Podcast: Social Equity in Real Estate Development in South Africa

March 10, 2022

Our CEO Rashiq Fataar participated in episode 44 of the Green & Healthy Places podcast which explored the themes of wellbeing and sustainability in real estate. The original post appeared at the Biofilico website of Matt Aspiotis Morley.

Rashiq works across disciplines, engaging with city planners, designers, researchers and anthropologists in the quest for promoting more sustainable and inclusive cities not just in South Africa where they are based, but increasingly around the African continent as a whole.

Our conversation covers the weight of South Africa's history of top-down oppression and how that impacted urban development during apartheid, the kind of tactical urban intervention that can turn a handful of parking bays into a parklet, the challenges of developing enough affordable housing, how concerns over safety can be baked into new precinct development plans from the start, examples of successful downtown regeneration in Durban by developers Urban Lime, and the student accommodation opportunity in neglected 1960s era buildings in central Cape Town and Durban in particular.

Social equity is one of the key components of a real estate ESG strategy covering Environmental, Social and Governance.

Rashiq is erudite, determined and fighting on the front line of city development so here he is.

Conversation highlights

we are only 25-26 years into a democratic society here in SA, which is very young, in terms of having these basic rights and freedoms, what we've inherited is an urban project which stems from economic, social and cultural injustice

if you took an aerial view of Cape Town city center, you took an aerial view of Johannesburg, Durban, they're not dense enough in terms of residential population to to be 24/7, walkable, vibrant spaces where restaurants, cafes, schools, and other services start to respond to that demand.

‘walkability’ - not just about having pavements But about sufficient levels of activity, enough destinations and of course decent lighting to make it safe - even the most well landscaped route won’t be used here at night if it's not safe.

Our Future Cities biofilico social equity podcast
Citylift Foreshore Freeways, Cape Town, Our Future Cities

Full transcription follows:

MM: Rashiq, thanks for being with us on the show today. Great to you have great to have you as a guest.

I thought we could start with an initial introduction to the context in which you're working there in South Africa and the government's policy of black economic empowerment and how that's influencing the work you do around urban regeneration and development.

RF: Thanks, Matt. Great to be here. That's a very large question. But I suppose I'll start by giving some context.

I think in most parts of the world, they've obviously been difficult histories, whether it's Colombia or, or in the years, but Africa is a very particular history where I would say that, over about two to 300 years, there's been top down planning and oppression based on race, in particular, what we call persons of color, or black, African or colored in the South African context.

And so, whereas many cities and towns have developed gradually, and, you know, despite inequality or despite racism in South Africa, it is quite a scientific planning approach, so that all parts of urban life and City Living for the longest time was based on the ideal that the white population deserve space and ownership of land, and a good quality of life. And that everyone else needed to be far away, have less rights and have their movement and and who they marry where they live managed.

introducing esg social equity in real estate post-apartheid

According to the sort of ideal of separate development called apartheid, but ultimately that seeped into every aspect of life from the bus you used to the museums you could access to whether your culture could be expressed, or you could even protest.

And so I think that's the point to start with that we are only 25-26 years into a democratic society here in SA, which is very young, in terms of having these basic rights and freedoms, what we've inherited is an urban project which stems from economic, social and cultural injustice, on so many levels of people's psyche, and urban environment.

MM: Thank you for that intro. It's such an interesting topic. And so crucial, I think, for those of us working in this space, where, perhaps, certainly in Europe, that such things are almost taken for granted, that that shouldn't be the case. And yet, there are clearly examples for say, in the south of the US, for example, where similar things happening not that long ago.

And so today, in terms of a positive promotion as a way to rebalance that status quo as a way to empower and provide greater sense of social equity, like, how can your role, how can our future cities, as a business contribute to that and up to now, how have you been going about contributing to that that sort of generational transformation whereby cities are able to find a greater form of social equity for all groups, no matter what race they are coming from?

RF: Yeah, I think we've, we've always taken a quite a sort of pragmatic approach. The first is, you know, collaboration and cooperation with all sectors, so government, businesses, nonprofits, communities, individuals, which is quite difficult to suppose. I think there's the perception that to be on the side of, of people and communities and, and their prosperity, you have to be against government, and you have to be against business. And there are times that we are and we do advocate very clearly, and as an independent group, we do so. That's the first thing, I think it's sort of creative, but messy, tumultuous, and sometimes productive relationships, which are not perfect processes.

