South Africa’s Urban Infrastructure Challenge

Type Working Paper
Title South Africa’s Urban Infrastructure Challenge
Urbanization has resulted in cities that concentrate into relatively small dense spaces the majority of
people and economic activities. None of this would be possible without extra-ordinary innovations
that connect millions of households, offices, factories, public facilities and retail centres to
infrastructures that deliver the services required for everyday urban living, working and playing.
Energy at the flick of a switch, water on tap, flushing toilets, regular removal of solid waste,
stormwater drains, (usually) tarred roads to every site, public transport of varying quality, food
supplies from the corner store and more recently data communications are all taken for granted. It
becomes impossible to even conceive of a city without these services. We only tend to think about
them when they stop working.
The pipes, drains, cables, sub-stations, water treatment works, landfills, fresh produce markets and
roads that all this depends on are highly complex networked infrastructures managed mainly by
massive public institutions - but also increasingly by private and public-private institutions -
responsible for huge budgets and dependent on the services of large numbers of staff, including
expensive highly trained personnel. Most urban dwellers are unaware of the fact that these
networked urban infrastructures conduct huge flows of natural and manufactured resources that are
often sourced from way beyond the city boundaries. Without the water, energy, food, sewage and
solid wastes that are pumped 24/7 through the infrastructural arteries of the city, city life as we
know it would be completely unviable.
Networked urban infrastructures need to be managed: they must be designed, built, operated and
replaced. Typically, just the energy, waste, water and sanitation are responsible for 10% of gross
geographic product or nearly 50% of the city budget. The idealistic preconception of how these
infrastructures are managed is that the city has a city government which, in turn, has the mandate,
capacity and funds to do the job. In reality, cities may be the spaces where these infrastructures are
concentrated, but this idealistic image of how it all works is very far from the true situation.

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