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How to stop urban decay in our cities and neighbourhoods

27 Jun 2018

Cities can be dynamic, exciting hubs – or they can be crime-ridden danger zones visited under duress or because of duty. Ryan Mathew of Cushman Wakefield Excellerate explains how precinct management can stop the urban slide.

In the most efficient cities, there's been a shift towards public-private partnerships, where local authorities provide basic services and private property owners fund supplementary or complementary services so the area can operate at a superior level – think pavement cleaning, marketing, security officers and the removal of litter.

I’ve always been fascinated by urban spaces and how they’re managed; probably because a well-managed space can have a profound effect on the people who use it.

As our cities grow and evolve, this becomes more apparent than ever. Most modern cities came into being at the end of the 1800s, when life was very different – which is why many cities aren’t well equipped to accommodate the way we live today. Moreover, while the Industrial Revolution naturally had an enormous impact on urbanisation, the number of people currently living in cities is unprecedented. In fact, we’ve seen a massive increase in the past nine years: in 2009, only 50% of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, that figure stands at closer to 60%.

It stands to reason that urban areas become more complex as their inhabitants grow – and this, in turn, means that the traditional modes of managing cities are no longer as effective. In the most efficient cities, we’ve seen a significant shift towards public-private partnerships, with privately owned companies supporting local authorities. 

This is by no means a new development. As far back as the 1970s, business owners in Toronto’s Bloor West Village led a charge to establish what they called a Business Improvement District (BID). The model was swiftly replicated in other cities: there are now 1 200 improvement districts in the United States, 74 of which are in New York alone. Even more noteworthy is the fact that these generate $134 million worth of investment in 126 public spaces, benefiting 85 000 different businesses.

In South Africa, precincts which have embraced the concept of business or city improvement districts (CIDs) have experienced similar successes. Take Rosebank in Johannesburg, for instance; one of the first CIDs to be established. Today, the suburb is one of the most desirable addresses for businesses and residents alike. Braamfontein is another case in point. Once derelict and run down, the work of the Johannesburg Development Agency in partnership with the BID and The Trinity Session, an art production team, has seen the area evolve into a vibrant hub of activity, drawing crowds as diverse as students, coffee shop connoisseurs and art enthusiasts.

What interests me most, in how CIDs bring about positive change is the dynamic between the parties. While the local authorities remain responsible for providing basic services, private property owners agree to fund supplementary or complementary services so that the area can operate at a superior level – think pavement cleaning, marketing, placemaking, the appointment of safety officers and the removal of litter, for example. The obvious assumption is that the local authorities will use this as an excuse to abrogate their responsibilities, when in fact the opposite is true: through the close relationship that develops between all city stakeholders, an ecosystem is established, where the roles and duties of each party are clear. In fact, in our experience, managed precincts receive better service than their unmanaged counterparts.

The resulting organism takes its cue from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You have the basic services in place – those are the needs at the bottom of the triangle – and then the value-added services that become more relevant as a city starts striving towards “self-actualisation”; things like identity and culture.

I love to look at the work we’ve done with the Retail Improvement District to see just how much change can be brought about when you introduce precinct management. This area, which sits in the heart of the Johannesburg inner city, includes the Kerk Street Linear Market and touches on the City Hall. It’s the kind of place pedestrians would have avoided if they could help it: there was illegal dumping; the roads weren’t rehabilitated after trenching; there was poor infrastructure that posed a real risk; plus there was the chaos of unmanaged taxi ranks. Considered in their entirety, these challenges may seem insurmountable.

To the contrary: as a consequence of this even a small change can result in, well, a big change. For example, we introduced cleaners – but, far from doing a basic job, we equipped them with radios, and gave them a course in security surveillance. Our security officers, meanwhile, are trained in urban management so that they can report issues like broken water meters, broken paving and potholes. Essentially, we created an extensive network of eyes and ears so that we can detect and fix problems more quickly. We also have excellent participation from investors and business in the area – even though they are not required to support the initiative from a legislative perspective, and do so as volunteers.

The results are, literally, stunning: we were able to see a transformation in as little as two hours. Several months later, the Retail Improvement District is now an attractive, well attended zone where 800 informal traders work happily alongside big retail brands.

There is, to my mind, no further proof required of the importance of precinct management. In the future all well run cities will operate like this. - Ryan Mathew

About the Author
Ryan Mathew

Ryan Mathew

Ryan Mathew is Operations Director at Excellerate Facilities Management

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