Workshop: Understanding the role of urban developers

  • GCRO
  • Date of publication: 04 August 2016

On 25 to 27 July 2016, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, together with the Wits University South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning, hosted a series of events on the theme ‘Understanding the role of urban developers’. Around 50 people attended, including city and provincial officials, developers, researchers and other interested stakeholders.

The meeting was divided into two parts. Half a day was devoted on an ‘Urban Lab’ which is part of a monthly series organised by the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning. The intention of this series is to allow for City of Johannesburg officials to engage with key stakeholders on specific themes. For this particular urban lab, city officials presented the Spatial Development Framework and several developers responded. The discussion brought to light some of the key differences between city officials who are concerned about urban sprawl and developers working on the periphery of the city.

The second part of the meeting, a day and a half, was a more academic style workshop arranged around the presentation of research findings. It also broadened the geographical scale of interest, as it included four presentations from researchers working on other parts of the world: Jenny Robinson (working on large developments in London); Gavin Shatkin (Asian cities); Liza Weinstein (India) and Donald Leffers (Canada). In addition, 12 South Africa oriented presentations contributed towards a wide ranging set of inputs.

The rationale for the workshop was based on the growing literature on the expanding role of developers in shaping urban change and urban governance in some contexts. In particular, research is focusing on the way in which the relationship between meeting social needs and the search for profit in urban development is embedded in the often complex negotiations between governments and private sector developers over land use. The focus of much of this literature is on North America and Europe, so some important themes relevant to the South African context remain underexplored. And yet it is clear that developers are profoundly reshaping South African cities. For example, developers have not only shaped the city through private-sector led high-end property development, but have also been crucial to the delivery of low cost housing. Perhaps most strikingly, developers have produced a large amount of residential, retail and commercial space for relatively affluent users in the form of cluster housing, gated communities, high rise commercial and residential spaces, and malls. They are also key actors in the transformation of South African cities for less affluent users. Developers are instrumental in implementing the low cost housing programme, which has delivered more than four million houses since 1994. Furthermore, the rental market and the ‘affordable market’ are growing in importance in both brownfield and greenfield sites, including important examples of high risk-taking developments which have remade significant parts of the city, such as downtown Johannesburg. More systemically, as city governments are reliant on property tax income, the role of local “government” can sometimes appear more in the mode of “developer”. This workshop sought to develop analyses of the role of developers in shaping South African cities, including the array of actors who work as part of developers’ teams, such as technical consultants and financiers.

The workshop was guided by the following questions:

  1. What impact have government spatial plans and visions had on the work of developers?
  2. What impact will the 2015/2016 Spatial Development Framework have on developers in Johannesburg?
  3. How do developers and different spheres and sectors of government relate to one another?
  4. What changes should be considered to the way in which urban development happens in South Africa?
  5. What is the developer ‘ecosystem’? How can developers be classified into different types (market, size, ownership, geographical focus)?
  6. What are the basic business models which developers follow? (i.e. what are the key economic opportunities driving the various urban development markets?)
  7. How are developers constituted organisationally and also within networks of financiers, consultants, construction firms, officials, and other key actors?
  8. What is the journey from CGI to ribbon cutting? How do visions shift and what shapes the evolution of an urban development project?
  9. What are the transnational flows of resources and expertise both into and out of South Africa?
  10. How do local conditions reshape international flows of resources, expertise and business ventures?
  11. How are governance arrangements and the broader relationships between developers and government playing out?

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