Sunday, 23 September 2012

Suburban Sprawl and other devistating results of the infamous Single Use Zoning Model

Suburban sprawl appears to be more prevalent in developing countries, such as is currently occurring in the major SADeC conurbations, due to increased and rapid urbanization by individuals, for possible improved financial rewards.

Suburban sprawl, an unfortunate result of environmentally unsympathetic town planning principals, is one of the biggest contributors towards mankind’s carbon footprint today, and even more so in developing countries, for various reasons. Suburban living, contrary to urban living, relies on a number of negatively impacting characteristics.

The infamous Single Use Zoning - The Cancer of our modern Conurbations

One of the primary negative causes of suburban sprawl and its subsequent impact on the environment and most probably the cause for all the subsequent negative implications, is the Single Use Zoning.

Single Use Zoning causes a segregation between land uses, effectively dividing residential suburbs from commercial and other use zones, usually by means of large tracks of land, and in the majority of cases, without any provisions of a public transit system such as trams and it has very limited, if any, provisions for pedestrians or cyclists.

As a result of this, residents’ places of work, places of recreation and places of worship or education, to mention but a few, are segregated from one another and in view of the absence of a properly integrated public transit system such as trams or pedestrian friendly facilities, the car becomes the only viable option to perform the most basic of functions, such as shopping or commuting to and from work or school.

The most effective substitute for the sprawl caused by the Single Use Suburban Zone model, is the Transit Oriented Mixed Use Urban Zone Model, incorporating a healthy mix of uses within one neighbourhood or building, linked by means of an effective public transit system.

Unfortunately, the Single Use Zoning model, although largely promotive of sprawl, is still the most feasible model available to property developers today, as it affects their profit margins the least.

But in the words of Christopher B Leinberger:

“Good urban architecture costs upward of 50 percent more than typical suburban buildings. In urban areas, residents and businesses demand a higher quality of building, since you are walking past them, not driving by at 45 miles an hour with the buildings set back 150 feet”

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Floatable City

We have already determined that the earth's sea levels are presently rising and have been rising since the advent of the earth's current Interglacial (warming) phase known as the Holocene Epoch, which commenced around 15,000 ybp and that sea levels will continue to rise as the earth warms up and its ice sheets contract, during this naturally induced warming phase (read our previous blog on "Global Warming is inevitable":

According to an estimate by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), sea levels may rise up to 59cm during the 21st century. A 1m rise has not been ruled out.
This means that two facts remain to be dealt with. One, that buildings in low level or coastal conurbations will be ever increasingly exposed to flooding in the near future and, two, that the long term rise and fall of the sea's levels during the earth's Glacial and Interglacial cycles, is estimated at an average range of between 4 to 6m.
Now, as previously mentioned, the last time the earth's sea levels rose by 6m, during the peak of the Eemian Interglacial approximately 125,000 ybp, our human conurbations in coastal regions, were not yet existent. So, as a species, we have never faced such a threat before.

Given the above impending intermittent flooding and long term rise in sea levels of potentially up to 6m above the current level, conceivably over the next few thousand years, we, as architects, have three primary options. One option, and possibly the most extreme option, is to advise our clients against developing in coastal or low lying regions which could be affected by a 6m rise in sea levels, but due to present day settlement already located within these zones, this is not entirely practical nor feasible. A second option is to design buildings sufficiently elevated on fixed plinths to accommodate the inevitable rise in sea levels, should our clients still insist on developing within these risk zones.

The third option would be that we, as architects, start creating floatable buildings and cities, as opposed to floodable building and cities, within these low lying and/or coastal regions, with plinths that provide buoyancy and sufficient vertical movement range, to initially be able to absorb any potential flash flooding by rising with the water levels, and to eventually be able to accommodate a 6m rise in sea levels.

The floating city and floating buildings are already a viable concept in many parts of the world, especially in extreme low lying countries such as Holland. But the concept of floatable cities or buildings, should not be confused with floating cities or buildings. There is a fundamental difference between cities and building constructed to become buoyant in the event of catastrophe, and floating cities or buildings, which are purposefully constructed at sea or on lakes for that purpose exclusively, such as for example the Lake Huron Floating House .

