Reflections of an Urban Environmentalist


Text Jo Douwes Photographs Various

Umgeni Estuary

Photo: eThekwini Municipality

When I was a young girl, I used to lie awake at night and worry about the state of our planet. I visited game reserves with my family, bought books about the Kalahari and the oceans, and made clay ornaments with my friends to sell at the school fete to raise funds for the ‘save the rhino’ campaign. My love for nature has been present for as long as I can remember, and I have never doubted that my career would follow a similar course.

At that young age, I imagined myself as an adult living somewhere open and wild, doing my bit to save what was left of our natural world, probably in khakis, hiking boots and a bush hat! These days, living in the city of Durban and working for eThekwini Municipality, it sometimes seems a world far from what my young and passionate heart imagined for my future as an environmentalist.

More often than not, I find my daily work conversations peppered with terms that have very little direct link to the environment. Yes, there are conversations about ecological infrastructure, water quality and restoration, but there are probably more conversations containing terms like TOD (Transit-Oriented Development), informal settlements, ‘net present value’ and ‘API’s’ (application programming interfaces) that were definitely not part of my university education! I now spend more time navigating the delicate spaces of human relationships and politics than being out in the open spaces of nature, and more energy convincing others of the importance of our work, rather than simply being able to implement what is needed.

And so there are days when, in the middle of the beautiful, crazy, challenging space that is local government, I step back and wonder how I got here, what value I add in this space and what this journey has taught me about being an environmentalist in the increasingly urban world in which we live. These are some of my reflections.

Durban – an international tourist destination

Photo: eThekwini Municipality

We live in a world of cities

The United Nations projects that, by 2050, almost 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities, with much of this growth happening in Africa. Apart from their physical footprint, cities are also the centres of production and consumption, and drive many of the processes that have a negative impact on our natural environment.

The food needs of a growing urban population mean that natural areas are transformed for agricultural purposes, high levels of water consumption place strain on rivers and upper catchments, and energy needs (currently met largely through fossil fuel-based sources) result in emissions that impact human health and exacerbate climate change.

But cities are also spaces for potential innovation, where policy changes can have significant impact on the nature of urban growth, our patterns of production and consumption, and the way we think about our investments and their impact on enhancing or undermining environmental protection.

In eThekwini Municipality, the ‘New Buildings: Green Policy’ (soon to be out for public comment) for example, will require new buildings to meet certain specifications in terms of renewable energy use and energy efficiency, as part of the need to shift towards net zero carbon emission development pathways. The policy also speaks at a high level to a need for broader resource efficiencies, for example in the spaces of water and waste management.

Opportunities also exist in cities to explore innovation in spaces such as urban agriculture and vertical food gardening given the current competing pressures on our remaining land resources. With regards to investment, eThekwini Municipality’s Mayor Kaunda recently ensured that Durban was one of twelve cities globally to sign C40’s ‘Divesting from Fossil Fuels, Investing in a Sustainable Future Declaration’. The Declaration marks a growing movement to promote divestment from fossil fuel industries and advocate for greater sustainable investment to accelerate a green and just recovery from Covid-19.

Such actions are critical in building the momentum for bigger systemic changes. Cities, often at the forefront of such shifts, play a critical role in effecting such policy change, by demonstrating what is possible at a local level, and lobbying for broader change at national and international levels. And so, while there is still a very long way to go, I like to think that these are important moments along the pathway towards broader systemic change, and that cities and urban environmentalists have a critical role to play in reshaping the face of our cities towards more sustainable practices.

Unexpected opportunities exist to advance the environmental agenda in urban spaces

In July 2020, eThekwini Municipality entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the British High Commission as part of the UK Prosperity Fund’s Future Cities Programme. The partnership secures significant technical support for the Municipality to advance priority work in the spaces of resilience, transport and urban planning. One of the priorities identified for support was ‘Transit-Oriented Development’. Prior to this I had never paid much attention to the issue of transport, other than to bemoan the fact that our public transport system is not more accessible. But, as part of the team responsible for overseeing the partnership with the British Government and the Delivery Partner (providing technical support), I have found myself on a fascinating learning curve.

A significant challenge in Durban is the need for spatial restructuring to address the legacies of apartheid and better connect people from their homes to places of work via appropriate transport. ‘Transit-Oriented Development’ (or ‘TOD’) is a type of community development that includes a mixture of housing, office, retail and/or other amenities integrated into a walkable neighbourhood and located within approximately 500 metres of quality public transportation. If done appropriately, TOD has the potential to promote mixed-use development (including housing) close to transport infrastructure, ensure a more compact spatial form, promote the use of public transport and bicycles, and enhance the quality of the urban realm. The potential environmental benefits that flow from this include reduced encroachment of development into environmentally sensitive areas, reduced emissions, and urban design requirements that minimise resource use (e.g. water and energy) and promote the principles of a ‘circular economy’.

