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Slovo Park: the Innovation of an Economic Urbanism


Michael Hart, Michael Hart Architects & Urban Designers

1. Contextualising Urban Design practice

Overcoming human problems is the element common to all Urban Design approaches. Urban design puts people first.

For those from disenfranchised communities in South African cities, the difficulty is facing the many formal urban policies that don’t offer alternatives. The question is, how can people make a living on the fringes of formality without falling into contravention of urban laws, and walking into the web of exploitation by landlords and letting agents?

As Urban Design practitioners, it may be our role to offer an enabling framework that acknowledges the linkages between the formal economy and the informal economy. And, given that there are linkages between economies, there is a need for a more equitable relationship. It is interesting that there is a move from governments and employers to convert formal jobs to informal jobs – rather than the other way around (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs USA

The relationship between formality and informality is symbiotic and often co-dependant. An example of this would be an informal street trader located in front of a store selling the goods for the store owner; or informal cooked food traders given pavement space in return for buying goods from the formal shops along the street. This relationship offers an alternative view in terms of zoning, land-use, and the kind of alternative services required.

The management of informal operators within the public transportation sector, the trading and manufacturing sector and the informal housing sector requires a different way of thinking about a supportive structure that allows for informality to operate within the realms of safety, hygiene, mutual respect for people, buildings and environment, and access to services and facilities.

2. Proposing a Hypothesis that Urban Design can offer an enabling framework for the creation of an economic urbanism.

Urban Design criteria for human development are universal in principle, outlining that development should be guided by wholesome attitudes towards spatial integration, connectivity, social and cultural inclusions, public space, “place making”, and long term social, economic and environmental sustainability.

In SA, housing projects are typically defined by their quantitative outcomes and political objectives, often resulting in anti-social environments. The short term delivery of housing should be transformed into long term neighbourhood developments with integrated enabling frameworks that allow for economic and socially integrated environments.

Urban design places the Public realm as one element that operates as a structuring principle. The ‘Capital Web’ (David Crane ‘The City Symbolic’ 1960) theory spoke of a network of linkages between major city installations and resulted in cities requiring advanced high speed transit and high capital input.

I am proposing an ‘Innovation Web’, a network that is organic and that can be developed by people on the ground. It is a bottom-up structure that allows innovation from individuals to contribute in a meaningful way. The Innovation Web delivers an infrastructure that supports social and community facilities, public space, trading and manufacturing facilities, service infrastructure that enables informal and formal economic activities; and it creates an environment that offers pride of place to its inhabitants.
Economic development and ecological urbanism are symbiotic. The ‘Innovation Web’ proposes walkability, densification and efficient land use, inclusion of social and cultural facilities, and the ability for local residents to support local business in the trading of goods and services, manufacture and urban agriculture. Under this model, infrastructure costs reduce as it is more efficient to service nodal developments versus servicing development sprawl. An example of this is a single family that runs a business from home thus reducing the duplication of service costs and the overall ecological footprint of growing cities.

Similarly, non-motorised transport and the increased use of public transport for longer distances will reduce the building of high specification roads and reduce CO2 emissions. And placing an emphasis on innovation and empowering inhabitants to create their own employment will reduce the drain on the state by lowering social grants and improving human capital.

The Slovo Park project was seen as a case study for proposing ideas that deliver 2000 housing units into a neighbourhood development that integrates the concept of the ‘Innovation Web’.

Previous layout plans depicted a loose arrangement of a typical housing block repeated and placed in an unstructured manner, with internal roadways and vast parking lots. This was turned down by the City of Johannesburg planning department, which created an opportunity for an alternative approach.

The starting point was acknowledging the site’s contextual relationships and broader urban design frameworks that identified Slovo Park as an element within a larger corridor. It was evident that the project is an opportunity to connect neighbouring suburbs. Numerous linkages would encourage urban integration and the development of a high street allowing greater mobility, choice and mixed use functions.

This connectivity became the core to proposing a public realm network consisting of a pedestrianised activity spine that links the high order transportation network and its related commercial core with the community core of public spaces, community and religious buildings.

The activity spine offers informal and formal trading facilities, defined public space, landscaping, public seating and shade structures. The idea is that the pedestrian spine is a convenient linking device and will be well frequented by residents and visitors creating a desirable environment for business to flourish.
The vision of an economic urbanism is to implement an enabling environment that attracts future growth.

3. Resilience (inspired by

The definition of Resilience: A reservoir of renewable resources and the ability to cope with adversity which includes creative problem solving and the ability to adapt to change.
Urban design principles for resilience reinforce the logic of neighbourhood design :

  • Density, Diversity and Mixed-use
  • Prioritise walking and non motorised travel
  • Supportive efficient public transportation
  • Place Making
  • Complete Communities and Complete Streets
  • Integrate natural systems and manage climatic responses
  • Integrate technical and industrial systems with environmental concerns of complementary energy disposal and bi-product recycling
  • Community engagement
  • Design for emergency services and long term maintenance
  • Prioritize infill development within existing serviced nodes reducing the need to increase the urban footprint


The role of the built environment professional must contribute to the flexibility of the regulatory framework that determines use. Zoning and town planning schemes should offer more flexibility. The adaptive re-use of land and buildings and the sharing of facilities for different uses must be encouraged. We need the supportive systems of a clean, healthy and safe environment with an emphasis on the human quality that will ensure liveability and opportunity.

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