Case Examples

Spotlight: Africa


Project Spotlight
Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, South Africa

Abstracted from:
Report on the Interactive Planning Workshop for Johannesburg,
Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council, September 27-30, 2000.


Description of township
Problems and Recommendations

  • Rehabilitation of Infrastructure (Sewerage, other services, co-ordination)
  • Tributaries
  • River Banks
  • Backyard Shacks
  • Relocation of Families (Densities and Standards)
  • Surrounding Industrial Areas

• Immediate Actions for Alexandra
Lessons for other projects for the urban poor


The township of Alexandra (Alex) was established in 1912 and is close to the center of Johannesburg. It covers an area of over 800 ha (including east bank) and its infrastructure was designed for a population of about 70,000. Current population estimates vary widely and have been put at figures ranging from 180,000 to 750,000. Its original stands of size of 500-600 sq.m are characterized by sizeable houses of reasonable stock but usually with 3 – 6 additional separate rooms built in the original gardens, each usually housing an additional family who rent from the main householder. The additional rental units, which provide a significant income to the main householder, are termed “backyard shacks” although many are of brick or block construction of reasonable quality. There are an estimated 20,000 shacks of which approximately 7,000 are located in “backyards”.


The significant, unplanned population has overloaded the infrastructure such that water pressures are low and sewers frequently block and overflow. Maintenance of such systems is very difficult because the high densities and congested nature of the backyard shack development makes access for maintenance very difficult or impossible in places.

In addition to backyard shack development, since the repealing of the apartheid laws, which restricted movement for the black population, there has been considerable population increase in Alexandra from within South Africa and from neighboring countries seeking employment opportunities. This has resulted in not only overcrowding in hostels but also in informal settlements developed on the Jukskei river banks and its three tributaries which pass through Alex. There are an estimated 7,500 households living in these areas at very high densities with poor services, in very poor environmental conditions, and in danger from flooding.

Alex falls within the jurisdiction of the Eastern Metropolitan Local Council (EMLC) although this will change with formation of the proposed new unitary authority. Services are currently the responsibility of various sections of the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council (GMJC) Technical Services Department but separate utility organizations are to be established during the reorganization.

Problems and Recommendations
• Rehabilitation of Infrastructure: Sewerage


  • Overloaded System:
    Due to the fact that the originally developed area of Alex has now a population probably in excess of 4 times the number for which it was designed the waterborne sewerage system has become overloaded and thus frequently blocks and surcharges.
  • Poor Access for Maintenance:
    The formal residential stands and houses that were built on them were designed for single family living. Backyard shacks now cover the area of most such stands. Structures have been built over sewer lines and manholes that has made access for maintenance impossible in most cases without requiring some demolition of structures.
  • Poor Sanitation Facilities for Informal Clusters:
    The informal areas built on the riverbanks and tributaries are not connected to the formal waterborne sewerage system and are served by banks of chemical toilets. These are not only unpleasant to use but are costly for the EMLC to service. In addition because the banks of toilets are placed on the periphery of the informal clusters, because of space constraints within the areas and because of the threat of crime, dwellers do not venture out in the night to use the facilities. Hence overnight containerization of wastewater is required which is disposed of next day.


  • New Interceptor Sewers:
    As a first step to overcome the general overloading of the sewerage system a concept currently being considered, and investigated by consultants engaged by the “sewerage section” of the Technical Services Department of GMJC, is to divide Alex into three sewerage zones and to construct new interceptor sewers for each zone which will connect to a new outfall sewer carrying sewage off of the site to the bulk sewerage system. The interceptor sewers would be designed such that they could in total take up to approximately 750,000 (to be confirmed by consultants studies). This possible “over-sizing” will be to ensure adequate capacity (the marginal cost of reasonable over-sizing of a pipeline is small compared with future possible future abandonment and relaying). This would seem to be a pragmatic way forward in sewer rehabilitation planning for Alex. although efforts should be made to determine the existing population more accurately. Reasonably up to date aerial photography is available as a basis for this. In addition to consideration of the new interceptor sewers (secondary system) consideration will also need to be given to the tertiary system (connections from stands and groups of stands) which must be equally overloaded.
  • Improve Backyard Shack Sewerage Arrangements:
    If sewer blockages are to be minimized in the future, and if sewers are to be maintained, there would appear to be little alternative to improving both backyard shack configurations and sewer alignments.
  • Alternatives to Chemical Toilets:
    The EMLC is currently constructing some new ablution blocks in Alex. and there would appear to be a need for further toilet blocks or other sanitation options to replace the existing separate banks of chemical toilets which give a poor level of service at a high management cost.

