Thinking about the future of our cities on the Gautrain

A few weeks ago I attended a food security seminar at the Sustainability week conference in Pretoria. I took the Gautrain to Pretoria and wrote a few reflections about what I observed on the train:

There is nothing like an early winter morning ride on the Gautrain from Johannesburg to Pretoria to remind you of how unequal our society is.

The excitement of a new day as people run down escalators in the station only to stand next to each other in silence, waiting on the platform for the next train. Earplugs in, eyes on the screen.

Seated on the train I look out the window at the sun rising.

Long lines of cars, that look like snakes in the traffic.

All these are people trying to go somewhere but are moving very slowly.

Endless rows of complex housing developments, this is our attempt at high-density living.

The open spaces that remain are occupied by waste collectors. Large heaps of plastic and cardboard separated into messy piles.

Smoke from an early morning fire and signs of life from a few bodies standing around it.

Further along, sand and earth is removed to make way for new office and industrial parks. The excavations look a bit like the landscape of a different planet.

Construction underway for a new development

As we pass Marlboro station and cross over the Jukskei river below, pieces of colourful plastic clinging to branches and the river banks.

Closer Pretoria I look back towards Joburg. The high rise buildings of Sandton are on the right while the CBD is on the left, slightly behind.

It’s like I’ve come down from Google Maps satellite view into Google Earth but am still high enough to see things in perspective.

The massive urban sprawl is overwhelming. So many people choosing to live in this part of the country because of better opportunities.

And hanging over our heads is a thick brown layer of smog. Not light brown like the colour of the milk in a cappuccino when the foam melts but brown like a dairy milk chocolate – you know, the plain one.

Air pollution in Gauteng is very noticeable in winter

This is the air we breathe in every day and in winter it’s a lot more noticeable.

John Ikerd, an American Professor of agricultural economics, writes prolifically about sustainability and the economy. He defines sustainability as the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future.

Looking out of the window on the Gautrain, I wonder, can we plan for sustainable development in our cities for the future without destroying the health and safety of our cities?

What will our cities look like in the next 20 years?

Will there be as much smog?

Will people living out in the open in harsh environments be accommodated for in affordable housing?

Will there still be so much litter on the banks of the Jukskei?

I hope not.

My view is that as humankind we have to think more deeply about our relationship with the environment and what we want our cities to look like in the future. By thinking about this we can start to inspire, demand and make the choices needed for a safer, cleaner environment for the future.

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