And then second, I think is just small steps to a better future. What can we do in the next year or two? Whether it's that's a tactical urbanism, can we take two parking bays away, provide free Wi Fi and a place to sit for those who can't afford coffee shops on high streets? Or can we study the culture in a particular neighborhood of migrants so that the public spaces start to reflect how they trade, how they live, and how they move around spaces? And in that particular case in the in the Bellville Town Center, which is about 20 kilometers from the Centre of Cape Town. Its priority people from across across the African diaspora, so Somalia, Ethiopia and so forth living there safely and in societies that are evolving.

So I think those two are quite key - finding ways to cooperate and taking small steps, be it policy or physical spaces, or getting conversations going, for example, in the affordable housing space.

Our Future Cities biofilico social equity podcast
inclusionary housing model, Our Future Cities, Cape Town

affordable housing and esg social equity in real estate

One of the biggest challenges we found, when we joined that field, through a conference we hosted was that developers had never sat in a room with nonprofits and government working in the affordable housing space.

So if you think of London, which has quite an established set of rules and guidelines around affordable housing, in South Africa, despite having some of the highest income inequality in the world, if not the highest in Cape Town and Johannesburg, they haven't sat around a table really to say, how do we make this policy work? What are the requirements and what is possible? So it's in its various sort of layers, I suppose that we do our work.

esg social equity in the public realm

MM: Okay, so I pick up on a couple of things, let's just dip back into the public realm discussion, because I think that's a really interesting piece there around how you, in a sense, give even a small slice of the city. And I presume we're talking about sort of downtown urban centers, back to those who perhaps as you say, I'm not in a position to spend the equivalent of 10 US dollars on a milky sweet coffee in a Starbucks equivalent, right. And so you're trying to create these small interventions now is that is that about bringing greenery back into the to the city is that about? Public furniture and safety are one of the main concerns and the drivers, when you're looking at an intervention like that?

RF: I think there's the ambition of the dream. And that is, you know, large amounts of affordable housing for lots of different incomes and groups, in or near the city center, you know, so lots of supply of housing, which, takes a long time, and it's been particularly slow in African inner cities, I think, for political reasons for lack of expertise.

That's the prize, the densities of Spain or elsewhere are based on lots of people living close together, and having quality spaces. So that's the prize. But I think the second, what you touched on was, is how do we provide a positive lived experience based on how somebody occupied space or how, or their sort of mobility needs, and the way we think about it is, as much as possible to have empathy and to understand the lived experience of that person.

So while somebody working close to where I am today, close to Parliament, or the original government buildings in Cape Town, might need community park, of course, where they live, they're probably traveling an hour and a half in the morning, if not more to their place of work, spending about eight to 9 hours, and then traveling another hour and a half, two hours. So for us, safety needs to be incorporated into all aspects.So you know, it's really important that public transport interchanges with our public spaces are clean, well managed wallets, you know, have free Wi Fi, it's really important that we understand that when somebody arrives in the center, it might be the norm for people in London to walk the last two miles of Africa, it's required you're not going to pay for another trip to go you know, two or three kilometers further.

So, safety of streets safe crossings. For example, outside our central train station, you know, some of the crossings which I think a traffic lanes are about sort of maximum 45 seconds. So we do advocate for long crossing times for for people walk walking around or doing the sort of last mile or two trip and then of course when they're at work apart from their work environment which which is somewhat out of our hands in some cases, the plazas, the squares, the gardens, the parks, that could probably encapsulate somebody's entire public space experience for the day.

It might be possible for myself to go to Sea Point which is just near the ocean and go for a walk or run off to work but for somebody else's traveling two hours back home, and and do two Politics and other reasons possibly living in a dangerous neighborhood, it's unlikely that at 7pm, at night in the dark, they're going to go to a local park to enjoy this sort of public space experience. So our city centers do matter. And where people are for the majority of the time influences their health, from safety, to shaded areas of respite.

