PE likely to get mixed development

27 Jul 2009

With sustainability issues such as water conservation and food production becoming ever more important, rural development nodes should be created in South Africa.

So says Dr Chris Mulder of architectural and urban design company Chris Mulder Associates Inc (CMAI), who is currently seeking approval from the authorities to build a R3,4bn development on two fully operational commercial dairy farms, Crossways and Sunnyvale, on a 500 hectare site overlooking the Van Stadens River Gorge near Port Elizabeth.

The project will comprise a residential component and an agricultural component - with intensive fruit- and vegetable-growing forming a vital part of the farming operations - as well as industrial and commercial segments. Homeowners will not be involved in the farming operations, which will be run by "scientific managers", but will share equity and ownership of the farm with the farm management team and the farm workers through the future Home Owners' Association, says Mulder.

The residential component will consist of a village centre and several housing clusters or "rural hamlets", where the emphasis will be on Traditional Neighbourhood Development, a trend he and his staff have been studying, and attending courses on in the USA, for about 15 years. Mulder's vision, which he describes as "the new ruralism", is to recreate the villages of one or two generations ago, where there was a strong sense of community, residents took an interest in each other, became friends with their neighbours, knew the names of their neighbours' children and pets, and felt safe.

This lifestyle concept evolved from his work at Thesen Islands, where he created a marina development comprising a number of small waterside residential areas, spread across 19 man-made islands within the Knysna estuary. "Thesen Islands was developed in such a way that every house is within walking distance from the shops and community facilities. It consists of different residential nodes with different house sizes, each with its own character, and on the biggest island we created an 11-hectare communal garden and two-hectare orchard containing every kind of fruit for everyone's use," he says.

"People can also rent small pieces of land where they can establish their own vegetable gardens."

Thesen Islands proved enormously popular and was rapidly sold out, despite much initial opposition. Mulder will be building on this proven model of food production and residential development on the Crossways/Sunnyvale project, where residents will not only have access to fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products produced on their doorstep, but will live in a way that will intrude as little as possible on the environment, he says.

Green measures to be taken will include capturing rainwater from roofs and streets and storing it for irrigation, using solar panels to reduce electricity consumption, and using concealed lighting to reduce "light pollution" at night. Mulder also plans to rehabilitate the indigenous vegetation on a large tract of land bordering the Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve, as part of the work he will be undertaking.

At Crossways and Sunnyvale he plans to create an integrated community that will accommodate all income groups. Of the 780 residential units in the proposed new development, 10-15% will be affordable housing and starter homes for young people, he says, pointing out that young people and young families are needed to invigorate rural societies, as many country towns are currently populated by older people who have gone there to retire.

The starter homes will be built on narrow stands from 150sqm in size, promoting the concept of people living close to one another with lots of neighbour interaction and sharing communal spaces. The prices of the stands will start from about R200k. Mulder estimates that to build a house on the stand will cost about R350k, enabling first-time buyers, who are also eligible for subsidies, to obtain a home at an affordable R550k.

He adds that about 25% of the development will comprise stands of under 400sqm, 25% between 400sqm and 700sqm, 25% up to 1,000sqm and 25% over 1,000sqm.

Passionate about rural development, one of government's stated objectives, Mulder believes that unless the authorities rethink their "urban-edge" policy, no meaningful development, as his company envisages it, can be undertaken in or close to rural towns and areas. He explains that the urban edge is the invisibly drawn line around existing towns, limiting development beyond that boundary.

The proposed development of Crossways and Sunnyvale will be located close to one of the small, depressed towns that are a legacy of the apartheid era, he says. "In Thornhill, people live in abject poverty and without hope of a better life. The town could be transformed by integrating it into the broader development concepts we are proposing. But for that to happen, the authorities will have to create separate urban or rural development edges around villages such as these."

He says the proposed Crossways/Sunnyvale development already has the approval and support of the local municipality and the Department of Agriculture, and the scoping report has been approved. In the final leg of the environmental approval process, CMAI held an open day at Thornhill on July 24 to enable residents in the area to discuss details of the proposed project with the developers, civil and electrical engineers, biodiversity specialists and other experts, and to raise any objections they might have.

Mulder hopes to be given the green light to begin the development by the second quarter of next year to coincide with the economic turnaround predicted to take place at that time. - Impti du Toit

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