Civil Designer Showcase

Cosmo City

Sustainable Social Housing

At the time of its proposal more than a decade ago, the Cosmo City housing development was seen as a pioneering prototype for the post-1994 challenges to redress urban spatial inefficiencies in South Africa. In part, this was to be achieved through an overhaul in the country's legislative and policy framework for land-use planning.

The project was seen as a benchmark for a new model to low cost housing that aimed to create integrated and mixed land use closer to urban and transport centres, rather than on the metropolitan edges, which effectively reinforce marginalisation and poverty.

Aerial View
Aerial View

In 1996, the Northern Metropolitan Local Council (now the City of Johannesburg), in the preparation of its Land Development Objectives, identified the need to provide housing for 2 large informal communities - Zevenfontein and Riverbend. These informal settlements were characterised by substandard living conditions with limited access to basic services.

Mixed-use Planning

The idea was to relocate the communities onto land that would be earmarked on the basis of access to economic opportunities and public transport in a mixed-income and mixed-use development.

A public and private sector partnership with strong community involvement and buy-in was seen as a way to facilitate a better balance between social responsibility and financial sustainability for the long-term success of the housing development.

After identifying land for public use, the City of Johannesburg had to use existing legislation to appropriate the 1200 hectares upon which Cosmo City would be built. A protracted period of legal and consultative processes preceded the eventual development framework and technical studies for the project.

Installation of storm water pipes
Installation of storm water pipes in progress

By 2000, the now City of Johannesburg and the Gauteng Department of Housing, invited tenders for development proposals for Cosmo City - with its location northwest of Randburg.

A team headed by Basil Read and Kopana Ke Matla were the successful bidders, and together they formed a company called Codevco. They then pulled together the expertise of professional teams, including consulting engineers, KV3, now known as WorleyParsons RSA.

The final go ahead for the project was given in October 2004 and the pegging of the first phase began in November of the same year. Construction on the infrastructure and services started in January 2005, and the first beneficiaries took occupation of their homes in November 2005.

Integrating Housing Typologies

One of the key objectives at the time of planning the Cosmo City project was to bring together people of different income groups that would be living in the same area.

The intention was to achieve this through the provision of different housing tenure and price types in the same area, linked through schools, creches, clinics, transport, parks and public spaces.

"The integrated approach means bringing different housing typologies in one area together, yet creating some demarcation with the use, for example, of streams or natural wetland areas so that the respective property values remain intact," says Marius Kannenberg, Technical Director at WorleyParsons in Randburg.

The Cosmo City development was thus apportioned according to house values comprised of a split between 4992 fully subsidized houses, 2959 finance/credit linked units (ranging from R180 000 to R280 000) and 3337 bonded houses in the R380 000 to R800 000 price range.

Breaking New Ground

As the first development of its kind and scale in South Africa, Cosmo City has become a point of reference for the kind of public housing envisioned under the government's Breaking New Ground programme, where the emphasis has evolved to assert the idea of subsidised homes as assets, with title deeds assisting in the development of the secondary market.

Connecting into water main
Connecting into the 600mm dia water main

The Department of Housing's 1997 Urban Development Framework sets out Government's mandate to develop environmentally sustainable urban settlements in conjunction with the regulatory and environmental policy that would enable the most efficient trade off between building affordable and quality housing on the one hand, and using renewable and non-renewable resources to balance consumption needs.

Sustainable Strategies

In line with the broader vision contained in South Africa's National Sustainable Development Strategy,

  the Urban Development Framework looks to the sustainable use of resources and the protection of ecologically sensitive areas as a focal point for future urban development.

Integral to environmental planning is the creation of green belts, open spaces and parks - features previously confined to the affluent suburbs of the country.

Prior to construction on Cosmo City, an Environmental Management Plan set out a list of criteria for the fulfilment by the developers and professional teams on the project.

These included the development of: i) an Ecological Management Plan for the conservation areas, ii) Environmental Management plans for construction and operational activities on site, iii) an Environmental Impact Assessment Report (focusing on heritage, geology, soil, hydrology and stormwater attenuation) and iv) a Biodiversity Report.

Cosmo City Environment Management

Once these had been completed and construction started, all building activities on the site had to be strictly monitored by a full time environmental control officer, prescribed in the Environmental Management Plan and approved by the Department of Agriculture, Culture and the Environment (GDACE).

According to Kannenberg, nearly 21 000 protected and medicinal plants (ahead of the construction work) were transplanted to the Suikerbosch Rand Nature Reserve and the indigenous vegetation on the Cosmo City site was preserved in a 300-hectare conservation park, protected by a 42 kilometre palisade fence

Construction of the main access road
Construction of the main access road in progress

Whilst it was inevitable that in the development process, large tracts of natural vegetation would be lost, compensation was made for this by planting trees and shrubs throughout.

"The fact that the terrain was sandy was a challenge because of erosion. However the grassing of municipal parks by the City Council and the establishment of gardens throughout Cosmo City reduced the impact of this dramatically."

Basil Read Developments established a pilot nursery at Cosmo City and trained staff to propagate trees and shrubs as part of its Green Projects programme. Using the latest innovative technology the nursery conducts ongoing research on, for example, the use of micro-organisms and earthworm farming to help create and maintain sustainable ecosystems.

There is also continuous cross-linking between these kind of private programmes and municipal schemes aimed at making Cosmo City an environmentally cohesive development.

Aerial View
Aerial View

For example, the City of Johannesburg in its Climate Proofing of Urban Communities Project, installed 700 low-pressure Solar Water Heater (SWH) units, distributed Compact Fluorescent Lamps and fitted insulated Isoboard ceilings in all the subsidized houses.

This follows on from the first phase of installation of 170 Solar Water Heaters (SWH) in 2007 as part of the Department of Energy's target for the provision of one million solar water heating units throughout the country within five years. The low cost units have also all been fitted with prepaid water and electricity metres.

Stormwater Management

One of the most important aspects of the development, and critical to the first stages of the Environmental Impact Assessment, was the storm water management.

This was designed by WorleyParsons and its joint venture partners using Civil Designer's storm water module application - with its multiple pipe layer functionality for the capture of pipe layer data according to dimension and material.

According to Kannenberg: "The increased storm water runoff is attenuated by a series of carefully designed and placed attenuation dams, thus mitigating the effect thereof on the downstream properties along the banks of the Zandspruit."

Using the Civil Designer software helped WorleyParsons facilitate the shared design of Cosmo City's civil infrastructure, which the other joint venture partners also used. Cosmo City has nearly 130km of internal streets and similar lengths of water pipes.

The City of Johannesburg manages the essential services and maintenance of park and environmental areas. In its entirety, Cosmo City is the kind of development envisioned in the City's Spatial Form and Urban Management Sector Plan that aims to "create a physical environment that meets the current needs communities, but also protects the interests of future generations."

As a point of reference for similar development models, the significant elements of Cosmo City's success have been the strength of the public-private partnership combined with the buy-in of the communities, whose ownership of the development, through the Cosmo City Residents Association, has created a sense of pride and sustainability.

Talking of this key project in his 33-year career, Kannenberg says: It was a unique development at the time of its conception and it has since been replicated as a model for integrated, mixed use and sustainable housing. Knowing this makes me proud to have been part of it from the beginning."

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