Sustainable Interior Design
Church Square, Urban Lime, Our Future Cities, Cape Town

nature and wellbeing in urban downtowns

MM: You're essentially integrating elements of nature, nature exposure, bringing nature back into the city of social equity, and a wellbeing aspect, I think with with what you're describing there. So it makes complete sense, the affordable housing piece, just to give us the context on that in terms of how that relates to geography. Or do you see an opportunity in terms of downtown regeneration in terms of bringing affordable housing, in collaboration with developers back into say, the downtown of Joburg or Durban? Or is it essentially a project that's inevitably going to be limited to the peripheries of the city? And therefore that mobility question is locked in place for the foreseeable future? Or is it a combination of both?

urban development policies and esg social equity

RF: It's certainly a combination of both. Unfortunately, some of the the policies of the early 90s of the Mandela era government meant that where land was cheap cities built housing, and they were often poor quality, and quite far away. So we've actually had a perpetuation of apartheid style planning, because land was, you know, further away with cheaper, large open pieces, governments generally delivering substandard housing.

I think there are a few myths about in a, in a city center or city center housing. And the first is that there's no financial case, when in reality, there is a massive demand from various income groups. And we're not talking about free housing or housing, that is for those of no income we're talking about. I think, in the UK, it's called essential service workers, key workers.

So we're looking at sort of full spectrum of people whose lives could gain time and gain so much more by living in or closer to their place of work. And then secondly, you know, some of these centers at night are quite dead, you know, so they don't have the residential density. So if you took an aerial view of Cape Town city center, you took an aerial view of Johannesburg, Durban, they're not dense enough in terms of residential population to to be 24/7, walkable, vibrant spaces where restaurants, cafes, schools, and other services start to respond to that demand.

student accommodation and esg social equity

I think there's, there's a financial case, but there's also just a social case for bringing back people into the center. And I think we've started to see that, especially with the student population, there are that almost sort of these overnight conversions of inner city office buildings. I think there are four or five and Cape Town currently underway of converting buildings to accommodate students and students are one group of the affordable housing group who need accommodation at certain prices, which the market couldn't, couldn't provide. So I think everything from baristas, to nurses to police, men and women, there's a massive demand the financial case, and and again, it reduces the carbon emissions of people's travel and of course, just, you know, sort of pure spatial justice in terms of people being excluded from the past. Yeah.

sustainable precincts and esg social equity

MM: Let's loop back round onto the student accommodation piece, because there's more in that… But it seems like in a sense, what we're talking about is the creation of of sustainable precincts, right? Because you're saying it can't just be a residential piece that comes in because then if there isn't also the public space, the public realm interventions, and there are also ground level retail and street lighting and the sense of community etc. So other examples that you're seeing in SA at the moment around developments of precinct level where a developer in a public private partnership perhaps is able to come in and almost take over a small area of the city rather than just one building? Is that a viable solution? And is it happening yet? And if not, then, what's the workaround?

the role of precincts in urban regeneration

RF: Yes, precincts and districts are the way to go. I think you need a focus area of change and you need to demonstrate change. I think. I was recently again near the The Civic Center of government building in Cape Town and it's a very windy part of the city and it's got a bus station and the the Civic Center, which is where the city's local government is housed. And just across the road is a private development with a massive open restaurants landscaped garden. That is Sheltered is wind and it was amazing to me how two different blocks one delivered entirely by the private sector. And one, the government volume by the public sector had completely different experiences. The one was harsh, windy, modernist, unprotected and sheltered and had no retail. The other had all of these things had spaces for people to sit to to buy lunch, or, or people who brought their lunch, it was sheltered when protected. It had embedded sort of principles of good landscaping and using rainwater.

Precincts are important because it essentially is private sector needing to drive change. And to do so often you need scale, from a financial perspective, from a viability perspective. And you sort of hope the public sector comes along, because I think there's this idea, at least in South Africa, that public sector must alone drive the change. And I think that example, you know, with two buildings, really adjacent to each other shows you how you could treat people correctly and provide them with open welcoming spaces. Without it officially being a public led project. And this, these, both these spaces are you know, within the sort of biggest transport interchange and in the city within, you know, two minute walk. And, and so I think our precincts are great to demonstrate change to stitch buildings together.

crime rates and urban development

And look for Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world, I think it's important to think about each and every block, how do you make it safer for women and girls to move through a particular background to move from one block to the next. And I think having two or three vibrance precincts with with, you know, active street frontages, and then having nothing for two blocks is quite, we call them crocodile zones. So you really want precincts to work at scale, so that there is enough enough activity over large parts of the city.

