Town and Regional Planning in South Africa – inconsequential and a waste of money?

The extent to which urban planning has degenerated into a more or less meaningless self-centred humdrum with little or no impact on the future of our cities stands out like a sore thumb to all experienced and capable town and regional planners in South Africa.

Any perceived impact could be considered negative and constraining development rather than making any positive contributions to the future of our cities. The result is that urban and regional planners have sunk to become the bottom feeders in the built environment and city development food chain.

The harsh reality is that the input of urban planners on spatial development is inconsequential or even harmful when viewed in the context of the outcomes and “results” of spatial planning. One can use two examples to illustrate this:

First, the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act (SPLUMA) and spatial development frameworks (SDF’s) are the holy grail of urban planning and the instrument to bring prosperity to our cities. However, it is hard to find a single SDF in South Africa that achieved any of its (and SPLUMA) objectives in even the slightest measure. Instead, spatial planning morphed into a generic guideline-driven compliance exercise with little or no regard to local issues and problems.

Secondly, the value of the urban and regional planner declined to a level where the profession must seek legal protection through agitation for job reservation when it cannot survive based on the value of superior services to its clients and the community at large. Underlying this is “land use planning” relegated to a legal-administrative process requiring little or no planning skills.

The challenges mentioned above highlight the need for weighty introspection by all stakeholders involved in town and regional planning (TRP). This article addresses the issues that may contribute to the low value and inability of town and regional planning to impact our cities’ future positively.

The core issues underlying the current state of TRP are:

1.   Lack of Technical Skills

Work produced by town and regional planners reflects the low quality (qualitative and quantitative) of town and regional planning. There are two reasons for this in our assessment.

The nearly complete lack of technical skills in the armour of town and regional planners is reflected in the team requirements, for example, in Terms of References for SDF’s.

Why should a professional town planner require GIS support?Shouldn’t the town and regional planner be the expert spatial analyst by default or, for that matter, have sufficient understanding and working knowledge of transport planning, economy and infrastructure delivery and finances?

The fact that the technical armoury of the town and regional planner disappeared from their skills base may also be attributed to the fact that “town and regional planners” became “planners“. We lost our identity and focus and started to drift without direction in the process.

Planning is a generic mental activity every person does every day and does not have any conceptual substance and hence, is unfocused. Being a town and regional planner is entirely different; it has meaning, context and focus.

Secondly, low quality of planning is driven and exacerbated by the supremacy of guidelines and then simply following a box-ticking process. The result is often generic, meaningless outcomes ignoring local problems and issues. The guideline-driven process leaves little or no room for innovation in responding to local challenges.

There was a marked decline in the quality of spatial planning documents since the introduction of the SDF Guidelines and the “standardised” TOR in terms of SPLUMA. A skilled and experienced town and regional planner do not require guidelines to do spatial planning.

2.   One cannot plan for things you cannot control or implement

The founding basis of Town and Regional Planning were interventions to improve health conditions in urban communities. But, it has escalated to an all-encompassing desire to control every aspect of urban development and human activities. However, the failure to improve or impact human settlements are always followed by a call for more regulations and interventions. There is never the realisation that you cannot plan for what you cannot implement. For example, the local government in South Africa controls less than 5% of the local economic asset base. Yet, this does not deter the “planner” from developing grandiose plan after plan, setting visions and chasing illusions in a world completely divorced from reality.

3.   The town and regional planner has no understanding of the implications of their actions

South Africa developed an obsession with plans. We present plans as the solution to our problems. However, reality proves time and time again that a plan in itself is meaningless. Nevertheless, if the required outcomes do not materialise, we re-do the plan, or, even better, we introduce a new plan.

We have built layers of plans of all sorts without any meaningful results in the process. The much favoured “outcome-based” approach to planning is plans driven by utopian needs while ignoring the harsh financial, resource and institutional realities.

The depletion and shallowing of planning skills lead to plans that show no proper quantification and analysis of issues. Instead, at best, figures exist as a cut and paste job in a “status quo section” of the plan but often without any bearing on proposals.

If the government exists to deliver services, how can a town and regional planner plan without in-depth knowledge and understanding of municipal infrastructure and services?

It implies the ability to determine the long-term cost implications of a spatial plan. One needs to assess the required capital expenditure requirements (growth, backlogs and asset renewal) and operating consequences thereof against the planning institution’s financial and institutional resource base. Irrespective of the composition and skills base of a spatial planning team, if the town and regional planner doesn’t understand the essence and relationships between infrastructure, finances, the economy and the environment, the plan is doomed from inception.

Currently, spatial planning is a fruitless and wasteful expenditure, as defined by the auditor-general, as it is undertaken without value or substance and does not yield any desired results or outcomes.

4.   As problems deepen, the gallery of cheerleaders grows

Our development challenges are well documented and known. The fact that government and especially municipalities battle with managing urbanisation and meeting the delivery demands escalate planning challenges daily.

However, as these problems grow, the number of planners who can address these challenges decreases. But as the skills base declines, the number of advisors and persons telling others what and how to do planning is rapidly growing.

Micro planning consultancies are mushrooming, and practitioners blindly follow and execute externally induced guidelines, directives and regulations. At the same time, NGO’s driving narrow objectives regardless of broader realities or consequences find comfort in supporting academia who latch onto global issues often irrelevant to local development challenges.

The incapacitated professional bodies and associations that play a diminishing role and are sustained only by legal backing complete the picture.

5.   A confused and mixed up implementation environment

The role players overseeing planning and development in South Africa are the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform (DARDLR) – as custodians of spatial planning, Constitutional Development and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) being responsible for local government, and National Treasury (SANT) holding the purse strings.

Ironically, DARDLR, with no executive relationship with the local government, controls the town and regional planning processes. This relationship with DARDLR must frustrate COGTA in furthering the development of local government and service delivery in just the same vain that SANT ventured into urban planning to further financial controls over municipalities.

The crown jewel in this somewhat confusing institutional setup is the National Department of Housing and its agencies that cut across all spheres of local planning and may prove to be the most significant contributor to unsustainable local government and dysfunctional urban structures in South Africa.

The general picture is bleak and necessitates a fundamental rethink of planning and our town and regional planning approach. Town and regional planning in South Africa is everything but sustainable and integrated.

Our view of what a city is and how to get a population that reap the benefits of economic growth necessitates that we take the opportunity to rethink town and regional planning fundamentally.

There was never a more opportune time to break with the past in terms of archaic planning and land use control practices, rid our system of externally induced and often inappropriate global agendas, and establish our priorities and solutions to our problems.

Unfortunately, inaction may result in town and regional planning being the first profession to disappear in the twenty-first century due to irrelevance and incompetence.

Date: 15 February 2022

By: Burgert Gildenhuys Pr. Pln A/333(1985) MIAM (London)

Director: BC Gildenhuys & Associates and Spatial Data Services Africa

Contact details: 083 450 0077 ∙ or

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels