Life and death are as fundamental to the existence of beings as it is to the existence of the urban fabric. Industrialization has brought with it urbanization ever since the Industrial Revolution. The growth and expansion of Johannesburg is not excluded from this as it too saw rapid urbanization due to industrialization from the gold rush of 1886. Industrialization, then, brought with it the prospect of fortune and wealth thus leading to Johannesburg’s rapid growth. As socioeconomic, political and technological advances continued to progress, this industrialization slowed and placed a number of spaces at risk as a result. Urban decay, or urban blight or death, is the decay of the urban fabric due to a plethora of causes. The urban blight that results from the neglect, abandonment and technological advancements of industrial spaces comes into focus here as one of the core issues surrounding this thesis. Breger (1967) highlights three core activities that result in urban blight: non-acceptance, depreciation and real property. Non-acceptance is largely a subjective activity imposed by a community on real property. The community rejects the property for either its non-adherence to structural integrity, unacceptable use of the property, or the unfavourable aesthetic which ultimately plunges the property into a state of depreciation. Depreciation is therefore inextricably linked to non-acceptance. The depreciation of a property does not necessarily mean that only the outward physical appearance depreciates, but may also be extended into the depreciation of the functional use of a property. Functional depreciation may be the result of poor maintenance or management of a property that results in a loss of productivity and/or the inability to meet demands. Functional blight does not only relate to real property but may also extend to whole parcels of land within the urban fabric where the functional use of that land is deemed unacceptable. In the context of technological development, this functional depreciation poses a great threat to industries where such advancements reduce the need for that industry and by extension large portions of land. The economic strain is felt on that industry and the property (as well as the functional use of it) begins to depreciate before resulting in total abandonment. “Functional depreciation leads initially to intolerable structural condition but may eventually result in so great a loss of property value that acceptable uses are repelled and only uses of unacceptable quality attracted.” (Breger, 1967: 374). Functional blight is not the only manner in which urban blight begins to emerge. It is true that functional blight is an aspect, but may be the
cause of or cause other facets of blight. These forms of blight include: (1) physical blight; (2) frictional blight; and (3) economic blight (Chetty as cited in Mzamo, 2018: 18). Physical blight refers to the outward physical decline of a real property or environment. Frictional blight occurs when incompatible land uses are juxtaposed to one another with little interaction with one another. Finally, economic blight is the result of a district within the urban fabric on an economic decline. These forms of blight, functional, physical, frictional and economical, all exist within a reciprocal relationship with one another. One form of blight may be the result of another or the result of another. With a core understanding established, it is therefore necessary to delve deeper into the causes of urban blight. The evolution of man brought with it the extinction of multiple species across time with only archaeological traces marking their existence. The evolutionary process continues without intervention and may be considered a force of nature. This evolutionary process is marked through the urban fabric and comes into focus as one of the causes to urban blight. Technological advances, from the primitive to the modern, have been and will always continue to have an influence on humanity and as a result the urban fabric. While it is true that other causes such as unfavourable climatic conditions, poor town planning etc. exist, it is the intention of this thesis to focus on the technological influences. Technological advances bring with them change which is witnessed in the urban fabric through functional depreciation. As new technologies are implemented, functional uses are threatened and land uses change often resulting in separation and segregation of spaces (Breger, 1967: 375). Perhaps the greatest technological achievement with the most profound effect on the urban fabric was the invention of the automobile. The automobile brought with it land changes witnessed through the street and the decline of the urban fabric as the suburban fabric boomed in an act of decentralization. Other causes of urban blight include the shifting attitudes of designers over time, rezoning and shifting land use policies, stubbornness from public and private institutions to acknowledge the urban fabric, and the abandonment of industrial, military or transport sites (Singh, 2014: 4). The urban fabric is therefore constantly under threat with its only hopes for survival through adaptation – similar to the chronology of human existence.