walkability and esg social equity

That was linked into the way that we've defined ‘walkability’ - not just about having pavements But about sufficient levels of activity, enough destinations and of course decent lighting to make it safe - even the most well landscaped route won’t be used here at night if it's not safe. So precincts are essential. And I think it's that mesh of public private that people are uncomfortable with. But it really is the sort of the driving factor, we can start to see change, which actually includes the majority of people.

student accommodation as social housing

So you mentioned the student accommodation piece, and it's a sector that's currently going through a process of what can only be described reinvention, at least in the US and Europe. I mean, there's there's so much to use an overused term disruption in the market going on. But I'm seeing a lot of innovation. And I wanted to just ask whether in terms of those mixed use developers going into previously less desirable districts in downtown areas, for example, like, Are they are they leading with student accommodation? are they leading with affordable housing and building in retail and street level activities? Is that typically the mix? Who's what are the what's the first entry point into that urban regeneration process?

RF: I think it's different I think, because Africa and cities located on Durban and Johannesburg don't have proper affordable housing, affordable accommodation, affordable housing policies, which require a certain percentage, it's unlikely that in the short term, that's going to be what's leading. And that's very unfortunate, because we've lost, let's say, 25 years of that, of any sort of privately delivered units in that space.

urban regeneration in durban, south africa

What we're seeing is I suppose if we look at the work of Urban Lime and the city of Durban for example, what they found was that there was massive demand from small and micro businesses, but no inner city buildings, which provided for this smaller space needs.

So in one building, I think it's called Pioneer Place, empty for years. Each floor was compartmentalized into into sort of smaller units for musicians and tailors and seamstresses, and the entire building within a year was was fully occupied. And I think the same, you know, in parts of Cape Town where we see be in secret office buildings, you know, with Windows and views of the harbour and the ocean and, and the mountain are, again, almost within a year or two being converted into student accommodation just because of the massive demand.

So I think they'll always be, they'll always be response based on what people need and what the demand is. And I think in Durban, you could only really rent a massive floor plate in an office building. And so but there was a demand for from businesses. And in Cape Town and other places, there's a huge demand for well located student housing, because of the proximity of academic institutions and colleges.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of policy, we've seen that in areas that need regeneration, often it's, it's, there's either a lack of response or lack of investment, or there's a lack of incentive to develop students or affordable housing, or in cases where there is development, it's really speaking to the upper middle income micro units, when bid units. And again, that's just because that's the market that can afford that project without any subsidies or support from the government.

So we're, we're also seeing in some cases, industrial areas slightly changing, they're sort of more slightly more design and art firms moving in. But I think like various parts of the world, you know, the East End of London, that's generally how it happens, and quite slowly until the sort of glass tower start arriving. So I think it's in this case, it's really up to the public sector to, to earmark land available for social and affordable housing, to get those sites off the ground.

And to have, you know, a broader sector of the population benefit from the change, I think, as much as we don't like change, there are so many case studies around the world with the edges of cities, the semi industrial areas, the areas within five to 10 minutes of the center of the city changing, you know, the industrial areas are no longer needed in particular places, I think you will see even now, for example, you know, offices are no longer needed in particular places. So there's always going to be an evolution, it just about whether a public benefit is embedded into that. And whether it's, you know, topologies, and councils can be proactive, and in making sure that as that change happens, the public benefits over two or three decades.

urban planning in social equity

MM: So at the city planning and legislation level, are there currently, incentives or even enough pressure being placed on on the private developers to incorporate elements of either an enhanced public realm or some element of social housing, which is something that we see a lot of in, in Europe, for example, you might expect to find that in South Africa, but sounds like perhaps at the moment that perhaps isn't happening or isn't happening at a at a sort of uniform level across the board?

No, it's not happening.  I think firstly, as I mentioned earlier, the word cooperation, I think, in a, in a maturing or a young democracy, I suppose like, if you could think of the US or more developed societies, cooperation, lobbying, negotiating, it's, it's pretty much part of the culture, you know that you'll come to the table with 10 items, but you'll probably both only agree on six is Africa, we haven't quite gotten there, it seems to be all or nothing. And then, of course, with the absence of policy or incentives, the market simply won't respond. And I think we've, we've we've missed the we've missed the mark when it comes to public infrastructure as well.

