Jodi Allemeier is an independent consultant in municipal governance and strategy. Her work centres on helping the people involved in the management of cities and urban development to do a better job of that, to work towards more resilient outcomes, for the range of people that live and work in and visit South Africa’s cities.

She began her career as a social worker before moving into economic development, programme management and development finance, and her diverse skills set helps her to run her practice and navigate the connections between city planning, city governance and social outcomes.

Long Street temporary pedestrianisation: creating value with the spaces between the buildings.

Urbanism as a tool for social progress

I believe that urbanism is a tool for social progress. More and more people live in urban environments and how we live in those urban environments is fundamentally important for productivity, our happiness, our levels of inclusion. Intervening in the urban environment is the tool that I use to contribute to social progress.

Many people think of urban development as merely a bricks-and-mortar built environment. But that environment shapes how we can interact with one another – how we gain or don't gain access to the economy, to schools, to opportunities to connect with one another, to places where we do or don't feel safe. The built environment is the shell in which social interaction takes place. And it ultimately impacts on things like social mobility, social inclusion and economic inclusion, experienced differently by people, often still based on factors like gender, race and age. So, while many might focus on the bricks-and-mortar side of city-making, the social outcomes are very important.

It's important to understand that urban development is not just a big city phenomenon. It's also happening in rural areas. People living in small towns face the same urbanisation challenges – such as pressure for housing, jobs and services – just on a slightly different scale. In big cities, urbanisation is happening at a much faster pace, where people are moving to our big cities looking for opportunities. In the South African context, the challenge is to keep up with the growth. That happens in different environments in relation to different markets.

For example, for a very low-income person moving to a city looking for an opportunity, often they will first arrive in an informal setting. We have to try to keep up with the growth in demand for services for informal settings. In another market, people might arrive and contribute to gentrification, or to the demand for things like gated estates, which puts pressure on the size and urban footprint of our cities and sprawl of our cities.

All of these markets present different challenges to our cities and our municipalities. The fundamental question is: how do we accommodate people in a way that contributes to social progress instead of alienating and separating people and holding people back from what they actually came to seek, which is that social mobility?

Looking for opportunities: informal traders move into the city CBD to set up their wares.

Developing for shared value

When people talk about trends in real estate, it’s often around things like micro apartments or whether the commercial property sector will recover from the impact of COVID-19; or making inroads into the township sector from a housing or commercial perspective. But for me, the biggest underlying common theme to all of this is that developers and people invested in the real estate market need to broaden their investor framework to look at shared value and social value.

We’re no longer (if we were ever) in a “get rich quick” development environment. Our products have to be much more agile. They have to understand that on a commercial side, people and businesspeople are also in flux, and having to experiment with different types of products. For example, maybe they need shorter-term rental agreements in these uncertain times.

On the real estate side, there’s also a much broader spread in the market. It’s no longer so neatly distinct between low income, middle income and upper income markets. This means the kind of value that you have to offer must be more innovative. Communities are expecting that you will be a partner in understanding the flux they’re experiencing, not just in building the product, but in building the space. And not just in ensuring that an individual product is sustainable, but the whole environment will be. The trend, to me, is this new skill set in the real estate sector – innovating on a journey to creating a sustainable precinct or sustainable community.

In a world in flux there is a need for new rental and financing models. short-term rental SMME incubator spaces, like this one in Philippi Village, Western Cape, have since spread to more formal environments such as SALT in the Cape Town CBD.

Trends we should be talking about

There’s a lot of talk about things like moving off grid and the way in which we provide infrastructure. We focus significantly on off-grid energy. And we often focus on the high end of the market. Again, we should broaden our perspective. If we do that, we’ll see there’s a lot more innovation to be had in how we provide across the markets – from low income to high – including other services, such as water and wastewater provision; at not just individual property scale, but at precinct level.

As someone who's not only interested in real estate development, but in municipal government too, that has big implications for me. In fact, it has a very interesting implication for our whole government model and our financial model. I believe that’s a very important chain and we should try to understand the direction of it and where it's going.