Urban blight brings with it a ripple effect across the urban fabric through the depreciation of a real property as it has an effect on its surrounding properties and the properties surrounding it. If unchecked, urban blight exists as a sort of cancerous growth on the urban landscape bleeding from one zone to the next. The result of this domino effect results in a ‘damaged urban fabric’ (Singh, 2014: 2). This damaged urban contains a number of qualities that define them as anti-spaces (spaces with no positive contribution) (Singh, 2014:3) which may be identified as containing: (1) containing a high concentration of vacant land, (2) cracks in
the urban fabric, and (3) lost spaces. Cracks in the urban fabric are spaces where the continuity of the urban fabric is disrupted, spaces where the property is beginning to enter a state of deterioration, spaces that physically separate social groups, and spaces that are in a state of fragmentation. In the tapestry of the urban fabric, the cracks (or the tears) pose a threat to its integrity. Lost spaces are spaces that have been abandoned or forgotten in their renewal leaving only remnants of the past. Lost spaces are “…unwanted urban areas that are in need of redesign or redevelopment…” (Singh, 2014: 3). As previously discussed, the urban fabric and the human condition are inextricably linked. The domino effect initiated by urban blight does not exist only within physical structures and spaces but extends its sinister creep towards humanity and the environment. The emergence of lost spaces and cracks, collectively referred to as ‘voids’ (Singh, 2014: 4) often results in a loss in population density as the population migrates to more favourable areas, an increase in unemployment with an overall decrease in income, depreciation of health of the inhabitants, reduced skills and education, and an increase in crime. This effect is strongly related to the concepts of urban blight previously mentioned. The domino effect is felt on all scales from the built environment to the natural environment to the human.
THE THREAT OF PROGRESSION
Progression, be it technological or evolutionary (and in the discourse of urban fabrics both apply), is often perceived as a positive movement. As previously discussed, technological progressions have and will continue to have an influence on the urban fabric. It is unfortunate, however, that the trends surrounding these technological developments result in new migratory patterns (as seen with the invention of the automobile) and the initiation of urban blight. Environmental, social, economic and technological influences all work in tandem with progression. In the modern setting, perhaps the largest and most urgent issue that influences humanity is the threat of global climate change. It is of no interest for this thesis to discuss the historical background that has resulted in this crisis but it is worth mentioning that the largest contributor towards this crisis is rooted in the burning of fossil fuels. The largest contributing industry with regard to the burning of fossil fuels lies within the power generation industry. As a potential remedy to this global concern, countries globally are beginning to heavily legislate industries that emit greenhouse gases and phase out fossil fuels. In South Africa, one such policy that applies is the Carbon Tax Act of 2019 which applies a tax rate of R120.00 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions that will increase with inflation. This will no doubt place pressure on power generation utilities to comply with legislation above existing issues of maintenance.
The emergence of sustainable technologies essentially detaches structures from electricity distribution grid to convert themselves into their own sustainable power plant. This emergence and more widespread adoption of these technologies place power generation stations under existential threat and by extension the urban fabric. As sustainable power generation technologies become more available, the use and monetary income towards power stations will begin to decrease ultimately resulting in abandoned structures and cracks within the urban fabric. It is worth mentioning, briefly, the prosperity and growth of Johannesburg and the emergence of urban blight thereafter. Johannesburg owes its wealth and founding on the discovery of gold on the Langlaagte farm in 1886. Prospectors swarmed the now Johannesburg region to make their claim of fortune surrounding gold. Soon after, a small industrial town developed in the 19th century which grew into the Johannesburg we are now familiar with. It is understandable that a large number of supportive industries grew alongside these prospectors supplying dynamite, mining equipment etc. For a brief moment in history, Johannesburg was flourishing with little signs of stopping. However, Harrison and Zack (as cited in Mzamo, 2018: 68) state that around the year 2010, gold mining saw a decline in Johannesburg as the mining industry was responsible for approximately 7% of global gold output as compared to its 44.5% peak during the early 1990s. This decline saw the first signs of urban blight within Johannesburg as industry began to decline due to this lack of output. What Johannesburg was experiencing was economic blight geared towards the mining sector. Johannesburg’s salvation, however, was due to the rise of the economic and banking sector that transformed the city into a hub for prospecting into a hub for commerce. Adaptation was the city’s salvation. This isn’t to say, however, that Johannesburg was free from urban blight. South Africa’s political past due to apartheid placed a more political nuance onto the inner cities blight with the emergence of suburbs (Bethlehem as cited in Mzamo, 2018: 69). The insecurities felt by the white population after apartheid was abolished saw a migration of this white population