middle-class exodus, also known as the “white flight” to the Northern suburbs. This process gave the inner city a varnish of cultural and socio-economic diversity.

It would take me another couple of years to hear a term used to describe this kind of urban colonisation – ‘gentrification’. Basically, gentrification is when a poorer area of a city is revitalized by a process of renewal and rebuilding and begins to attract higher income residents.

Gentrification, or urban renewal, has led to the change in the look and feel of parts of Braamfontein (Braam to those of us here in Jozi) and the wider CBD over the past few years. It has been a largely top-down process which started as early as 2002 when a plan to rejuvenate Braam was proposed by the City of Joburg to “complement the regeneration of the Old Fort complex and Newtown, creating a cultural arc running into the city”. In 2005, the City of Joburg began examining the potential of redeveloping the CBD. Commercial developers soon began a number of redevelopment projects, renovating old buildings for commercial and residential use. According to the City of Joburg, the introduction of CCTV monitoring, Central Improvement Districts (CIDs) and the Metropolitan Police Department has brought the crime rate down by 48 percent since it began in 2000.

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I remember coming through to Braam when Rhino Bar still operated in the area and squinting out the window and repeatedly asking my friend who was driving, “Are you sure that there’s a club here?”. Braam was not exactly where it was “happening” for young urbanites back then

Fast forward five years and I am now deeply entrenched in this ‘new Johannesburg’. My current place of employment has me nestled in the heart of Braamfontein. I am a stone’s through away from the newly opened jazz bar The Orbit, across the road from coffee houses littered with hipsters and upcoming entrepreneurs. In short, this area that was once considered the sole hunting grounds of students and small businesses is now booming and considered Gauteng’s go-to “play” area for said urbanites.

This ‘urban renewal’ is not new or unique to Joburg, it is a worldwide phenomenon (READ: The Guardian: From Ruth Glass to Spike Lee: 50 years of gentrification) from the well cited cases of Brooklyn in the United States and Toronto in Canada to the local example of Cape Town’s Woodstock.(READ: Daily Maverick: Woodstock’s Urban Renewal: Much more at stake than the loss of parking ).

At face value, developing any neighbourhood or area can only be seen through a positive lens. This urban development has created jobs, given opportunities to first-time business owners, established inner-city Johannesburg as a cultural mecca, and in essence, created a microcosm of the ‘rainbow nation’.

However, very few of the happy patrons are aware of the true price it costs individuals and the surrounding communities for this kind of urban makeover. Very little has been said on the method of relocation of existing residents of buildings that are targeted for gentrification. Very little has been asked of the shop owners and tenants whose image and brand are not in line with the vision of the architects of this urban makeover.

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The biggest problem with gentrification is it makes the area unaffordable for the low-income residents who lived there.  Over the past five years property prices have increased in the inner city. An example of this is the price of apartments at Main Street Life, a Maboneng Precinct apartment where prices ranged from R290,000 to R1.25m in 2013. According to a Business Day article, the average per square metre has risen 45% to R12 700/m² from R8,788/m² three years ago.

The phrase, ‘taking our city back’, is often used in one form or another when speaking of the urban revival projects, be it the likes of the City of Joburg in it’s advocation of  it’s Urban Regeneration Strategy or Nike in it’s Run Jozi campaign where they aim “take back the streets”.  The question arises – who are we giving the city back to?

In Maboneng, for example, the pre-existing Jeppestown community seems to have gone through some degree of alienation from the developments in the area. While patrons enjoy the safety and security provided by developers of the area,  this has led to what might be called a sense of “authorised entry”. Security guards closely monitor entries to the Precinct, creating a sense of an invisible force-field keeping those who do not fit in with the calibre, or rather class, of people who make this cultural mecca popular out in the periphery of this development. The Jeppestown community children who are seen riding on donated skateboards on Fox street weekends, are chased away by guards if they are found loitering or begging and are not allowed in the area after seven pm.

This brings to mind questions of equality.What does this say about our attitudes towards equality that it takes an urban area to undergo extensive change to be commercially and socially acceptable before we pay it any attention? Was Maboneng Precinct not considered a great spot to live and work in long before the hipsters, restaurants and wealthier patrons were attracted to it’s out–of-the-way charm?

Gentrification is a divisive issue across the world. Depending on who you speak to, gentrification is a violent ‘class war’ or  an economic apartheid where the said progress comes at a very high cost to the rights and privileges of initial residents. This often comes comes from those who are of a more ‘leftist’ bent or those who grew up in the targeted areas as was the case with Spike Lee, who recently gave an impassioned, off-the-cuff speech against the transformation of Brooklyn, the predominantly black neighbourhood, by hipsters and wealthy developers.

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If not that view, there are those who might argue that gentrification is inevitable and part-and-parcel in the growth and progression of any city or area. The jobs created, lifted property values, security and the cleanliness brought to a deteriorating area will be cited. Here in Joburg, they might point to the fact that the transformation has put inner-city Joburg on the map not only for, presumably suburbanite, Joburgers but to the rest of the country. More typically the view of those who have benefitted from gentrification be it the patrons, business owners, relieved city councils and developers, such as Jonathan Liebmann, the ‘visionary’ behind the Maboneng Precinct who in his TEDxStellebosch talk presents the the case for a ‘community economy’ .

It’s not an easy one. The challenges of ensuring diversity, inclusivity and equality both socially and economically for both pre-existing and new residents of an urbanizing city are many and it becomes easy to shoot holes through what may be the good intentions of those behind the urban regeneration projects.

I personally find myself torn because I enjoy having sundowners at Arts on Main in Maboneng and having my weekly fix of gourmet delights from restaurants in Braam. However, I am not blind to the truth that gentrification works in a selectively biased way and that the benefits received from it ultimately do not extend to all individuals across the income spectrum.

What’s your take? Share your views on whether you think gentrification is taking our cities forward, holding us back from forming a truly integrated and egalitarian society or is somewhere in between?


READ: The Economist: Urban renewal in South Africa: Making downtown less dodgy

LOOK: Daily Maverick: Johannesburg in photos: On The Block of Regeneration

WATCH: CNN – Spike Lee explains expletive-filled gentrification rant

WATCH: [Film] Jeppe on a Friday

WATCH: The Stream (Aljazeera): Gentrification Battle

Photo credit: Sunday Times Live


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  1. To your point about the beneficiaries of gentrification, I guess we need a more broad based solution, which should prioritize transport systems that support business and its working hours so that all stakeholders who give spirit to that community can well continue to participate in the development. As I enjoyed your article I thought of how favelas &/or informal settlements could be seen as a sort of “degentrification” yet the ‘vibe’ in the community is what creates value which then attracts the capital. So when a new development arises without preserving the pulse of that community, I consider that to be “degentrification”. Unfortunately borrowing costs, making budget for bonus income, risk averse behaviour and election cycle, limit the extent to which comprehensive(maybe leftist) solutions are sought.

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