An exploration of the role of social systems in urban renewal : an urban planning perspective
Meiring, Gert Hendrik
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Cities, as complex social systems within society, are the most complex of all human systems. An increase in this complexity is anticipated since projections estimate that two-thirds of the world’s population will be urbanised by 2030. Cities are “melting pots” of cultures and systems that share the same spatial environment. In South Africa this challenge is exacerbated by one of the highest urbanisation rates in the world. Urban growth implies tremendous change. City centres are especially at risk to structural changes of urban growth and consequent urban decay. Governments commonly adopt urban renewal to cope with changing urban environments. However, the long term sustainability of current urban renewal practices is questioned as they tend to over-emphasise economic revival and physical intervention. The focus on people is often missed and misunderstood, even though social dynamics are the driving forces in cities. Urban renewal is complex and multi-dimensional. In theory it moved away from the linear top-down approach that focused on the physical environment towards a more inclusive, integrated and socially oriented process. This is reflected in paradigm shifts in planning thought from a physical planning and design based product orientated discipline (as reflected in historical and modernist planning approaches), to a socio-political process in which the communicative planning paradigm is the most recent post-modern theory. Understanding cities as social systems and exploring their role in central business areas to include them in urban renewal are important starting points when urban planners work with urban renewal initiatives. As research about social systems and their role in urban renewal is limited in South Africa, this study provides a step towards acknowledging and including urban social systems proactively in urban renewal initiatives. This is especially relevant in central business districts of medium sized cities such as Potchefstroom (Tlokwe Municipality) that experience urban decay and where urban renewal initiatives have not yet been implemented. The Mission Statement of the Tlokwe Municipality emphasises the need for social understanding in the economic sphere, as this enjoys a high priority in the development choices made. A qualitative ethnographic research approach was followed to explore the role of social systems in this context. This allowed the research to capture social dynamics in its natural setting where no extraneous influences occur. This resulted in rich textual descriptions of how people experience social interactions and the physical environment. Unstructured and non-participant field observations and face-to-face, in-depth, semi-structured interviews were used as methods to identify social systems within the research context and to understand interactions and behaviour patterns that emerge from this context. Findings from the observations expose a dynamic and cyclical network of inter- and intrarelationships that culminate in continuous intense interaction amongst three social systems, namely the private sector, community groups and the general public. Pro-social behaviour patterns (behaviour that promotes good social relations) were observed, including cultural relativism and social awareness. Findings from the interviews provided insight into how social systems interact with one another and with the physical environment. Themes that emerged for the data to describe interactions among social systems include material support, friendliness, cooperativeness, comfortableness, accommodativeness, fixed and established relations and respect for one another. This creates a vibrant, synergetic environment conducive to sustainability and describes an environment of hope. The counter-experience includes forced flexibility and adaptiveness (due to unmet physical needs), feelings of being unsafe, limited choices and a general dissatisfaction with the physical environment in terms of its support. This describes an urban environment of fear. The role of social systems in terms of urban renewal is inclusive, participating and socially sensitive. They should be catalysts for socio-economic functions, contribute to maintenance and act as stakeholders. Based on the above, the study offers recommendations to include social systems in urban renewal in terms of the research process and method to be followed, how and where to include social systems in urban renewal projects and suggestions for physical change to make the area more supportive to the social dynamics. Practical guidelines are offered related to the practice of observations and interviews for the identification and exploration of social systems. The following suggestions are made regarding the urban renewal process: pro-active inclusion of social systems throughout the process in the pre-project stage, during the urban renewal project and post-project stage. Interventions to enhance the physical environment include provision of special requests, access to open space, application of green construction and local distinctiveness. As planners play a proactive role in urban renewal they may contribute to enhancing the sustainability of urban renewal initiatives by understanding urban social systems and their role in city centres in order to acknowledge and include them as important partners.
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