The story of Joburg’s CBD in post-apartheid SA has been one of various attempts at regeneration in the face of urban decay. These have had differing degrees of success and have suffered assorted setbacks, from the early inner-city developments in Newtown, to the precincts such as Maboneng and Braamfontein, Gandhi Square, 1Fox and several others. The recent launches of Jewel City and Towers Main in the Absa Precinct have ushered in a new phase of development, bringing some much-needed economic diversity to the hipster-heavy earlier models.
A more idiosyncratic take on urban regeneration, in Lorentzville, known as Victoria Yards, recently found itself in the global spotlight. This remarkable development — a 30,000m² derelict former industrial laundry dating to the early 1900s — won top honours at the Urban Land Institute’s inaugural ULI Europe Awards for Excellence, which "recognise outstanding urban development projects". Victoria Yards — launched in 2017 — received the award alongside two much sleeker big-budget counterparts in the Netherlands.
The buildings, next to the Nando’s head office, which spearheaded the revival of the area, were reinvented as a campus of artisanal workshops and artists’ studios. The ground between the buildings was rehabilitated and turned into edible gardens. Markets and events were held, and — though developer Brian Green, who also masterminded 44 Stanley, says such developments are a "slow burn" — it took off. Publicity was good — even Meghan Markle popped in for a visit.
Part of the problem when urban regeneration projects succeed, however, is gentrification: as the area improves, property prices rise and poor residents are forced out. Often this is accompanied by attempts to rebrand precincts, usually to commercialise them more effectively, which can erase an area’s history and alienate existing residents.
Victoria Yards has tried to apply a different model of "gentrification without displacement", as Green puts it. "The way that this development had to work was by engaging with the community."
From the beginning, he says, the development was based on three fundamentals: food security, vocational training (particularly through developing artisanal work) and, most importantly, community engagement. The focus is on the effect the development can have on the existing community. But Green is quite unsentimental about the approach, adamant that it is simply necessary for a venture like this to succeed.
"It’s not a charity," he says. "No-one can sustain a charity of this magnitude, especially when you start small." It has to sustain itself.
A HELPING HAND
By sheer good luck Simon Sizwe Mayson, an urban "enabler" who is working towards an interdisciplinary PhD through the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at Wits University, was looking for opportunities to explore changemaking in the area. "We couldn’t afford to go and pay some social engagement squad," says Green, but he could provide space for Mayson, who was involved in establishing the Makers Valley Partnership (MVP), a nonprofit "focused on boosting social and creative enterprise". Mayson explains that the MVP helps to develop opportunities for artisans and skilled makers in "makers valley", which loosely connects Bezuidenhout Valley, Bertrams, Lorentzville and surrounds.
The MVP raised funds for various initiatives via the likes of the US consulate and the British Council. (Under the hard lockdown, it created a food programme that fed upwards of 11,000 people. Through collaboration with a recycling project, it even created a community "currency" — local residents received tokens for recyclables and food packs were made available through a network of local spaza shops.) Other initiatives include early learning centres and skills development projects.
Mayson points out that the initiatives in Victoria Yards have deliberately focused on "people as infrastructure rather than the hard infrastructure". While he says he initially concentrated on the aesthetics of the neighbourhood, he deliberately backed off from that approach when he realised it was likely to trigger the kind of gentrification that displaces people. His aim, instead, was to help those already in the neighbourhood benefit from the presence of Victoria Yards, in terms of support for their businesses, supply chains and market access.
So he says that, while people might initially see Victoria Yards as a "walled enclave" in a poor neighbourhood, that counterintuitive move actually helps to ensure that the gentrification doesn’t "jump the wall" and start pricing residents out of their own neighbourhood. He says better security and less crime, rather than upgraded aesthetics, improve the quality of life without seeming to drive up property prices.
Mayson says the development has the potential to continue being an asset for the neighbourhood, "but it requires very careful work to make sure that people who live there now are able to access what Victoria Yards has to offer". MVP CEO Thobile Chittenden works to keep its initiatives sustainable, while Mayson explores the possibilities of making the model "scalable" and its potential to be replicated in other areas.
Green, for his part, has found himself sitting on international panels, being invited by the BMW Foundation to advise on community developments in Tunisia, and getting involved in a more secretive project in Italy, also looking at community and economic revitalisation through property development.
Maybe Joburg has happened upon a model that could finally work for the CBD, too.