This website uses cookies so that we can provide you with the best possible experience. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with this. You can find out more about how we use cookies here. If you would like to know more about cookies, or how you can delete them, click here.

A shining example from the City of Gold

23 January 2015

Marion Frederiksen MRTPI

In Johannesburg, South Africa, it can be a challenge teaching students the principles of good urban design, cultural heritage conservation and the elements of for sustainable, successful mixed use neighbourhoods when the best examples are generally found elsewhere in the country or in other more developed countries (e.g. Cape Town, Melbourne or Vancouver). Students often seek local examples. The city is still grappling with spatial inequality and a rundown inner city filled with dilapidated buildings, overstretched infrastructure and no-go areas. Crime, weak service delivery, corruption, financial constraints and the legacy of Apartheid can hamper efforts to create successful mixed use communities. In wealthier areas there are some successes but these are generally found in gated communities where security dominates.

Fortunately an old neighbourhood emerged as a good example when I was lecturing a few years ago. I often used Maboneng, a former light industrial area located immediately east of the inner city, and close to Johannesburg’s two universities to demonstrate sustainable development, preservation of architectural heritage and the use of public art. The principles of site analysis and good urban design as demonstrated by Kevin Lynch (Image of the City); Alan B. Jacobs and Donald Appleyard (Successful Streets) and Mathew Carmona (Public Places, Urban Spaces) were more easily understood when students knew they could view these within commuting distance from where they were being taught.

So it was heartening to read that in January 2015, Maboneng, meaning ‘place of lights’ in Sotho, has recently been awarded two international awards and is attracting artists, researchers, visitors and entrepreneurs from around the world. Travel and Leisure magazine, a publication based in New York, voted it one of the world’s coolest tourist attractions for 2015. It has also been recognised as one of the best urban regeneration projects in the world.


Picture: One of the entrances to Maboneng.


It is impressive considering that a decade ago this was no-go area in a city notorious for crime. Most successful urban regeneration projects (e.g. Sydney and New York) require strong leadership and strategic input from dedicated local authorities to make things happen. The success of Maboneng however, is the result of one young private entrepreneur, Jonathan Liebmann, who had a vision for an inner city neighbourhood in Johannesburg where people of all backgrounds wanted to live, work and play. The inspiration came from travelling abroad where he was exposed to a mixed use inner city lifestyle.

Regeneration started in 2008 when a site was purchased containing a former construction workshop and offices dating back to 1911. Arts on Main became the magnet for the precinct containing art galleries, book shops, a restaurant and crucially security. Jonathan had observed from other cities that artists are often the best catalysts for change and generally become the first adopters of an emerging area. He was right and the influx of creative people helped generate curiosity in the media and attract the general public. Since then the precinct has grown and has become a local tourist attraction and a great place to enjoy a good breakfast on a Sunday morning. Shops, restaurants, boutiques and a cinema are located on the ground floors with studios and residential apartments found above.

However, Maboneng’s success also lies in the fact that this is a uniquely African regeneration success. It draws from the best examples of inner city living whilst maintaining and preserving the local context, architecture and cultural heritage. It has helped create local employment; and improve the public realm and safety in the local area. Most buildings date back before the 1940s and have been preserved and adapted for uses that residents and businesses need. There is mixed tenure ranging from affordable residential units to luxury rooftop apartments. Innovative businesses such as Blackanese, an African Japanese restaurant serving sushi created for African palates, have helped create a unique localness. The precinct also has its own film studio, backpackers lodge and a dedicated Facebook page featuring news, events, exhibitions etc.

Public art has also helped to create awareness, beatify run down façades, improve the public realm and create a focal point for the precinct. This, combined with unique shops in adapted redundant buildings has helped to create a great sense of space and stimulate cultural tourism in the precinct. In February, the Common Ground urban park will be formed providing inner city residents and visitors with much needed public open space. The park is anticipated to become a community hub with green spaces, sports facilities and open-air concerts.


Picture: Artists were invited to paint wall murals. This one acts as a focal point directing motorists using one the flyovers.


The precinct has also become home to the Johannesburg studio for GRIND – the Global Regeneration Initiative for Neighbourhood Development. This international non-profit initiative supports the implementation of innovative and inclusive urban projects in studios based in neighbourhoods undergoing regeneration. The objective is to create a database of good practices and a wide network of practitioners to support better neighbourhood regeneration around the world. The studio offers researchers from around the world the possibility of implementing their own urban project in the context of a neighbourhood in regeneration by providing free accommodation and the opportunity to present their findings to the public.

Maboneng not only makes for a successful new urban node within a dynamic, vibrant city. It is also a great local and international outdoor teaching space showcasing good entrepreneurial skills, leadership, urban design principles, a mixed use sustainable community and how examples from other countries can be adapted to create a unique African precinct which others can learn from.

Marion Frederiksen MRTPI

Marion Frederiksen is the RTPI’s International Policy and Research Officer. She is a chartered town planner specialising in environmental and international planning issues. Marion has worked in the UK and South Africa and understands both developed and developing world planning perspectives.