Bus in the City of Johannesburg
Bus in the City of Johannesburg. | Photo credit: Sustainable Energy Africa

Catalyzing Change in South Africa’s Cities “From the Neighborhood Up”

By Erica Slowik

There is no doubt about it: The world is experiencing an unprecedented wave of urban population growth. Although the challenges posed by this phenomenon are great, the opportunities for advancing equity and sustainability are just as considerable. Indeed, designing “neighborhoods for all” was the central theme of a recent industry training seminar coordinated by the USAID South Africa Low Emissions Development (SA-LED) Program. In January 2020, roughly 30 representatives from the public, private, and non-profit sectors convened for a six-hour intensive seminar on best practices for civic participation, engagement, and governance. 

SA-LED is a USAID-funded initiative designed to support the Government of South Africa achieve green growth objectives. Now in its fifth and final year, the Program has achieved noteworthy results. This is thanks in large measure to partners, many of which have played an instrumental role in the development and delivery of activities. A case in point is EcoDistricts, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that is supporting SA-LED to catalyze change “from the neighborhood up.”

The partnership between SA-LED and EcoDistricts crystallized in early 2017 when three teams of municipal leaders in South Africa, sponsored by the Program, flew halfway around the world to participate in the annual EcoDistricts Incubator. Attendees were not only introduced to the EcoDistricts framework for community building, but also connected to a global network of like-minded individuals who share a common purpose: equitable and sustainable urban development for all. 

Fast forward to 2020, and the imperatives of equity and sustainability are the vehicles driving several district-scale projects in Johannesburg and a precinct planning and social housing agenda in Cape Town. And the engine powering those vehicles? The EcoDistricts Protocol, a comprehensive project management framework that guides city makers throughout the development process—from conception to implementation, from vision to reality. Unlike other approaches, the Protocol places particular emphasis on the upstream (or “pre-development”) phases, and integrates equity, resilience, and climate protection into every decision. 

Over the course of its multi-year collaboration with SA-LED, EcoDistricts conducted three site visits to South Africa with the objective of capacitating practitioners on the application of the Protocol and building momentum for its uptake across the country. The most recent of these training sessions was the one in January 2020. In addition to the discussions on best practices, Liana Strydom and Abi Godsell of the City of Johannesburg’s Transportation and Spatial Planning Department presented an in-depth case study on use of the Protocol as a public planning tool to shape municipal activities. 

It seems obvious that cities should be safe, inclusive, and eco-conscious spaces, but the reality is often different. And with nearly 70 percent of the world’s population expected to live in metropolitan centers by 2050, it is critical that we think of urban development not a challenge but as an opportunity—perhaps the “biggest opportunity of our lifetime.

Strategic Objective
Low Emission Development, Climate Finance, Conflict and Governance, Clean Energy, Mitigation, Urban

Erica Slowik

Erica Slowik is a project management associate at Chemonics International, where she has been supporting the SA-LED Program since October 2019. Erica earned a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). She is thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to national climate change response efforts as a member of the SA-LED project management team.

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