Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines

Urban Renewal Reduces Crime in South African Township

Kristin Palitza

KHAYELITSHA, South Africa, May 19 2010 (IPS) - Neatly paved walkways, regularly spaced streetlamps, well-designed public squares and multi-functional, modern public buildings: this kind of thoughtful town planning is rarely found in South African townships and informal settlements.

But an innovative urban renewal programme in the country’s third largest township, Khayelitsha, has transformed parts of the area – and even helped to reduce crime.

“We have achieved this through community-based planning,” said Michael Krause, team leader of the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) programme, which is run collaboratively by the City of Cape Town, the German Development Bank, the Province of the Western Cape, the South African Treasury and the Khayelitsha Development Forum (KDF).

Participatory planning

Since 2006, staff of the City of Cape Town have been meeting regularly with ward councillors, members of the KDF, community leaders, local business people as well as civil society and faith-based organisations to discuss the best way to upgrade the area.

“Through workshops and public meetings, we listened to what the needs of the community are with regards to safety and violence prevention. That has created buy-in from community members, so that they are willing to help manage the development and make it sustainable,” said Krause.

“We see a sense of ownership and local pride and very little vandalism as a result. The community looks after its new public spaces,” he added.

Initially, community groups identified 24 crime hot spots in Khayelitsha, a township of about 800,000 residents, mainly public walkways and open spaces, schools and ‘no-go areas’ dominated by criminal gangs. They then came up with a community action plan to improve those areas.

Safe nodes

The 53 million dollar, five-year pilot programme included the creation of four “safe nodes” in crime hot spots Harare, Kuyasa, Site C/TR section and Site B of Khayelitsha.

Each “safe node” area has a multi-purpose public building, which is well-lit at night and contains a caretaker flat, meeting rooms or office spaces, public toilets and a room for community policing units, where residents who feel threatened can run to and seek help.

“Now, people can safely walk from the train station to their homes, on a proper walkway, lit by streetlamps,” explained Krause. Before, the path leading from the station into the township was a dark, unpaved footpath, where criminals waited for commuters to pass on their way home. Robberies, rapes and violence were frequent.

Local residents have welcomed the development.

“It is very different to go to the [train] station now. There were too many tsotsis [criminals], but now everything is good,” agreed Happiness Mamfenguza, a 36-year-old unemployed mother who lives in Harare.

“There is still crime, but it’s not too bad. I feel more comfortable walking around.”

Her only concern is that there is no playground near her house where her three children can play safely outdoors.

Residents like Mamfenguza also feel safer because more than 200 volunteer community members, trained by VPUU, now patrol the streets at night to help local police units tackle crime. One of the patrollers is Mthetheleli Mantyontya from Peace Park in Khayelitsha.

“We look after the area. Peace Park used to be a no-go area, but now it has been turned into a safe place to walk and a well-used public space. We captured lots of dangerous weapons in the beginning.”

Working with police

Well-coordinated collaboration with local police units is key to the fight against crime. “We have a very good working relationship with the street patrollers. We get a lot of assistance from them, which helps us do our work,” confirmed Khayelitsha police station commander Aaron Mlenga.

VPUU staff claim their programme led to a 20 percent decrease in violent crime between April 2008 and March 2009, while the township’s murder rate dropped by a third in the same time period.

Although these numbers match official police statistics for Khayelitsha, but Mlenga is a bit more cautious about celebrating success: “We continue to struggle to address crime. The numbers vary drastically from month to month.”

Wide range of improvements

The VPUU programme has meant a major upgrade for the area, and a library, youth centre, safe house, playground, sport fields and spaces for informal traders are planned.

In addition, several non-governmental organisations that offer services to address gender-based and domestic violence and access to justice have strengthened their presence in Khayelitsha, encouraged by VPUU. Residents have made good use of those services already. Within the last year, 548 people have used legal aid, while 483 people have demanded protection orders in the first quarter of 2010.

“The programme is an innovative response to a social issue through focusing on consensus-based decision making,” says Stacey-Leigh Joseph, policy researcher at urban development research organisation Isandla Institute.

“It shows how a built environment needs to take people and social factors into consideration. We want to give people liveable spaces and dignity. The programme’s achievements prove that where people live influences their behaviour,” she added.

A successful urban renewal programme today, Krause admits that its implementation wasn’t always easy: “Having lots of different decision makers and trying to find consensus makes implementation a challenge.” It takes much longer to come up with a feasible plan that makes both city officials and community happy, while also meeting budgetary requirements.

It took the programme from 2006, when it was initiated, until May 2009 to open the first “safe nodes”. But the outcome is much more people-friendly and sustainable urban development. Says Krause: “That makes it worth it. Together we can do more.”

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