What we are talking about here, are buildings constructed with plinths similar to a ship's hull, capable of becoming buoyant during a flood, yet still anchored to the earth by means of fixed mechanical foundations. These buildings would be analogous of ships sitting in a dry dock, awaiting the rising waters.

If one considers the enormity of ocean liners that exist today, such as The Allure of the Seas and The Oasis of the Seas, which could both be regarded as floating buildings, then constructing our future floatable building on dry ground similar to these principals, are not all that far-fetched. The only difference will be that a floatable building won't be going anywhere except up or down as required in the event of a catastrophical rising of water levels.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Formation of South African Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism

South African built environment professionals interested in joining the formation of the South African Interest Group and/or Chapter of The CNU (Congress for the New Urbanism) please contact Manus Heunis on

Very briefly, the CNU is head quartered in Chicago, Illinois in the USA, and an organisation which enjoys worldwide support for its efforts in and guidance on promoting more sustainable urban environments by means of, amongst many others, more environmentally sympathetic town planning principals, reduction of urban sprawl by means of mixed use developments and creating transit oriented and pedestrian friendly cities and neighbourhoods, all of which ultimately lead to a reduced urban carbon foot print.

For more info on what the CNU is all about, click on the link provided below

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

MAGIC? Watch the disappearing sidewalk!


In South Africa, public sidewalks which are usually provided as part of Single Use Zoned suburbs, almost always become overgrown extensions of suburban property owners' private gardens. Subsequently, pedestrians are most often forced to literally walk  in the streets and in so doing, have to compete with motor vehicles, causing a substantial risk to them and an increase in pedestrian accidents and fatalities.

The root of this practise of treating suburban public sidewalks as extensions of private gardens, stem from an unfortunate culture of public ignorance regarding the actual purpose of the suburban public sidewalk, which has been carried over from generation to generation.


Suburban public sidewalks are provided for a reason. They are not meant to become overgrown obstacle courses, in the form of extensions of private gardens, further restricting the already inadequate provisions of pedestrian facilities within the suburb. The private garden should end at the property boundary. The sidewalk is public space!! It does not belong to the property owner! And if vegetation should form part of this public space, then it should be by means of properly integrated landscaping, which will enhance the overall street scape and the public's use of the sidewalk and permit it to be used for what it was intended... pedestrians and cyclists. The suburban public sidewalk in the video clip below, almost gets it right...

The sidewalk below on the left, is approximately 6m wide and a complete waste of usable public space. It can quite comfortably accommodate cars parked off the street either at 45 degrees or parallel, plus a cycle lane and a pedestrian walkway and landscaping. It should look a lot more like the sidewalk on the right, which is a good example of a well-integrated sidewalk., allowing for parking off the street, a cycling lane and pedestrians.

Ironically, suburban private property owners go to extremes to "beautify" these extensions of their private gardens on public property, often spending a fortune on items such as irrigation, actually believing that they are making a positive contribution to their suburb. Can there be a more senseless thing to do, wasting large amounts of one of South Africa's most sparse resources, water, on such a pointless practise.


The sad reality is, that it is not only private suburban property owners whom do not comprehend the actual purpose of the public sidewalk, but very often the local municipalities as well and very often they themselves defeat the whole purpose of providing a sidewalk, by the absolutely dumbfounded act of placing signage poles, trees, barriers etc right in the middle of the walking surfaces of sidewalks. Could these signs not have been placed adjacent the walking surface with an arched overhead support? The two photos above left and right, are of the same location, but taken at different times of the day. The protruding bolts on the inside of the barrier, projecting right into the walking surface of the sidewalk, could cause some serious injuries, not to mention the signage post, slap bang in the middle of the walking surface of the "sidewalk", especially given that the pedestrian / cyclist is effectively forced to squeeze in between the post and the barrier!? And to make matters worse, a landscaping company, thinking that it is enhancing the suburb, has now placed fragmented rock and a thorny shrub to the left of the post, making it impossible for a cyclist and very difficult for a jogger to negotiate down this strech of sidewalk, especially when blinded by the headlights from oncoming traffic early on a winter's morning and not being familiar with the area. Landscaping, unless well integrated with the sidewalk, should stay off the sidewalk!!

