A.1 Human settlements

A human settlement, in essence, can be described as a place where people have settled down to live; a place where they carry out various activities as individuals or as a community, including working, socialising, shopping, relaxing and sleeping. Inevitably, the characteristics of different human settlements will vary, for instance with respect to size, location, structure, form, function and inhabitants.

A settlement typically includes the following components:

  • The built environment, including houses, engineering infrastructure and facilities
  • The natural environment, including vegetation, rivers, hills and valleys
  • Services related to, for instance, healthcare, welfare, education, culture, recreation and administration
  • The residents (people)

The term human settlement is all-encompassing and refers to anything from a small group of dwelling units to a village, town and city. It is not defined by size, function, setting (e.g. urban or rural) or other characteristics.

Photo credit: Chris Kirchhoff (R) - www.brandsouthafrica.com Figure A.1: The term human settlement refers to anything from a small group of dwellings to a large city

According to the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements (1976), human settlements “…mean the totality of the human community – whether city, town or village – with all the social, material, organizational, spiritual and cultural elements that sustain it”.1

The nature and characteristics of human settlements are influenced by a range of factors. These factors could relate to the macro context, for instance country-specific aspects such as the country’s geography, political systems, history or cultural heritage. They could also relate to local features such as topography, rivers, springs, hills and mountains, railway lines, roads, mining activities and harbours.

Many of these factors have influenced the nature and characteristics of South African cities, towns, villages and even neighbourhoods. Some of these factors – and the South African human settlement landscape in general – are briefly discussed in the next section.


Figure A.2: The nature and characteristics of cities, towns, villages and neighbourhoods vary


A.2 Human settlements in South Africa

According to the National Development Plan 2030 (NDP), some aspects of the human settlement environment in South Africa have been transformed noticeably since 1994 when the first democratic elections were held. Encouraging trends include an increase in densities in a number of urban areas, the partial regeneration of certain inner cities, the provision of public transport infrastructure in some places2 and the transformation of the racial composition of many previously predominantly white suburbs as a result of the growth of the black middle class.3

Notable changes in the character and racial composition of Central Business Districts (CBDs) and inner city areas of many cities and towns have occurred since 1994. These areas continue to experience an influx of predominantly black residents looking for employment opportunities or wanting to reside closer to their places of employment. Unfortunately, adequate accommodation is not always available, resulting in unacceptable living conditions due to overcrowding of residential buildings, especially blocks of flats and other rental accommodation. In some cases the physical environment in these areas has deteriorated considerably and businesses have relocated elsewhere. To meet the need of the changing consumer base, different types of businesses providing commercial, recreational and entertainment services have been established, including informal trading.4

In some cities and towns, formal economic activities have become more dispersed and less concentrated. Certain businesses relocate away from the traditional economic hubs such as the town or city centre to locations closer to the periphery where there may be less congestion, security may be better, land may be less expensive and access to major transport routes may be more convenient. In some cases, this resulted in a multi-centred, or polycentric, spatial form.5

Changes to other aspects of the space economy are also evident. For instance, the use of housing units (whether formal, informal, or in predominantly residential neighbourhoods) as businesses to generate income changes the character of neighbourhoods. Public spaces such as sidewalks and transport interchanges are furthermore often used by vendors to sell various products. These contributions to the so-called informal economy challenge conventional perceptions and realities about settlement economies.6

Figure A.3: Informal settlements and informal economic activity are features of many South African settlements

Informal settlements are a common feature of many South African towns and cities. In many cases they provide new migrants and the urban poor an affordable point of access into towns and cities. However, they are also associated with high degrees of physical and social vulnerability, which add to the challenges faced by residents and authorities. The upgrading of these settlements is often a contentious issue.7


In some cases, the country’s urban landscape has been influenced by the prevalence of crime. The unacceptably high levels of violent crime, as well as the fear of crime, have contributed to the implementation of built environment interventions to address these concerns. Middle- to high-income neighbourhoods in particular are often characterised by high fences and walls, often supplemented by electric fences. In addition, public access to some neighbourhoods is restricted by means of street closures and access control mechanisms (Figure A.4). Various other forms of privately developed gated communities are becoming increasingly popular, varying in size from small townhouse complexes to expansive lifestyle or security estates. In some cases, these developments have a substantial impact on the structure and functioning of cities and towns, and it could be argued that they do not support current planning policies and strategies aimed at promoting integration.8

Figure A.4: Road closures and security estates influence the nature of the urban landscape

The results of planning principles and approaches that were directly influenced by the country’s apartheid ideology are still visible in spatial patterns and in the form and structure of South African cities and towns. For decades, this ideology as well as the modernist approach to urban planning dominated the planning and design of settlements in South Africa, resulting in the legacy of racial segregation, poverty and exclusion from social and economic opportunities.9 Spatial challenges also include sprawl, low-density and mono-functional (often fragmented) neighbourhoods.