Photo: Carrying Water

Problems and Recommendations
• Rehabilitation of Infrastructure: Other Services


  • Low Water Pressure:
    Because of the high population there is a demand for water which exceeds system design capacity. This results in low pressures at peak times.
  • Dangerous Electrical Connections:
    There appear to be many illegal connections to the electricity supply system. Sub-stations are insecure and present a considerable danger to children with easy access available (e.g. doors to metal ground level units open) where it appears that “hotwiring” has occurred.


  • Improvements to Water Supply Main:
    Consideration is being given by GMJC to the laying of a new supply line into Alex to increase quantity and pressure and it is understood that consultants are to be appointed to plan and design a rehabilitation program. It would be important to ensure that those planning and designing sewerage system rehabilitation liase closely with those designing the water supply system rehabilitation. Ideally planning and design would be more efficient and easier to co-ordinate if carried out by the same team. To reduce the possibility of future illegal tapings of any new pressure mains, consideration should be given to laying them at greater depths and/or other means of protection (e.g. covering top of pipes with concrete slabs before backfilling).
  • Install More Secure Transformer/Sub-stations:
    Consideration should be given to the provision of more secure, heavy-duty sub-stations. The feasibility of providing some form of pole-mounted transformers is an option that could be considered.



Problems and Recommendations
• Rehabilitation of Infrastructure: Co-ordination


  • Compartmentalized Responsibility:
    Service planning and delivery (e.g. water, sewer, roads and storm drainage, electricity) rests with a number of different departments and thus delivery can lead to inefficiencies unless there is substantial co-ordination at all stages of the project planning, budgeting and implementation cycle.


  • Improve Co-ordination Arrangements:
    In planning and implementing infrastructure upgrading works covering a number of sub-sectors in heavily populated dense areas international experience has shown that; a) planning and carrying out the works together better ensures compatibility of proposals; b) enables works to be carried out more quickly; c) avoids continued disruption to the beneficiary communities due to service improvements being carried out at different times, and; d) is less costly. Service delivery is now through different Council departments and in future will be through a mix of councils departments and utility organizations, depending on the service. The compartmentalized responsibilities require that much attention is given to the co-ordination of service rehabilitation planning and implementation activities. To better ensure adequate co-ordination, consideration should be given to the proposed new “Strategic Planning Unit” of the GMJC, or perhaps a similar unit at each of the new regional manager levels, being responsible for co-ordinating integrated infrastructure/service improvements. It should have the power of bringing local government departments and the utility organizations together in the planning and implementation of schemes. This would apply, not only for individual projects, but also for general programming to ensure project budget is available.
  • Involve Communities:
    Recognizing the importance of the communities and involving them at key stages of project planning and implementation of upgrading initiatives further reduces the possibility of continued disruption in communities during an upgrading project. The use of contractors formed out of the community will assist in the co-ordination as well as providing employment opportunities.


Problems and Recommendations
• Tributaries


  • Extremely high density, poor access and services:
    Over the past nine years thousands of shacks have been built over and adjacent to the three tributaries. These areas are extremely dense with only tortuous, narrow access, few communal water points and banks of chemical toilets on the peripheries of the settlements. Some have electricity supply which appears to have been connected illegally. One-room dwellings almost completely cover the tributary areas. Narrow (less than 1 m wide footpaths that wind haphazardly through the shacks provide the only access and water drain-off. Occasional storm drainage grates and standpipes provide the only services. Densities likely exceed 1000 persons per hectare in these settlements.
  • Tributaries Blocked and Polluted:
    The tributaries (natural streams) have, in places, been piped and a number of concrete aprons and gullies have been constructed over them to which the communal water points drain. The gullies are choked with garbage and the tributaries appear to be substantially blocked. Maintenance is difficult and capacity constrained by the built-upon drains.


  • Minimize Relocation:
    Relocation is needed, but should be based only on the need to improve access to shacks as well as to the tributaries for maintenance and to be able to provide basic service improvements NOT the wholesale clearance of the areas.
  • Maximize Re-blocking and in-situ Development:
    With innovative planning and re-blocking (e.g. realignment of property boundaries into small narrow stands configured for row-housing and/or selective adoption of two story walk up apartment units), use may be made of much of the areas on each side of the tributaries (see illustrative diagram attached).
  • Improve Temporary Sanitation Solutions:
    To eliminate the chemical toilets various other arrangements to improve sanitation for the areas (e.g. communal toilets connected to the sewers) should be considered.
  • Divert Some Storm-water Flow Along Streets:
    To reduce flows in the tributaries at storm times, which will reduce flooding risks, the possibility of modifying storm-water drainage arrangements, such as diverting some flows along streets, or into underground storm drains along the streets with appropriate out-falls at the river, should be considered.
  • Convert Tributaries to Combined Sewers:
    Given that parts of the tributaries are already piped and that grey water (and household refuse) is already being discharged to them which leads to blockages and pollution of the river consideration should be given to converting the sewers to “combined sewers”, connecting them to the sewerage system. The sewers would be designed such that only storm overflows would discharge to the river. With improved access better arrangements for refuse containerization and collection would be possible.

