Image of Modderfontein New City plans. Image from
Image of Modderfontein New City plans. Image from Future Cape Town

Digitized imaginings of new cities and their effects on rights to the city

Cities are alive. In the same way that bodies renew themselves by creating new cells, so are buildings, streets and whole areas refurbished, and gentrified to fit middle class standards of city living. Architectural plans and city mapping has been digitized to allow for life-like images of future spaces. In Africa this is often tied in with conversations about the continent being the “last frontier” for international property development. Dubai, Shanghai and Singapore, which claim top positions in the world-class city leagues, are seen as inspiration to revise African cities. Adding to this, is the idea of satellite cities which exist just outside of established major cities. Tatu City in Nairobi is an example of a planned new city. Adorned in the rhetoric of “world class cities”, “smart cities” and “eco-cities”, upon closer inspection these digital imaginings of future cities bring to light questions of what urban living means, and who is assumed to be the inhabitants of these spaces.

Bringing the conversation closer to home, Hallmark House in Maboneng, Johannesburg, transformed by Jonathan Liebmann of Propertuity and London-based architect David Adjaye, has been described as “representing the start of a new chapter in the story of African architecture”. Offering a curated lifestyle, this building along with the other buildings in the Jeppestown area that have been redone by Propertuity, provides an opening for middle class inhabitants to ignite a new collective imaginary for Johannesburg’s inner city.

Modderfontein New City presents another vision for city life in Gauteng and is planned to come to fruition in 2060. Land now owned by Chinese development firm Zendai Group has been digitally transformed into a “smart city”. In addition to it  being promoted with benefits such as reducing traffic, 10 000 new homes, and the potential to improve economic potential in the area, it also holds a new vision for urban living. These digitized imaginings of future cities or satellite cities have increased the price of land and properties in their proposed spaces of development.

Digital image of Modderfontein New City

Attached to these new imaginaries of architectural development and urban living are imaginings of who will occupy these spaces, and in what capacity they will be present. David Harvey (2008) explores the idea when he discusses the concept of a collective right to the city. Harvey quotes urban sociologist Robert Park in stating that:

“man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” (in Harvey 2008: 1)

Harvey continues his probing by unpacking the questions that this quote gives rise to. These questions refer to what kind of people we want to be, what social relations we wish to nurture, and what aesthetic values to we hold. The problem, of course, is Harvey’s assumption that there is a homogeneous ‘we’. However, it does bring to the point how these new imaginings of architecture and urban living present a certain kind of person having access to “the city” while those without the economic means or shared aesthetic values do not. Therefore, a bigger examination needs to be had when thinking about whose “heart’s desire” is dictating collective or individual city imaginaries and what urban living means.

Digital image of Modderfontein New City

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