The practice of walking in the streets, as opposed to on the sidewalk, has now become so ingrained into the South African culture that, even when the odd walkable sidewalk is provided, pedestrians still walk in the streets. Thus, after years of being denied access to sidewalks, the average South African pedestrian now no longer recognises the purpose of a sidewalk, when it presents itself.

Below are more examples of mindless suburban planning, or the complete absence of planning. Should you have more evidence of the disappearing sidewalk in your suburb, please forward them to us.


Thursday, 16 February 2012

MBH Architects SA opt for Green Roofs

MBH Architects, have opted for Green Roofs over the office components of a proposed new factory development in Lanseria Corporate Estate, just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, and lawn filled paving blocks in the small vehicle parkade areas.
The green roofs, will aid by better insulating the roof slab, thereby effectively reducing energy consumption, specifically pertaining to HVAC equipment, and especially during the summer months.
It will also aid in reducing the Urban Heat Island (UHI) factor, as the lawn and foliage on the roof slabs, will absorb solar radiation, as opposed to re-radiating it into the immediate surrounding environment and will so doing reduce the ambient air temperature around the site substantially during summer. The lawn filled pavers will have the exact same effect.
As the estate incorporates a grey water attenuation pond, the lawn filled pavers, will aid by absorbing and draining rain water into perforated pipes underneath the parkades, which will filter via a grey water connection into the estate's grey water reticulation system and into the attenuation pond, to be utilised for irrigation, amongst other uses.

See more and larger images on

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Global Warming and Climate Change is inevitable

Climate change and global warming specifically, or global cooling for that matter, is inevitable. The earth’s climate, is not a constant. The earth has warmed and cooled many times before. What is happening today, has happened many times in the earth’s history and we, as a species need to be prepared for it this time, because the last time global warming occurred approximately 130,000 years ago, our species was in its infancy and we hadn’t built any of the conurbations of today. The city as we know it today, didn’t exist then and, as a species, we stand to be affected much more, than the last time the globe warmed up.

As architects today, we need to have at least a basic comprehension of Climatology and Meteorology, since climate change and global warming (or cooling) will have an ever increasing effect on architecture. As the creators and shapers of peoples’ habitable environments, we need not only to understand the climate of today, but we also need to understand its history. The more we understand of our past, the better prepared and equipped we are for our future.
How we deal with the inevitability of rising sea levels as the earth warms up yet again, should be our primary challenge. Not our primary fear.
In order to corroborate these statements, we need to put things into perspective and to do so, we will require a palaeo-climatological departure point.
In its history, the earth has experienced many warming and cooling cycles, usually lasting thousands of years at a time. These warming and cooling phases, are determined by many cosmic and geophysical occurrences, ranging from the earth’s:

·         Solar Inclination (Axial Tilt or also Obliquity); and
·         Orbital Eccentricity; to
·         Astronomical Precession
with all these factors collectively known as the Milankovich cycles. However, the last Glacial or freezing period, started around 110,000 years ago and may have been intensified by a geophysical event, being the earth’s last volcanic super-eruption at mount Toba in Sumatra, around 75,000 years ago, which spewed millions (if not billions) of tons of ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, effectively diminishing Insolation from the sun and thus, together with the Milankovich cycles, caused the earth to cool down even further, bringing about a glacial phase, most commonly known as the Wisconsin Glacial Period, which peaked at what is known as the Last Glacial Maxim (LGM) around 21,000 ybp (years before present).
However, it is important to understand that today, the earth is once again in a warming phase, in what is known as the Holocene Epoch, which is a natural warming phase or called an Interglacial period, which has existed since the end of the Last Glacial Maxim and presumably commenced around 15,000 ybp. What this means, is that the earth has been naturally warming up since then and none of our industries, as we know it today, were even present then. It is estimated that this current Holocene Interglacial or warming phase, might last for the next 20-30,000 years.
The previous Interglacial phase, prior to the last Glacial Period, and most commonly known as the Eemian Interglacial, lasted approximately 16,000 years. It is estimated that it began around 133,000 ybp and peaked at 125,000 ybp. During this period, the polar ice sheets contracted and our sea levels may have been between 4 to 6m higher than what they are today. However, the fact remains, that we have now settled in our large cities, often located in low lying coastal regions, which are presently up to 6m below the sea level of the Eemian Interglacial.
The advent of the industrial revolution, heralded the introduction of another globe warming factor, but unlike the Naturally Induced Global Warming factors described above, this is an Anthropogenic Induced, or man-made global warming factor and it is being blamed exclusively for the current state of affairs. Yes, it is a large contributory factor and yes, it is certainly expediting and exacerbating the current global warming phase and yes, the rate at which we have been burning fossil fuels are damaging to the environment and we do need to find more sustainable energy sources. But Anthropogenic Induced Global Warming, is not the only contributor. The earth is naturally warming up, and we need to prepare ourselves in dealing with this occurrence. The earth will definitely survive our species, but our species, may not survive the earth, if we fail to act now.
On the flip side, extreme global cooling is not only possible within a warming Interglacial phase, but it is in fact a historical reality and it might abate perceptions that the earth is warming. However, these cooling phases within an Interglacial phase, commonly known as a Stadial phase, are usually relatively short. The most recent examples of cooling phases or Stadials within our present warming Holocene Epoch, are the Younger Dryas event which occurred around 11,500 – 9,600ybp and is speculated to have spawned the Agrigultural revolution in the Levant and there is also what is commonly referred to as the “Year without a summer”, as recent as 1816, when the volcanic eruption of Mt Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia in 1815, plunged the Northern Hemisphere into a volcanic winter, that triggered more than a year of unusual and devastating cold weather and drought, causing food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. It is further generally speculated that this event triggered a larger movement west wards from New York, towards the Great Lakes, thus causing an increased human settlement in the area known today as Chicago.
It could be said that the “Big Freeze” that Europe is experiencing in 2011/2012, is a result of the volcanic eruptions in Iceland, during March 2010, similar to that of 1815/1816.
In addition, we should not lose sight of the fact that, despite all the warming and cooling cycles, or Glacial – and Interglacial periods, the earth is also still existing in an ice age, known as the Quaternary or Pleistocene Glaciation Period, which started around 2,58million ybp and during this period, the earth’s ice sheets have expanded and contracted numerous times, as they are currently contracting, causing sea levels to rise and lower periodically.
The fact remains that our planet’s climate is not a constant, but rather in a constant state of flux and it affects our societies and human conurbations, in more ways than we can imagine. As architects, we need to incorporate this knowledge into our buildings and cities of the future.
As architects, our challenge is to acquaint ourselves with these factors and its effects on human habitation and to pro-actively fashion a new architecture and urban landscape, which will work in unison with these Naturally Induced Global Warming and Cooling cycles. But we also need to implement an architectural vernacular which will subsequently seek to initially alleviate and eventually eliminate dependence on fossil fuels, causing Anthropogenically Induced Global Warming. We should not be mere passengers in a bobbing life raft, at the mercy of the elements, but we should take charge and create climatically synchronised or harmonious habitations, whether on- or under land, or in- or under the water.
Perhaps our buildings and cities of the future should be made floatable, instead of floodable. Or even submersible and sustainable under water for certain periods of time.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mixed Use Buildings and Transit Oriented Neighbourhoods reduces Urban Sprawl

As architects and urban planners, we should strive towards the creation of TRANSIT ORIENTED neighbourhoods, promoting a balanced mix of activities such as dwelling, shopping, working, schooling, health care, worshiping and recreation, all within a walkable configuration, where many clusters of neighbourhoods, interlinked with parks, walkways, cycle lanes and tram rails, form suburbs that decreases the private stresses of time in traffic and minimises the public born expenses of road construction and atmospheric pollution, as is currently being induced by suburban sprawl.