So if a building can't include or meet all the requirements, then there could be alternative so I think it's called Section 16, or section 16 policy in the UK, where you need to or require to contribute to build the the nearest subway station, or to provide the station or to maintain a park and I think with those sort of new relationships, you simply have to start and and and I think given the pressure on local government budgets here, unfortunately, there'll be forced into that space, which will require that deals be made to ensure that let's say a new developer maintains a park over 20 years or develops spaces above the transport hub, but operates and maintains the transport have over 20 years.

So these these relationships now might seem complicated or outside of policy, but I think like we've seen with the water crisis in Cape Town with pandemic, the future often arrives. And we only seem to be responding because I can show you that the the current model of local governments here, which relies on property taxes, as a main revenue source, it's not really a viable approach. So I think, I think for the best, they'll be forced into partnerships, like the ones you've mentioned.

challenges and opportunity in real estate social equity

MM: It strikes me that there is, as so often with, with South Africa, this complex mix of historical ties and the weight of past events on the present, and the struggle to liberate society in some way from that, and to sort of reinvent, but at the same time, on the flip side, there's just amazing opportunities. And every time I'm back there, you can see glimmers of hope of, of just fantastic work being done by visionary developers, perhaps not at the scale that you might like, but I think it's worth pointing that out, right?

I mean, it's like, I know, there's a lot that isn't working, but at the same time, as you go down there with with the right vision, and you can see what's going on, in some corners, and they might be, you know, the exceptions to the rule, rather than the standard of the norm. There are still there's just so much that can be done, I think we need to balance the two, right, because it must be so frustrating to be doing what you're doing and to be facing an uphill struggle. But at the same time that there is surely this sense of amazing opportunity, right and and ways to really have a tangible impact, not just on individual lives, but effectively on the future. Layout and, and livability of the cities that you're you're working in, right.

RF: Absolutely, I think the base of our work is also which I might have failed to mention is that, you know, if we get this right in, let's say, Cape Town, or Durban, it's really an exceptional quality of life. For the for the, for the majority, the weather is great. First of all, if you think of a city, like Durban, between their World Cup Stadium and the center, there are huge plots of land publicly owned, which would essentially give, you know, 1020 50,000 people, social housing, within five minutes walk on the beach fund, you know, sort of 345 Kilometer promenade, so we're not talking about simply giving people that access, we're talking about probably one of the highest qualities of life that could be delivered.

If you think about Cape Town, if we can improve people's travel time by just 3040 minutes, they'd have to go to bed at time to walk on the beach to go for a hike. So I think that's really the opportunity is that if you can start to provide a city for everyone, both in terms of housing and transport, they will have better access more time to be in some of the best places in the world, really. And I think that's why it's important to to frame the opportunity that way.

The cost of living is reasonable. The the amount of immunities that are available at no cost are numerous. The amount of parks and nature reserves that you could use without you know, without buying anything is incredible. So I think this is why we pushing so hard for these changes is just the I would say it's you know, it's if you give people more time and of course, a better way of living and improve their economic situation, they arguably are living in one of the best places they could.

MM: What have you got going on at the moment? What is the next 12 months or so look like for for your team and our future cities?

RF: At the moment, we are we are actually looking into the student accommodation space. We're looking into, into forming better connections across Africa. So expanding the kinds of work and projects we're having in the next few months looking more than a sort of Pan African level. And then yeah, we're continuing a lot of our research on, you know, we were inspired, for example, one tiny project were inspired by London's colorful crossings, you know, how do you raise awareness around community safety, and I think London delivered about 18 of those art inspired pedestrian crossings.

So we're trying to sort of ramp up that project and get through the red Tech with the city on that. And, and the yellow is something that is closer to my arches. We're looking at a 2014 horizon, infrastructure and spaces and what the city might need in the longer term, but Yeah, watch the space and they're always at any one point. 10 or 15 projects, and I should probably organize my thoughts better to to sort of, to present the punchier ones.

MM: Good on you that it's meaningful work that you're doing. I think that's that's the key message. So it's an if people want to reach out to you follow along, see what projects you do have coming over the next few months, and what's the best way for them to connect?

Yeah, so they could follow our future cities on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and then they could even just connect with me on my personal LinkedIn as well.

Rashiq Fataar
Rouen Smit
37 Parliament Street
Church Square
Cape Town City Centre
Cape Town, 8000
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