Australia, England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa Economy and regeneration , Housing and planning , Welfare and equalities

Densification and its objectors in Johannesburg



What are the reasons and objectives behind the drive for densification in South African cities generally and Johannesburg specifically? This briefing describes the policies to achieve densification in the city, why they have engendered animosity from resident groups and how the city is handling these objections.

Briefing in full


Urban densification has been recognised as a key mechanism for achieving a range of social, economic and environmental goods. The Sustainable Development Goals coupled with the New Urban Agenda note that many cities across the world are sprawling, making functional access difficult, especially for poorer and more marginalised urban residents. The UN-Habitat Monitoring Framework for SDG 11, the so-called urban SDG, argues that “Addressing the mobility challenge calls for a paradigm shift in urban planning, encouraging compact cities and mixed-land use as a way to increase accessibility and to reduce the need for transportation altogether”. In addition, there is much evidence to suggest that higher density neighbourhoods make for more efficient cities, offering a number of benefits of agglomeration, including higher threshold populations for public transport and services, more walkable spaces, and more intense land use. In doing so, the costs of sprawl, that include expensive infrastructure and service provision, maintenance and urban management as well as increased carbon footprints, are mitigated.

South Africa has seen many of the effects of sprawl, due in large part to a historical legacy of spatial planning that actively promoted racial segregation. Colonial and later apartheid spatial policy pushed what was intended to be cheap black labour to the margins of the various cities into what were called “locations” and “townships”. These were constructed as dormitory towns with little in the way of social amenity and due to the command and control nature of the state, were placed far away from the main economic hubs. By contrast, the “white” suburbs were developed to very high standards, with large plots for single dwellings, and with almost every suburb supplied with schools, parks, recreation facilities and so forth. Over time these were complemented with numerous privately supplied schools, shopping malls, and other amenities that offer a very high quality of life. Despite numerous attempts and significant investment in many of the townships and informal settlements, the contrast between the various parts of these urban centres remains stark, obdurate and difficult to tackle. The spatial concerns have been wedded to reduction in manufacturing and extremely slow economic growth at both national and city-scales. Unemployment rates are high, approaching 30% with even higher rates for the youth and continued inequality in the ownership land, and private businesses. According to UN-Habitat’s 2016 report this has meant that South Africa holds the unfortunate title of having the most unequal city in the world, Johannesburg.

The map below demonstrates the mismatch between residential density and job density – suggesting the need for large commuting distances



The South African state, comprised of three mutually re-enforcing but autonomous spheres of government: national, provincial and local/municipal is aware of these dynamics and has actively pushed policy and programmatic responses. There has as a consequence been some spatial and economic shifts, with the rise of what has been seen as a black middle class and middle income and high income areas have seen some of the largest demographic shifts. Racial changes are marked with suburbs becoming become more racially diverse, however the economic and income profiles have remained very much the same, retaining identities of affluence. The cities edges have continued to sprawl, due to three drivers: the location of informal settlements to the edges and the provision of public housing in large scale settlements, both of which are due to the relatively low land costs and land availability at the edge; and then at the other end of the income spectrum, the construction of high-end golfing and so-called “eco-estates”. These are walled off, segregated and highly securitised, housing estates offering elite residents, all manner of facilities, such as schools, offices, recreation facilities and off-grid power and water solutions. The combination of these three typologies has pushed the boundaries of many cities in the country.

Densification: key definitions of terms

Urban density can be measured in numerous ways and needs to be clarified to ensure that policy and programmatic approaches will ensure the desired outcome.

“The definition of density and how it is measured is important, because interpretations can lead to wildly varying design approaches.” (Kucharek, 2006).

Furthermore, the term is slightly ambiguous as it can refer to the number of people or the number of built forms or it can be a ratio. The following offer a few definitions to assist with understanding what is at stake and under discussion.

  • Building density refers to the number of housing units or built forms per hectare.
  • Residential density or dwelling unit density, as the name implies, considers the number of units used for residential purposes per hectare.
  • Occupation density measures the number of people living within a unit.
  • Population density combines residential density with occupation density by multiplying the approximate household size with the number of units, to give the number of people per hectare.

Population density is not necessarily related purely to housing or building typologies, as multi-storey buildings may provide high built form or residential density but may be sparsely occupied as seen in very high income areas, conversely free-standing units may be shared and sub-let and so may disguise high occupation densities. There are also no internal standards for what constitutes, high, medium or low densities or perhaps most importantly, what constitutes overcrowding.

Such metrics are context specific thus what is considered high density in cities of North America may be considered medium or even low densities in space-scarce and highly populated urban environments in South East Asia. Furthermore, gross densities are not considered very good at measuring the physical or social quality and design of a building, neighbourhood, or city. In addition, there is the question of perceived density, in which the physical layout, design and overall aesthetic influences how people perceive or react to densities. Questions of what the appropriate densities are and what constitutes overcrowding directly affect the response of pre-existing communities to planned densification and the responses that they evoke.

Urban Densification: what have SA and Johannesburg been doing?

