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The word “precinct” has become extremely popular in property marketing and sales brochures, particularly as new estates with “in house” facilities in abundance compete for buyers in a world where safety and security has become a key selling point.
In many ways, what we are seeing today – in a new form of gated community such as the Sitari Country Estate (in the Western Cape), Steyn City (Johannesburg) and Westbrook Estate (Port Elizabeth) – has evolved from simple housing estates, with perhaps a communal pool and a few sports facilities, to offerings encompassing the full range of residential, commercial, retail, educational and even medical multi-use spaces. And of course, increasingly, these are referred to as “precincts”. But are they really?
What these new estates reflect is that we seek a lifestyle that hankers back to “traditional” neighbourhoods – the original precincts – where a spirit of community meant we knew our neighbours and our kids played together in the street until they were called indoors for the night.
However, these new multi-purpose gated estates exist at the cost of inclusivity and connectivity to the “outside” world and that transgresses beyond what we should mean when we call something a precinct. In my opinion, these estates often turn out to be no more than a form of “urban terrorism” where we live increasingly separate and disconnected lives.
The true meaning of a precinct, in urban planning, embraces a plan that defines the development direction of an area in terms of how of it will facilitate new relationships between the public and private domains that exist both within it and in close proximity. It’s based on the principles of new urbanism – a movement that arose in the 1980s in response to post-World War II suburbanism and urban sprawl, and it seeks to recreate mixed-use, sustainable, walkable neighbourhoods that hopefully revitalize, primarily, old downtown areas.
Extremely important particularly in South Africa today, is that an essential by-product of that urban planning vision should be inclusivity and connectivity. Thankfully, we have a number of evolving precincts in South Africa that really are hitting that mark, growing both organically but also within a viable framework. And hopefully they will increasingly connect to other precincts, as these develop in neighbouring areas.
The V&A Waterfront in Cape Town is one example of a successful precinct. While certain residential and commercial buildings may have restricted access with the overall precinct, under fairly strict conditions of control and surveillance from private security, it is by and large inclusive in its many pedestrian-prioritised interconnected public spaces and facilities. Its success has seen the neighbourhoods around it transform as well, just as it has continued to expand both horizontally and vertically within its own footprint.
Along with Green Point and Sea Point, one of the neighbourhoods benefitting from the V&A is the revived CBD of Cape Town, which is not without its own developing precinct sub nodes – think St Georges Mall, the Foreshore area and, more recently, the East City side of town. The transformation of this downtown precinct has also extended southwest, into the Gardens area and along the Kloof Street corridor. Of interest will now be to see how the East City’s emergence begins to connect in the southeast to Woodstock, as that area too redevelops as a precinct.
Another area to watch will be the revitalization of the Voortrekker Road Corridor in Bellville, where it is the vision of the Greater Tygerberg Partnership primarily to interlink existing buildings, making them purposeful to each other, via a network of pedestrian-prioritised spaces between them. In a main taxi and bus transportation node framed between two main railway lines, and with a number of neglected parks and already-existing public facilities (both service- and leisure-oriented) scattered across its footprint, it’s an area that cries out for precinct development in the true sense of the word. With a huge student population already residing in the area, thanks to its proximity to highly reputable educational institutions, it lends itself to an environment that could really maximize the use of public space and bring its diverse communities onto the streets to interact as they should.
In Johannesburg, the ongoing development of Melrose Arch has often been referred to as a “city” on its own. It refers to itself as a “precinct”, and in many ways is very similar in its design (and control) to the V&A Waterfront. In other words, it too offers a host of both private and publically-accessible areas, with a relatively free-flow of movement through its entire footprint. It’s one failing, though, to the definition of a precinct, is its lack of connectivity to (and its debatable impact on) the neighbourhoods that surround it.
However, a new precinct rising in the centre of Johannesburg’s traditional CBD will probably be closer to the ideals of New Urbanism. Having broken ground in 2018 with another two years to reach completion, Divercity’s Jewel City precinct is set to breathe new life into an area that has been off limits to the general public for decades, having deteriorated significantly over time.
Named after the buildings that once housed the diamond and precious metals trade in Johannesburg, Jewel City will run across six city blocks bordered by Commissioner and Main Streets, Berea Road and Jo Slovo Drive. Fox Street, which runs through its centre, will be pedestrianized, linking the precinct to the Maboneng Precinct on its one end, and the Absa Precinct on the other. With an aim to combine 20 000m2 of revamped commercial buildings with 2 700 highly-affordable residential rental units, there will be both big-name retailers and small shops as well as schools, medical facilities, recreational and play areas, lawns and a lot of public art.
It success, however, will lie in the developers paying attention to the lessons of the past. A very interesting read on precincts on the website northernarchitecture.us speaks to the problems that can be encountered when areas of cities that have become obsolete, abandoned or in a state of decay are rebuilt. Referring to the “urban renewal” that takes place, it speaks to a time where this involved the entire clearance of areas deemed to be slums and the total rebuilding of the urban environment into a “new” precinct. However, across the globe this has often missed the mark, when what has replaced the physical decay results in an environment that is both socially unviable and even hostile.
Thankfully nowadays, the trend is increasingly towards selective demolition only and the integration of the old with the new. This speaks also to achieving the inclusivity and connectivity we need as humans in the areas where we live. And I believe, as architects, we have an important role to play in this type of transformation. We need to add our voice to the right type of change.
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