Photo: Kids crossing river

Problems and Recommendations
• River Banks


  • Informal Settlements Below Flood Line:
    Many of those shacks (+-3000 families) constructed along the banks of the Juskei river are in danger in times of flood (e.g. early 2000). Relocation of all those below appropriate flood lines (formerly for a 50-year return storm but recently increased by Government to a 100-year return storm) would appear to be unavoidable.
  • Pollution of River:
    The settlements along the banks are also significant polluters of the river.


  • Relocate to East Bank Developments:
    Those to be relocated should be resettled on the east bank, NOT to remote locations which would likely lead to their return. The land presently reserved for the K206 road would be an appropriate relocation site for Alex.
  • Protect Cleared Areas:
    As part of the relocation plan, arrangements should be put in place immediately for the areas that are cleared to protect the areas and to avoid further squatting. The proposals, as set out in the report on the “Jukskei River Upgrade Initiative” – August 2000 by GMJC should be considered. Recreational areas, service roads, and the proposed zonal interceptor sewer alignments are future functional uses for the west bank.

Problems and Recommendations
• Backyard Shacks


  • Backyard Shacks are Illegal:
    The backyard shacks which have been developed on the formal housing plots have been developed without compliance with planning and building code norms and have made servicing and maintenance very difficult.
  • Backyard Shacks Place Strain Utilities and Infrastructure:
    Because infrastructure and utilities were designed for single family per plot living (say 6 persons) and now up to six families (20 persons) can occupy each plot inevitable strains are placed on infrastructure and services causing capacity and blockage problems.


  • Program for Legalization:
    It would not be prudent, efficient or acceptable to attempt to remove the backyard shacks. It would seem sensible if they were formally legalized. This would demonstrate to landlords and tenants that government would not be attempting to remove them in the future thus encouraging families to invest more in the structures.
  • Program for Backyard Improvements:
    Once shacks were legalized programs could be developed with landlords to improve backyard conditions. Re-blocking of shack schemes to achieve more efficient and healthy layouts, which would aim to permit access to services for maintenance, and micro-credit schemes are possible elements of such programs.


Problems and Recommendations
• Relocating Families (Densities and Standards)


  • Current Standards and Service Levels Are Costly and Waste Land:
    Requirements for high levels of infrastructure service (e.g. individual water connection, waterborne sewerage, paved roads etc.) bear no relation to the affordability of the beneficiaries (both in capital and running cost terms) and are thus very costly for government as little or no capital contributions are made (subsidy schemes) and payment of bills for user charges is poor. In addition, the requirements for minimum plot size (250 sq.m), and hence low densities, which do not relate to people’s ability to pay and for the provision of full service, both factors influencing payment of housing subsidies by government have distorted planning and development of housing schemes. Such schemes are thus not only costly but also very wasteful on the use of scarce urban land.
  • Low Densities (large stands encourage unplanned backyard shacks):
    An argument may be made that large plots and thus low densities actually invite the fortunate beneficiary to invest in construction of unplanned backyard shacks to provide rental income.


  • Special Development Zones:
    The relaxation of long-established planning and engineering standards by responsible authorities is difficult to achieve in the short terms and may not be feasible. Consideration should thus be given to creating “Special Development Zones” which permit relaxed standards in the interest of trying and testing new standards and modes of development, promote more efficient land use, provide only services that people need (functional standards), and thus reduce costs. Arrangements to monitor and evaluate the workings of such zones would be established as part of the requirements for their establishment.
  • Small Scale:
    In trying alternative approaches it would be prudent to test these on a small scale to begin with and to monitor and evaluate their success before embarking on their settlement wide use.
  • High Densities.
    Provided developments are carefully planned, high densities need not be a problem causing environmental, health and access to services (for maintenance) problems. Problems and waste occur when land and services are provided which people do not really need for themselves and cannot pay for.
  • Planning for Backyard Rental Units.
    Rental income is socially desirable and should be encouraged. However, the issue is whether this is done in a planned or an unplanned manner in new schemes and in relocation areas. It is possible to design backyard rental units into new schemes from the beginning. This would result in higher planned densities in these schemes with infrastructure designed accordingly. In addition to providing income for plot owners, it would result in better use of scarce urban land, and would, importantly, cater to the currently suppressed demand for rental accommodation.
  • Designing Schemes with Choices for beneficiaries.
    Low-income beneficiary families are of different sizes, have different incomes and have different needs. Offering choices ranging from very small to larger plots, and with or without planned backyard units would seem to be desirable. The prices charged should be based on the value of the unit. Subsidies should be proportional to income with the most needy families and larger families being eligible for greater subsidies. Subsidies could also be designed to encourage savings by matching some already established savings plan.
  • Land on Far East Bank:
    The presently “sterilized” strip of land which is the alignment for the proposed K-206 road (and which many would argue is not required given existing and other possible major road improvements in the area) would be ideal for relocation of displaced families from Alex. This could be developed at higher densities than the current norms and at appropriate functional standards and thus house all families needing to be relocated from Alex plus others.