South Africa has a large and relatively well-capacitated government infrastructure and as indicated earlier on one that is fully aware of the challenges facing the country at all scales. In order to attempt to address many of these issues, the former President, Jacob Zuma, established the National Planning Commission in 2010, composed of sector experts, the idea was to first diagnose and then put in place a national plan to take the country forward until 2030. Nine pillars were addressed ranging from education, health and social protection. In this discussion, the most important was Chapter 8, “Transforming Human Settlements”. Amongst a host of recommendations to re-shape the country and the cities spatial configurations the National Development Plan (NDP) suggested:

  • Promote spatial planning and land use management legislative reform:
  • Legislation on land-use management, as required by the Constitutional Court, needs to pave the way for a thorough review of the planning system. By 2016 further legislation should be presented to Parliament to address cross-cutting aspects of spatial planning, which will facilitate simpler, more efficient decision-making on development applications.
  • Strengthen the link between public transportation and land use management with the introduction of incentives and regulations to support compact mixed-use development within walking distance of transit stops and prioritise higher density housing along transit routes.
  • Incentivise new housing developments to include a proportion of affordable housing

At roughly the same time that the NDP was being developed other forces were at play, including the development of a coherent national Spatial Land Use Management Act (SPLUMA). This was in response to both highly fragmented apartheid land use management tools that had differentiated standards based on race and early post-Apartheid policies, which had confused which sphere of government was responsible for local planning. The solution seemed to be a coherent national act, a: “cohesive spatial planning and land use management system for the entire country and is applicable to all spheres of government” (Nel, 2016, pg. 80). It is also an intentionally normative piece of legislation that deliberately seeks to ensure spatial justice, inclusionary development and equity, amongst a host of other prescriptions.

Although Johannesburg had been focusing on questions of inclusion and compaction for a long time, SPLUMA and the NDP offered a nationally supportive context. As such, there were two immediate responses to SPLUMA within the City of Johannesburg (CoJ). The first was the development and pronouncement of a new Land Use Scheme and the second was the promulgation of an inclusionary housing policy. In keeping with the principles of SPLUMA and the demand for coherent planning, the new Land Use Scheme came into effect in 2018 and replaced the 16 different town planning schemes previously in operation. In addition, it sets out the various “Use Zones” that are applicable to land and buildings and describes and lists the purpose for which the land and buildings may and may not be used as well as specifies the general conditions applicable to all plots within the City.

One form of inclusionary development and in line with the principles of land value captured discussed in SPLUMA is inclusionary housing. The Act makes it clear that there is an expectation that mechanisms and instruments should be put in place to ensure that inclusionary housing becomes a reality. It does put the onus on provincial government to do so but it has interestingly been some of the larger metros that have responded with Cape Town and Johannesburg leading the way.

Johannesburg has floated the idea of inclusionary housing at least twice before but has never been able to get it passed by the local council. Given that inclusionary housing is the insistence that in all new developments a portion is set aside for the “affordable” housing market, this has always been a contentious policy direction. However, once national government had agreed to the principles of the NDP and promulgated SPLUMA, the CoJ and some very active and progressive bureaucrats, decided that they had the support they needed to push a local inclusionary housing policy. At the beginning of 2019, after much discussion both internally within the City and with the private sector developers, financial institutions and other stakeholders, the City passed its own inclusionary housing policy whereby it would incentivise private developers to dedicate a minimum of 30 per cent of their total units to inclusionary housing when building 20 or more dwelling units.

A further process, which was partially in response to SPLUMA but also as a consequence of the demand spelt out in the City’s Spatial Development Framework, called for a Nodal Review. As a consequence, of the requirements of the city to become more compact, better integrated and to ensure that there is less separation between home and work especially for the poor, the Nodal Review identifies areas, or nodes, which can be densified and land use intensified. It further offers a nuanced and differentiated approach so that each node across the city was examined and a clear set of potential and possible interventions identified.

The combination of the new Land Use Scheme, the Inclusionary Housing Policy and the Nodal Review, were all quite consciously attempting to drive densification, construct more socially and economically integrated areas, reduce exclusion and find ways to overall deal with the most pressing spatial disparities and inequities of the City. However, these laudable ideals have been highly controversial. The next section notes some of the controversy.

Residents’ response: conflict, contestation, control

Residents of many of the higher income suburbs have objected to almost of these policies over time. One of the first experiments with Inclusionary Housing was part of the “Corridors of Freedom” project, called Paterson Park and sought to locate affordable units within a larger private public partnership housing development. The housing development was on public land, close to one of the proposed Transit Oriented Development Corridors and BRT routes. The local residents association on behalf of a small group of residents objected to the proposed development flooding the council with over 600 objection letters and forcing them to meet repeatedly.

Proposed densification along one of the TOD corridors in another area also led two of the members of the Residents Association to work closely with the City and “assist” them in their decision-making. Other residents have attempted to engage closely with the City, offering their own professional plans to counter some of the planned densifications. There have also been numerous threats of litigation from both private developers threatening to litigate over the constitutionality of the Inclusionary Housing Policy and residents threaten to take the city to court over a number of real and imagined infringements.

