Thabo Mohlala

South Africa’s response strategies to deal with the potential impact of the climate change should not just focus on macro-policies but should also include individual building owners and the local communities.

These are the views of Jan Hugo and Chrisna du Plessis, academics based at the University Pretoria (UP). The duo recently undertook a research study to ascertain the level of preparedness by cities to adapt to climate change. In particular, they want to find “new uses for unused or under-utilised spaces”.

The academics argue that big role-players should create opportunities for ordinary people and their communities to “take the initiative on a small scale as part of an array of strategies”. These strategies must aim, they said, to limit the future impact of climate change, but also prepare for them. “Even if global temperatures are limited to an increase of 1.5°C, there will be much higher average temperatures in South Africa. The country needs to develop response strategies for cities that can be undertaken by both larger governmental institutes and local communities or individuals,” said Hugo and du Plessis.

They said climate change could be approached either by “slowing it down, and adapting to it”. “The first is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and absorbing more carbon. The second is about resilience to the impacts of climate change,” they added.

Their research project used Hatfield neighbourhood of Pretoria (Tshwane) as their case study. The aim was to “quantify the area’s existing unused and under-utilised spaces, as well as their material quality”. In addition, it was to see if these spaces could be used in a way that can reduce the “exposure of residents to the impacts of climate change”.

The research found that Hatfield is “vehicle-orientated” and is experiencing daily influx of students who attend the UP. This resulted in “high-density residential buildings” to accommodate the growing student population. The neighbourhood also experienced high crime levels which saw residents erecting security measures such as high fences or walls, they said. Private spaces were isolated while social spaces such as bars and nightclubs were shut down. In the end this left the area with many unused spaces to study, they observed.

Furthermore, it was found that “most of these spaces are flat concrete roofs and parking areas, which are often empty for long periods. These two types of space represent 67% of all the unused and underutilised spaces in the neighbourhood. They make up 5% of the Hatfield neighbourhood” and “they often use materials with high thermal capacities that store large amounts of heat”. Unfortunately, there is very little to no vegetation to help regulate local temperatures or reduce local flooding risk. However, these spaces enjoy a lot of exposure to sun, “which means they are suited to producing food or solar energy”.

In addition, it was discovered that 7% of the Hatfield neighbourhood’s surface area, which is unused and under-utilised, could be repurposed to benefit the local community. “Many of these spaces can be redesigned as public spaces because they are accessible. They could become cooling zones to lower heat stress, with water fountains to limit dehydration. These spaces will become critical as Pretoria will experience above-average temperature increases (up to twice the global average),” said the academics. They said through the research they observed that “both public and private spaces that can be retrofitted”.

They also observed that many younger cities, particularly those built in the 20th century – were designed with a focus on efficiency, with zones for each kind of land use, and the ideal of private vehicle ownership. Said Hugo and du Plessis: “the importance of public space was neglected. As a result, these cities have a lot of unused, underutilised, or simply left-over spaces. These spaces present opportunities to be retrofitted as climate change adaptation response strategies. Examples of such initiatives were undertaken in cities like Detroit, Melbourne and Rotterdam.”

They said these modern cities were planned under the assumption “that development would continue to be controlled”. “There wasn’t much prospect of diverse, changing and multifunctional spaces. And the increasing number of vehicles resulted in large open spaces between buildings, idle most of the time and inhibiting any plant growth,” said the academics.

In South African cities, they observed, another feature of city planning under apartheid was space used as buffer zones to separate races and classes. There has also been a notable increase in the use of buffer zones and security barriers in response to insecurity and crime.

Jan Hugo is a Lecturer in Sustainable and Climate Responsive Architecture at the University of Pretoria (UP). Professor Chrisna du Plessis is the Head of the Department of Architecture at UP. This article first appeared in The Conversation on 4 January 2021.