From gown to town
Pauline Larsen chats to the City of Johannesburg's new planning chief, Prof Philip Harrison

Steering a course between developer interests and social pressures will test the mettle of the City of Johannesburg's new planning chief. Prof Philip Harrison has swapped shaping the bright young planning minds of tomorrow with shaping the city itself as Jo'burg's executive director of development planning and urban management.

In the hot seat for a five-year contract, he will have his work cut out for him in what some call the toughest planning job in SA. But the mild-mannered former Wits University academic is no pushover. Developers need to get savvy about the city's immense balancing act. "I'd like to work closely with investors who take a longer-term view of urban development and who understand the broader public interest," says Harrison (42).

To illustrate his challenge, forecasts show Jo'burg will have to accommodate another 3,5m people in the next 25 years. That's 80% of today's urban population.

"To have any impact on the city at all, we need robust planning frameworks - and the gumption to implement them," says Harrison. "We also need to work in ways that don't unnecessarily constrain and frustrate other players."

Councillor Ruby Mathang, the political head of the planning department and Harrison's boss, is frank: "Finding that balance has plagued the city for a number of years and we are aware of numerous examples of how cities have failed to deal with often conflicting views of developers and public planners.

"Partnerships will be vital to the success of the city," he adds. "If we try to plan in a silo, we expose ourselves to a planning disaster."

Harrison is aware of the need to address key developer concerns, such as the long delay in development applications. "The system of processing applications is not always understood by applicants. And I would like to introduce a simpler, clearer system to ease the burden."

His target is to reduce the current 12-month development approval period - already down from 15 months, he points out - to a more acceptable seven months.

Johannesburg's new density policy has also caused concern among developers. Harrison is quick to point out it's not a blanket policy, but targeted at specific nodes, transport routes and catalytic growth nodes, like the Gautrain stations.

"Proposed densities vary widely across the city. In major nodes, a density of 100 dwellings per hectare or more is typical. But in many residential areas, we expect to maintain a density of about 10 dwellings per hectare," he elaborates.

Another, longer-term goal of Harrison's is to confront development aesthetics. "Aesthetics are a concern for me, but right now we lack the instruments to address it. I'd like to build urban design capacity into the city's planning team."

Still, says Harrison, the city is already doing many things right. He points to the Alexandra Renewal Project driven by Julian Baskin and the Johannesburg Development Agency led by Lael Bethlehem.

"And I'm not just saying that because I'm now a city official. The successes just don't get spoken about - like the 94% compliance rate in building control, or the development of a highly sophisticated spatial information system."

Academically, Harrison is no slouch. Armed with a PhD from the University of KwaZulu Natal, he was a full professor in his late 30s. For the past six years he held the position of planning chair at the Wits School of Architecture & Planning. He has published widely and recently spent a year at the University of Sheffield as a research fellow.

The transition from academic to city bureaucrat is a shift that few professors could handle. Both roles present considerable challenges, counters Harrison, who says he misses the relative freedom of the university. But he enjoys working in a delivery-focused system that is structured to achieve clear objectives.

"Mayoral terms and political cycles, after all, add a necessary sense of urgency," he adds.

Though politicians and town planners can make uneasy bedfellows, the city looks set to benefit from a unique partnership between Harrison and Mathang. Though a political appointee, Mathang chaired the planning portfolio committee of the former Northern Metropolitan Local Council for five years and served as chairman of the city's planning tribunal in 2001.

Plus, he's reading for a master's degree in development planning from Harrison's old department at Wits.

When he's not being a planner, Harrison spends time on his other great passion: travel and travel writing.

"In my limited spare time, I hope to pursue projects of this sort - possibly late on Saturday nights," he laughs.

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