Of late, there has been a more vociferous objection and litigious approach to all three policies, led by two private sector lawyers. They have distributed a number of “bulletins” to Residents Associations in the northern suburbs, which plays on many of the fears of residents. These fears were reinforced at a public meeting that they recently held, in which they “explored” the CoJ’s policies and had some biased experts on board to explain the policies. They offered the City a few minutes to respond in what had been choreographed to be a very hostile environment. However, after the officials left they have continued to cast doubt on the City’s competence and intentions, and suggesting that a new city-wide body, called JUST for Suburban Residents, to collectively raise funds and represent the interests of residents and challenge these policies in court.

The objections to all of the policies may be seen as a form of NIMBY-ism a fear of new and “different” people inhabiting these suburbs. On the one hand, there are degrees of racism due to the high coincidence of race and class in South Africa. On the other, there is a concern that densification will change the nature of these suburbs, densifying them through the new provision that properties could have two auxiliary units, the drive towards higher density and mixed use zones, and what has been seen as the potential “informalisation” of areas since the requirements for certain types of home based enterprises have been relaxed. The residents justify their objections by arguing that these changes will bring down their property prices and reduce the value of their investments. The residents have also objected to the public participation processes arguing that they have been procedurally unjust.

Responding to conflict: the City of Johannesburg

The City of Johannesburg takes seriously its commitment to meaningful engagement and public participation as outlined in a number of pieces of litigation including the South African Constitution. As such, when objections have been forthcoming, they have often agreed to meet with the residents associations, consider the objections and negotiate on some of the plans. Thus the blanket densification in some suburbs has been moderated in conversation with the residents and a compromise has been reached. They have also taken on board the concerns of residents over Paterson Park and have reduced the numbers of affordable units in the overall project. When offered assistance by two members of the RA they were quick to bring them on-board seeing it as opportunity to neutralise some of the objectors and to bring in some expertise.

However, the City has taken a clear stance regarding litigation, which is simply that they will stand by their policies that have been passed, such as the Land Use Scheme and the Inclusionary Housing Policy and are quite prepared to fight the litigation. They argue that these policies have gone through appropriate procedures and are necessary to ensure spatial and social change. Given that the threat of litigation has always been a powerful weapon to hold against the City who have historically tried to avoid litigation, this is an important step as it lessens the weapons in the arsenal of less progressive and NIMBY-ist forces with the City.


It is clear that South African cities are sprawling cities, bringing with them high environmental and social costs with apartheid spatial legacies that ensure the poorest and most marginalised of residents have the longest and most expensive commutes to economic opportunities. The state is well aware of these challenges and has at national and local government level instituted policies to try and address these issues through attempts to densify the city utilising a number of instruments such as Inclusionary Housing, Land Use Schemes and the Transit Oriented Development Corridors. These have seen limited success but have faced numerous objections from Residents Associations and local action groups, particularly those in the more affluent northern suburbs of the city.

The objections have at least superficially been concerned about protecting property prices and the character of the suburbs. However, a closer reading implies that there is a large degree of NIMBY-ism with residents resisting change to the demographic and cultural shifts that they see as resulting from these policy shifts.

The City of Johannesburg has taken an interesting and important approach to responding to the objections, which have included some forms of compromise and engagement with these associations. However, they have also been stoic in the face of much pressure and have, in the cases of Inclusionary Housing, and speculatively on the requirements of the new land use policy, taken a relatively hard stance, that these are legal requirements and developers and residents have been adequately consulted and now need to understand that there are larger stakes and will need to adhere to legislation.

Given that South African cities have not changed sufficiently since the end of Apartheid 25 years ago, and the spatial patterns are entrenched with continued effects on social, economic and environmental consequences, the City’s “tough” stance, seems to be both necessary and justified. A willingness to engage and where possible compromise, coupled with a clear line of what is acceptable and expected, signals a state offering important leadership and view of what is needed to protect all of its residents and citizens and not just the affluent and outspoken few.


A non-exhaustive list of useful resources for local authorities seeking to consider how to engage with contestation and density are listed below:

  • Clarke, P., (2007) Metricity – Exploring Measures of Urban Density,
  • National Planning Commission, 2013. National development plan vision 2030.
  • Nel, V., 2016, March. SPLUMA, zoning and effective land use management in South Africa. In Urban Forum (Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 79-92). Springer Netherlands.
  • Pradhan, P., Costa, L., Rybski, D., Lucht, W. and Kropp, J.P., 2017. A systematic study of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) interactions. Earth’s Future, 5(11), pp.1169-1179.
  • Todes, A., Harrison, P. and Weakley, D., 2015. Resilient densification: Four studies from Johannesburg, NRF Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,


The briefing was written by Margot Rubin, senior researcher and faculty member in the University of the Witwatersrand (South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning) in Johannesburg. Since 2002, she has worked as a researcher, and policy and development consultant focusing on housing and urban development issues, and has contributed to a number of research reports on behalf of the National Department of Housing, the Johannesburg Development Agency, SRK Engineering, World Bank, Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality and Urban LandMark.

For more information about this, or any other LGiU member briefing, please contact Janet Sillett, Head of Briefings, on