towards the suburbs. In place of their locations within the city, unskilled and poorly educated marginalized racial groups victims of apartheid arrived with little skills and by extension economic foundations to sustain themselves within the urban fabric. In addition, white-owned businesses began to migrate from the city leaving large vacant buildings and large disinvestment from the city. It would appear that the previous adaptation from mining to commerce was no longer enough to combat the political changes South Africa was facing. The story of Johannesburg’s urban blight, however, is not as dire as that of Detroit as the political influences experienced by South Africa were the largest contributor towards Johannesburg’s inner city blight. There have been actions taken by Johannesburg, however, to remedy this blight. Bethlehem (as cited in Mzamo, 2018: 71) states that there were four key actions that occurred that ultimately led to the salvation of Johannesburg: (1) Public investment; (2) City Improved Districts (CID) programmes; (3) institutional and corporate investments; and (4) private and entrepreneurial investments. Public investments were the first the begin the process of urban regeneration by investing in public facilities. The two most notable examples are the Nelson Mandela Bridge and the new Constitutional Court. Thereafter, public investment scaled downwards to focus on the creation of public spaces and infrastructure improvements. The principal goal of these public investments was to encourage further investments from the private and entrepreneurial sectors. CID programmes sought to protect districts within the city to promote urban regeneration. The exodus of businesses from the city witnessed during the abolishment of apartheid was a further challenge to be remedied. The challenge of encouraging private investment into a city experiencing blight is understandably challenging, however, it was the persistence and the presence of private banking and commerce that gave Johannesburg a unique edge. The persistence of Standard Bank and Anglo Gold Ashanti stand as examples of this persistence that actively contributed towards urban regeneration by upgrading their premises (Mzamo, 2018: 71). With all four factors actively at work on urban regeneration, Johannesburg has begun to save itself from its urban blight. It is then clear that this process of urban blight is a continuous act and fundamentally essential to a city’s survival. As a closing remark on the urban blight and urban regeneration of Johannesburg, it is clear to see that as much as there is a domino effect on the causes towards urban blight, there is a domino effect towards the salvation of urban blight. This domino effect towards positive change is slower than the act of urban blight but requires all involved participants to actively engage with the city with the intention of achieving a long-term goal. Haas & Locke identify three urbanism strategies which cities can follow to combat urban blight: (1) New Urbanism; (2) Post Urbanism; and (3) ReUrbanism. (Haas & Locke, 2018: 11). New urbanism strategies are largely community-based visions where strategies acknowledge the human scale and needs. Additionally, new urbanism focuses deeply on density with urban spaces characterised by traditional civic spaces, but the dominant factor is placed on neighbourhoods over the public realm. Post-urbanism strategies place a greater emphasis on the architecture itself to provide dynamism to urban spaces; it is a market-driven approach with civic spaces catering towards spaces of expression. The weight of the urban fabric is awarded to the architecture itself and the space-making in between. The City of Johannesburg’s strategy to reverse its urban blight follows closely to that of post-urbanism strategies because it focuses on civic spaces with a multiplicity of characteristics which is surrounded by architecture (ibid). ReUrbanism exists as a combination of both strengths of the new and post-urbanism strategies. ReUrbanism sees the urban fabric as a continuous and connected tapestry where form and public space are informed and inform one another. Within ReUrbanism density of place, walkability of the urban fabric and transport-oriented development become the core tenants. Haas & Locke (2018: 10) summarise ReUrbanism in the following manner: “[it] is an art that combines architecture and planning through urban design in ways of continuity, renewal, repair, stability and respect for place.” The strategies undertaken by the urban blight witnessed in Detroit thus follow ReUrbanism in that through the ‘rebuilding’ of the city, existing structures are rehabilitated whilst new structures are created. Public spaces are also revitalised and created which are all centred around transport-oriented solutions. ReUrbanism acknowledges and allows itself to be informed by the existing context, whilst allowing itself to be an enabler of architecture. Whilst new, post, and ReUrbanism strategies are all reverse domino effects to urban blight, it is the holistic strength of ReUrbanism through its straddling of the past, present and future that gives it an edge to influence the urban fabric beyond its starting point.
Breger, G.E. 1967. The Concept and Causes of Urban Blight. Land Economics. 43(4). University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 369-376.
Haas, T. & Locke, R. Reflections on the ReUrbanism paradigm: Re-weaving the urban fabric for urban regeneration and renewal. Questiones Geographicae. 37(4), Bogucki Wydawnictwo Naukiw, Poznan. pp. 5-21.
Mzamo, B. 2018. Assessing the relationship between Urban Blight and City Attractiveness: The Case of Mthatha CBD. University of KwaZulu-Natal: South Africa.
Singh, V. 2014. Relationship between Damaged Urban Fabric and Deprivation. International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research. 5(7).