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Motherwell, South Africa: An Analysis and Urban Design Proposal

Part 2 Dissertation 2003
Roelof Du Preez
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University | South Africa
At present the urban fabric of Motherwell is in a state of decay. The legacy of apartheid planning stunts its potential to grow into a sustainable, working and vibrant place to live and work. The need for intervention is clear.

The principle aim of this project was first a structured and comprehensive analysis of the planning, to the myriad of social and economic problems that beset its residents today. Through this rigorous exercise we were able to gain a far greater understanding of Motherwell not just as a South African township, but as a place were people live. The oft-heard notion in South Africa that “if you have seen one township you have seen them all” could not be farther from the truth. Motherwell’s problems and even its moments of joy are unique to it alone, and these formed the basis by which we structured our intervention.

Throughout the three stages of this project, from the initial urban planning proposal; the social housing design; and the design of the public open space, every effort was made to provide solutions that were appropriate, viable and sustainable for Motherwell. Above all, the everyday urban needs of the people were addressed.

This was an immensely challenging and rewarding process for us, not only an academic exercise in analysis and design, but also as a foretaste of the challenges that await us, as South Africans, in re-dressing the inequalities of the past and moving towards a positive future.

Roelof Du Preez

A dissertation in Urban Design and one in Design is a prerequisite for qualification for the M Arch (Professional) degree at the University of Port Elizabeth. The Urban Design dissertation is based on research and a design solution of an existing problem. Community involvement is part of the Department’s teaching strategy.

The township Motherwell was the topic given to students to research in groups of four. Motherwell, Port Elizabeth, was designed in the late 1970s at the height of apartheid rule in South Africa. Political ideologies and modernistic town planning thoughts determined its design. As a result Motherwell is surrounded by a buffer zone, access is limited to ease Police control and there is a general lack of facilities. Separatist zoning add to its woes. All of this contributes to making it an unsustainable environment and it became a typical dormitory township without any work opportunities and far from the CBD of Port Elizabeth. Sadly, the centrally located town center was never a success. Isolation by vast open spaces and not connected to the ring road where taxis operate, the Motherwell Shopping center has never been well supported.

Students researched the main problems facing Motherwell and produced an overall strategy to improve its sustainability. Within this framework they had to research and design social housing and identify and develop an important public open space.

Darren Ogden, Bruce MacGillivray, Graham Cochrane and Roelof du Preez’s dissertation resolved the problems well. Their overall strategy is based on the decision to reinforce the center through densification and new linkages including a connection with the new proposed rail link to Port Elizabeth.

They located their social housing project (a generic solution) in the central area employing perimeter blocks. The design process was innovative. They laid down a set of design parameters and then gave each one in the group a part of a housing block to design. In this way monotony, that is so prevalent in South African townships, is overcome (its height also adds to improving overall legibility to the township). Careful attention is given to differentiate between edge and courtyard activities. The public open space they designed is again chosen to reinforce the center of the township. Urban furniture is robust and a variety of experiences exist in the space.

Their dissertation has lead to a better understanding of the problems facing Motherwell and possible ways to remedy it. The local authority has taken a great interest in their research and it might even influence future decisions.

Professor Albrecht Herholdt
July 2003

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