The other one big thing we need to consider is around affordability. In the South African market, we’re talking a lot about the shift from expecting government to provide for certain residential products to expecting the market to provide more and more residential products. In some developed markets, there's a shift in the opposite direction, where they're realising that they have a housing crisis in certain western cities and are moving more towards asking government to intervene (at least in terms of policy, if not subsidy).

Our policy pendulum is swinging in one direction and in some western cities, it’s swinging in the opposite direction. And some day, we might find we meet in the middle again, as our cycles shift.

There’s also a shift between renting and owning, and also what the terms of those of those agreements are. Many have an outdated understanding of it: if you want to own a real estate product, you go to a formal financial institution, and there's a very limited number of loan products that you can get. And if you want to rent, it's a long-term rental agreement. But I think that's a space where more and more innovation is coming from (for example, BitProp which helps landlords finance, develop and rent in the lower-income market).

We need to help provide different types of loan options to people, especially people who want to be able to, for example, build their own small development or “accessory dwelling” to rent to a different type of market, or people who want to rent but they can't secure a long-term lease. In a world in flux and a society of people moving up and down the social chain in urban environments, we're having to provide new rental and financing models.

We also need to relook development options, investing in vibrant precincts where people are more likely to succeed, and then offering incubation leases and rent-to-buy products; where it’s more about partnerships and shared value; benefiting everyone in the chain.

Taking responsibility for urban spaces. With his skills and limited resources, community designer Siyabonga Stengana cleaned up waste at more than 40 micro public spaces in Mbekweni, Paarl. His aim was to improve the residential and business environment.

Photos: Peter Herring and Jodie Allemeier

A tale of two (types of) cities

I differentiate between Cities (with a capital C) and cities (with a lowercase c). The lowercase city is the place, whereas the uppercase City is the institutions that govern the place. The two are interconnected, but not the same.

The cities are affected by things like climate change, population growth, technology development, and shifting commercial models, among other things. But the Cities were designed to govern on certain assumptions, within certain models. They are disrupted by all the trends I’ve mentioned. And so we have to rethink the way we govern and our financial models.

"To do this, we have to focus on asking: what are these changes? Who is introducing them? How are they managed and balanced to ensure that the outcomes are still equitable and don't harm anybody or leave anybody behind?"

We have to work to ensure that the institutions that are governing these spaces are able to innovate and adapt and remain relevant and up-to-date with the times. If we were to design local government from scratch, with today’s technologies, needs and inequities, what would the model be? People exploring this question usually arrive at an answer that looks more like a platform provider model than a central bulk provider of services.

Urban environments are complex, diverse and dynamic. To remain competitive it is important that all stakeholders search for opportunities to share their knowledge and, at the same time, embrace the views of others.

Rethinking stakeholder roles

No one stakeholder has a full view of reality. Urban environments are complex, diverse and dynamic. I think what each of us needs to understand what our position is – ask ourselves “what is the point of view that is unique to me”? Then, how can you communicate that and share it with others? And how can you tap into another stakeholder who's quite different to you and has a different point of view to you? Understanding their point of view will give you a competitive edge because suddenly your point of view is broadened. We have to work not to stay clustered in our own little communities because we can lose peripheral vision there.

The other thing I think stakeholders need to do is to act from their position. Wherever you are, act from there. We can be quite risk averse and fearful of all of these changes. But the responsibility to build the cities of the future is all of ours. There is no one stakeholder who has all of the resources or all of the knowledge or all of the mandates to build the cities of the future.

It is up to many different role players and if you've got some resources and some knowledge, you should be acting on those and building towards a city that is more inclusive and more resilient.

Finally, we need to prioritise the skills of the future, which will be around the shared value and collaboration. Yes, your financial interests and your financial return are important. But for that to have long-term sustainability, it must contribute to broader sustainability.

Take the time initially in scoping your product to understand what is the slightly broader, shared value you're able to offer to your community. That is kind of a skill set that that is important for the future, and we use urbanism for social progress.

To keep up with Jodi’s latest work and thoughts, visit her website.

Share this article

Next article: Innovation