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Quick wins threaten sustainability

- Schalk Mouton

Sharon Lewis, a city development practitioner and Programme Manager for South Cape at the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, addresses graduates.

South Africa should focus more on long-term projects that would result in better, more sustainable lives and opportunities for its people, than projects that merely provide “ribbon cutting” opportunities for political gain.

That is the opinion of Sharon Lewis, a city development practitioner and Programme Manager for South Cape at the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, who spoke at the graduation ceremony of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment on Thursday, 2 April 2015.

“As a result of the alternating cycles of local and national government elections every two years, we spend a lot of time in the public sector focusing on quick wins, ribbon cutting opportunities and visible delivery,” said Lewis, who in the last five years served as Executive Manager for Planning and Strategy at the Johannesburg Development Agency.

“These are projects with short-lived benefits. For example, in construction projects, short-term job creation opportunities are often given more priority than the support programmes that might result in sustainable construction businesses and enterprise developments.

“In my opinion we should be far more concerned, as built environment professionals, about longer-term projects like energy generation reforming, water security and densifying our cities without raising the cost of living to the exclusion of the poor.”

However, while creating more sustainable solutions for the country, projects such as these take longer to complete and are often invisible to the public eye, so they are often “unpalatable” in the political context.

“As technical experts with an understanding of short-term pain for long-term gain, you need to sharpen your communication skills and provide politicians and business leaders, and sometimes even your families, with the information and tools to make the case for potentially unpopular causes of action for the longer term good,” she said.

While developing cities and infrastructure is “painstakingly slow”, Lewis said that she has no doubt that we are on the right track in South Africa.

“At some point, the whole would add up to more than the sum of the parts, and we will see the long-awaited shift to how people live in our cities,” she said. 

In the 2013 State of the City address, the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg committed the city to a new spatial transformation agenda, through the Corridors of Freedom, and while the real impact of this programme will only be felt long after this mayoral term, there are early signs of the shifts that are possible. These include the demand for housing in the inner city of Johannesburg, new higher density office and residential developments around the Gautrain stations, increasing bicycle activity, and the international response to Johannesburg’s post-democracy tourism offering, said Lewis.

“I am very aware, however, that all of the city development work I have been involved in so far will be meaningless if we cannot run reliable bus and train services.”

But while the built environment is extremely challenging, and the sector has a huge responsibility to create sustainable future for the country, Lewis urged the graduates to always strive to “have fun” in their careers. 

“This is often easier said than done. Work in the built environment is terribly important with serious repercussions