Urban Improvement Precincts are making their mark in response to the need for communities to take back control of our neighbourhoods – to make them clean, safe and boost property values
story andrea abbott
While development and urbanisation bring advantages like improved amenities, these are often accompanied by undesirable outcomes, particularly crime and grime. In response to such challenges in the Upper Highway area, concerned residents have formed non-profit, volunteer organisations such as Keep Hillcrest Beautiful Association (KHBA) and its counterpart in Kloof – to do precisely as their titles indicate. However, NPOs are limited in what they can achieve because they depend on public support – and not everyone donates. Unchecked, crime and grime can lead to, inter alia, a decline in property values and failing businesses. This isn’t unique to South Africa, but is a global phenomenon as is the type of public-private partnership that’s proving effective in addressing the downsides of urbanisation.
Urban Improvement Precincts (UIPs) – also known as Special Rating Areas (SRAs) – have their origins in Toronto, Canada where businesses in a shopping precinct formed the first Business Improvement District. At the heart of the concept is the direct relationship between a clean, safe environment and property values. “It’s an undisputed fact that UIPs add value to properties,” says Marge Mitchell, chair of Keep Hillcrest Beautiful.
Essentially, a UIP is an area, approved by the municipality, where property owners pay a supplementary rate based on the value of their properties and which is used to upgrade the public spaces within the precinct. The community chooses what “top-up” services are needed – like enhanced security, cleaning, tidying, greening, removing illegal signage and repairs – and the budget provides for a paid manager and other staff, as deemed necessary.
Setting up a UIP – which operates as a Section 21 company – requires, in the first instance, public meetings and approval by a majority of property owners. The demarcated area (it can be commercial, residential or a combination of the two) must comprise of at least 200 properties, or be such that the combined values of the properties exceed a value as determined by the municipality. Says Councillor Gill Noyce, “The municipality strongly supports UIPs and does a huge amount to make them happen.”
Two very successful UIPs in the Upper Highway area illustrate how SRAs can be designed to meet the needs of a community. The Giba Gorge Environmental Precinct (GGEP) was established in 2009, and, spearheaded by Mike Lohrentz, it was the first environmental SRA in the country. Mike, who is the director of the GGEP, says, “I was concerned that development would decimate large tracts of pristine land.”
Pioneering this model was no easy task and it was four years before Mike and his committee achieved their objective. The municipality, as a major landowner in this case, shares the management of this area with private landowners, which, in a way, protects the biodiversity while also promoting low-impact recreational activities. Looking ahead, Mike hopes to have the gorge zoned an environmental servitude, which would give it far greater protection. The GGEP is an inspiring model that, having set a template, should make it easier for similar areas to follow suit.
The Maytime Community Association (MCA) was established to improve security in the area of Kloof roughly bordered by Maytime, and Abrey and Haygarth Roads. A director of MCA, Karon McWilliam, says crime has decreased dramatically since the association was formed. “Setting it up took a lot of work, but the benefits have made that well worthwhile.” Those advantages include retention of property values and the fact that 100% of property owners pay, thus making the programme sustainable. Added to that is a clean, safe neighbourhood where residents enjoy walking, running and cycling. “This, in turn, builds a sense of community,” adds Karon.
Some years ago, Marge Mitchell and Gill Noyce proposed a UIP for Hillcrest CBD. “The smaller property owners were in favour,” says Marge, whose dream was for KHBA to metamorphose into a UIP, “but there was resistance from owners of bigger properties.”
Resentment at paying an extra rate is the common stumbling block. As Marge points out, though, the contributions are not onerous. For example, at the time of the Hillcrest proposal, based on an annual operating budget of R500 000, the monthly contribution would have been around R42 per million rand of property value.
“UIP services are complementary, not replacements for municipal services,” says Cara Reilly, head of place-making for UrbanMGT, the company managing the uMhlanga UIP that comprises the Promenade UIP and Village UIP, and has an annual budget of around R9-million. “Concerned about the deteriorating state of the uMhlanga Promenade, hotel owners met to find a way of improving it,” says Cara. Today, that fabulous, upgraded promenade is typical of a wider, well maintained and safe zone where, Cara says, the combination of reinvestment and new investments since 2008 totals more than R6-billion.
As UIPs are proving their effectiveness, more are being formed in the Durban metropole. Examples are Bridge City in KwaMashu and Florida Road in Morningside. Pinetown is following the trend too, and recently formed a committee to drive the process. The main objective is to protect and boost property values, and promote sustainable business in, initially, the CBD and later a wider precinct.
It’s clear then that UIPs present a proven opportunity for communities to have a direct hand in the destiny of their areas. Given too the support of the municipality, there seems no reason not to give it a try. All that’s needed is a group of volunteers who are willing to get stuck in and make it happen.
Marge Mitchell 083 419 3807; Gill Noyce firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags: Giba Gorge Environmental Precinct, Keep Hillcrest Beautiful Association, Maytime Community Association, UIP, upper Highway