Many parts of South African cities and towns – particularly those developed specifically for poor communities – are still characterised by a lack of adequate infrastructure, facilities and amenities, low levels of service and few or undesirable public spaces. These areas are often located on the periphery of cities and towns, and therefore residents generally have to travel long distances to and from their places of employment, shops and social, recreational, healthcare or other facilities. This negatively affects the quality of life of those living in these areas and has significant financial implications. It also increases pollution levels and results in the inefficient utilisation of resources.


“After the 1994 elections, Government committed itself to developing more liveable, equitable and sustainable cities. Key elements of this framework included pursuing a more compact urban form, facilitating higher densities, mixed land use development, and integrating land use and public transport planning, so as to ensure more diverse and responsive environments whilst reducing travelling distances. Despite all these well-intended measures, the inequalities and inefficiencies of the apartheid space economy, has lingered on.“10


South African human settlements are inextricably linked to the country’s socio-economic context. This means that poverty, unemployment, inequality, crime and violence and other challenges have an impact on the sustainability of cities and towns. In addition, global trends and challenges have to be considered, as outlined in the next section.

Photo credit: City of Cape Town (R, T) Figure A.5: Spatial characteristics of South African settlements include sprawl, fragmentation and inequality

“A great deal of progress has been made since 1994, but South Africa is far from achieving the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) goals of ‘breaking down apartheid geography through land reform, more compact cities, decent public transport and the development of industries and services that use local resources and/or meet local needs’. Despite reforms to the planning system, colonial and apartheid legacies still structure space across different scales.”11


A.3 Global trends and challenges

Climate change poses a significant threat to the planet and the people living on it. Human settlements where more and more people are living are particularly exposed to the consequences of climate change and are vulnerable to natural disaster risks.12


The following challenges related to settlements resulting from climate change are listed in the National Climate Change Response Policy:

  • Climate change may exacerbate the problems caused by poor urban management. For example, poor stormwater drainage systems and urban-induced soil erosion result in flash flooding. Increased storm intensity due to climate change would exacerbate such problems.
  • Cities are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they are slow to adapt to changes in the environment and they have entrenched dependencies on specific delivery mechanisms for critical services.
  • The effective management of the interface between urban residents and their surrounding environment producing sustainable social-ecological systems needs to the addressed. Similarly, the concept of climate resilience in the context of urban social-ecological systems needs to be further developed.
  • South Africa’s cities still reflect apartheid planning with the poorest communities tending to live far away from services and employment. Our cities are relatively spread out and these two factors contribute to increased transport emissions.
  • Water demand in urban centres is growing rapidly, placing undue stress on water supply systems. Investment in waste water treatment works has not remained in line with the growth in demand and use.
  • Informal settlements are vulnerable to floods and fires, exacerbated by their location in flood- or ponding- prone areas and on sand dunes; inferior building materials; and inadequate road access for emergency vehicles.
  • Cities and dense urban settlements consume large amounts of energy.

Informality as it relates to settlement and housing form, the way income is generated and the way in which people live in and interact with cities and towns is a worldwide phenomenon that seems to become more and more prevalent in the Global South. Informality is often associated with illegitimate behaviour and with marginalised people and communities, but arguments have been made for it to be acknowledged and accommodated in the planning and design of cities.

Rapid urbanisation is a global phenomenon, and the situation is no different in Africa and South Africa. It is predicted that Africa’s urban population will increase from approximately 1.23 billion people in 2015 to 2.5 billion people in 2050 (60% of the total population). According to estimates by the United Nations, more than 71% of the South African population will live in urban areas by 2030. Urbanisation places added strain on cities and towns that struggle to deal with the demands already placed on them. To reduce the impact of urbanisation, many cities and towns internationally are striving to become more resource efficient so as to be more sustainable and competitive. Unfortunately it seems South African cities and towns have not yet fully embraced this notion.13


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The Neighbourhood Planning and Design Guide
Creating Sustainable Human Settlements

Developed by
Department of Human Settlements

Published by the South African Government
ISBN: 978-0-6399283-2-6
© 2019