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The case of Johannesburg

Johannesburg: recreating the inner city centre as an urban cultural project to overcome socioeconomic inequality and racial discrimination
How can a divided and diverse city be unified? Let’s look at the example of Johannesburg, a city with a difficult past. While apartheid ended in 1991 and the country transitioned to majority rule in 1994, Johannesburg acquired its unified government, covering the entire metropolitan area, in 2000. The challenges for the city government have been many. If Johannesburg is in fact the heart of the South African economy, nevertheless, it is marked by important socioeconomic inequalities, urban segregation, and the overall challenge of overcoming apartheid. During the first decade of this century, the northern suburbs of the city had been characterised by massive infrastructural investment to support and reinforce its growth. Such projects often took the form of commercial and retail property developments.
At the same time, the city had to address the challenge of inadequate slum housing in southern areas, where unemployment and poverty were rampant. The right balance was hard to find. The affluent northern suburbs and the poor southern districts are connected by the historical city centre, where the colonial project was developed around the mineral industrial economy in the late 19th century. The city centre reflects also the internal city divisions, as the racial, ethnic, and class conflicts played out in that area. In the early 1990s, soon after the end of the apartheid, the inner city centre faced important capital and white flight as well as public neglect.
The challenge of driving urban regeneration through a cultural approach in a racially and economically divided and highly unequal city was huge. The city government took it up and came up with a cultural arc project. The project aimed to link the disjointed cultural establishments of Johannesburg along an imaginary arc that would extend from the Constitutional Court through the University of Witwatersrand and into Newtown Cultural Precinct. The project aimed at ensuring an effective urban management by law enforcement; managing informal trade; and keeping the public spaces safe and clean; providing good maintenance of infrastructure– for example, transport; identifying and removing sinkholes, buildings and properties in disrepair, overcrowded or abandoned; raising public and private investments; supporting the city economy.
Important examples of this urban regeneration strategy include the construction of the Nelson Mandela Bridge in 2003 to improve the connectivity of the inner city, the reconstruction of Mary Fitzgerald Square into a centre for public events, the construction of a major social housing project called Brickfield Flats, targeting upper working-class and lower middle-class dwellers. The valorisation of the urban cultural heritage has led to a spectacular increase in visitors in the late 2000s and to this day. While cultural industries are not a one size fits all solution, the case of the Newtown District in Johannesburg shows how commercial and cultural development can go hand in hand to address the challenges of inequality and difficult diversity in a global metropolis.

This video explains how Johannesburg is recreating the inner city centre as an urban cultural project to overcome socioeconomic inequality and racial discrimination.

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Can such urban regeneration projects based on culture help overcome acute socioeconomic inequality and a past of racial discrimination?

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Cultural Diversity and the City

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