Problems and Recommendations
• Surrounding Industrial Areas.


  • Building Decay:
    Many of the industrial buildings surrounding Alex are in disrepair, empty or have been illegally occupied and are being used as shelter.


  • Regeneration:
    Schemes to revitalize industry around Alex utilizing the existing buildings in order to create employment opportunities and/or for the conversion/redevelopment of the buildings as housing units (requiring a change in land use zoning) should be considered.

Immediate Actions for Alexandra

  • Develop a prioritized integrated action plan with a timeline for the proposed Alex interventions.
  • Prepare a relocation plan for river bank dwellers which involves higher densities than past norms and which involves a variety of plot sizes and which might include some planned backyard rental units.
  • Prepare model designs for possible reblocking/redevelopment on tributaries.
  • Investigate possibility (legality) of the establishment of “special development zones”.
  • Investigate possibility of National Roads Agency releasing land (and changing land use zoning) for K-206 alignment to permit relocation of remainder of families from riverbank.

Lessons for other projects for the urban poor

Alexandra in many ways is a prototype for strategies, approaches and actions that could be applied in other parts of Greater Metropolitan Johannesburg. Some include:

The use of “special development zones” (SDZs) designated as areas in which to introduce alternative, more appropriate planning, design and regulatory norms. These zones would allow for testing and demonstrating effective and least-cost ways of adopting to the needs and preferences of residents, increasing the efficiency of land use, and for producing innovative and lower cost housing types/options. SDZs can serve to compare and monitor alternative development and maintenance costs and should lead to better informed decisions on city-wide land use, zoning, and development guidelines. Therefore demonstration plans in SDZs should be accompanied by a monitoring and evaluation system that would produce recommendations for updating policies and standards.

Introduce cost related to affordability in selection of standards. Given the huge demand for new low cost housing, relocation plans, and the scale of in situ upgrading needed in the GJMA plus the need to plan for the eventual elimination of large subsidies, cost reduction in all new actions are called for. These financial and land constraints are best addressed by testing and adopting new performance-based functional standards on a city-wide basis that maximize land use and minimize infrastructure investment and maintenance.

Introduce more choice in new schemes on vacant land and in relocation sites. Recognize that family circumstances, and family needs vary. Some families are small, some are larger. Cost savings might be achieved by offering more choice to beneficiaries, and by charging families in proportion to the value of plot received.

Introduce planned backyard rental units. Backyard rental units seem to be culturally accepted as a means of obtaining extra income. By planning for such schemes for families that may choose this option, densities will be increased and infrastructure can be properly planned. Also the currently unmet demand for rental units can be addressed.

Integrated approach to service planning and delivery, should be standard practice in in-situ upgrading areas, re-blocking, relocation, and new land release/development programs. By integrating and synchronizing the design and implementation of the various service networks, efficiencies, and minimized implementation disruption can be achieved.

Development of relocation strategies, guidelines and plans. Having city-wide strategies and guidelines for handling relocation needs can help plan and carry out site specific actions when needed. It can also help estimate and plan for the resources needed over time. Principles for relocation could be defined and made public. These might include policies about minimizing relocation, community cost recovery principles, land tenure policies, priorities for near-by relocation, etc., and could be specified in a general policy paper with related guidelines for application (see, for example, the World Bank guidelines for voluntary relocation in projects). An accompanying strategy paper could help outline short-and medium-term estimates of households that will need to be accommodated in specific areas of the city and the land requirements for doing so in differing sectors of the city. This would help set priorities for land use, land acquisition needs, and help estimate the cost/subsidies needed. It would also help define a timeline for implementation in synchronization with the various housing actions over time. The plan should also introduce a “menu” of options for relocation.


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