And so, these days I spend a lot more time with transport engineers and urban planners, trying to understand what they hope to achieve in the space of TOD, and reminding them to prioritise development outside of environmentally sensitive areas, watercourses and flood lines. As part of this work, it is also important to ensure that there are sustainability indicators embedded into how the impact of TOD will be measured in the long-term in relation to biophysical impact, reduced carbon emissions and environmentally sensitive urban design.

This journey is teaching me that, to remain relevant as environmentalists, we have to keep our eyes open for the opportunities that present themselves in areas of work that we may know very little about. We must be bold enough to tread into these spaces, learn new skills and knowledge, and then work out how best to embed the environmental sustainability lens in the work that is happening in our cities.

Durban’s Resilience Strategy

Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

In August 2017, eThekwini Municipality’s Council approved Durban’s Resilience Strategy, with a key focus on the need for ‘collaborative informal settlement action’ to advance urban resilience. The Resilience Strategy acknowledges that informal settlements are an increasing part of the urban fabric in Durban. It also highlights the need for strengthened institutional coordination, enhanced data collection to inform decision-making, strengthened partnerships for implementation, and proactive land management to limit illegal invasions.

However, the informal settlements space remains a very uncomfortable one for many reasons. One of these relates to the need to balance issues like environmental protection with the need to facilitate enhanced human wellbeing in the context of a society that is extremely unequal. Informal settlements have numerous environmental impacts, not only from their physical location (which can be in sensitive environmental ecosystems, or close to rivers) but also from inadequate servicing for solid waste removal and sanitation, which results in pollution of the surrounding environment. Importantly, informal settlements are also spaces that house some of the most vulnerable in society who locate themselves in these areas to access work opportunities that would otherwise not be possible.

And so there exists a tension between the need for protection of the city’s remaining natural assets and regulation of the city’s growth, and the need to grapple with what service provision looks like in cities that are increasingly informal.

Boxwood Informal Settlement

Photo: eThekwini Municipality

A number of programmes have emerged in response to these challenges. These include Iqhaza Lethu (‘Our Participation’), a partnership between eThekwini Municipality, Project Preparation Trust and the European Union, which aims to strengthen the involvement of informal settlement communities in the incremental upgrading* of their settlements and ensure more strategic and coordinated action across various stakeholders.

The project aims to take service delivery beyond basic provision to include better waste management, fire response plans, and Early Childhood Development Centres and is being piloted in 10 informal settlements, at different scales of delivery. One of these settlements is the Quarry Road West informal settlement, where a partnership between the University of KwaZulu Natal and eThekwini Municipality has helped to strengthen community mapping of settlements and improve flood early warning systems, given the settlement’s location on the Palmiet River.

However, significant challenges and tensions still remain. The ongoing environmental impacts in particular, require us to sit with the uncomfortable, to think differently about our cities, and to explore opportunities for a new African urbanism that advances human wellbeing without compromising environmental protection.

*Incremental upgrading refers to the provision of basic services (roads/footpaths, communal ablution blocks and water standpipes in situ in existing informal settlements).

Science will help underpin the case for nature in cities

In June 2020, eThekwini Municipality completed the first phase of its Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), which has as its primary focus, a description of the current environmental status quo. The SEA has been a challenging piece of work for various reasons and the completion of this first phase is a critical milestone in being able to make more confident statements about the state of our environment at the scale of the full municipal area, based on the best data currently available.

The picture that has emerged is not a pretty one. Across all environmental aspects, the condition of natural systems is poor and declining. This finding is evident in that: there has been an 18% increase in urban land-use over the last 14 years, much of which is unregulated in areas under traditional authority where much of the remaining biodiversity is located; conservation targets can no longer be achieved for 6 of 14 vegetation types in the eThekwini Municipal Area; only one of the eThekwini Municipal Area’s 16 estuaries is classified as having a good Present Ecological State; just over 90% of all sites sampled for water quality exceed the threshold for recreational use target for E.coli; 90% of the monitored rivers in Durban are in an overly nutrient enriched state; and clean air is compromised in various pollution ‘hotspots’ across the eThekwini Municipal Area.

Although this picture is depressing, it is a difficult picture to ignore and therefore provides a critical leverage point to profile the urgency of these issues with city leadership.

Tafelkop a Traditional Authority area, a space of high biodiversity within the eThekwini Municipal Area

Photo: Cameron McLean

For many people, the idea that nature should be protected in cities is a strange one, but current science increasingly points to how central this will be to our sustainability.

A 2017 World Bank study that focused on the valuation of natural and semi-natural open spaces in Durban, estimated the value of the flow of ecosystem services (e.g. flood attenuation, water purification, cultural services, water provision etc) at approximately R4.2 billion per year, and the total asset value of these open spaces at R48-62 billion for the eThekwini Municipal Area.

This is a stark reminder that environmental issues also underpin human and economic wellbeing and that, in a world under pressure, science must strengthen the arguments that are needed to change perceptions regarding the critical role of the natural environment in ensuring the sustainability of the cities.

Change can take time, but it happens

When I was studying at UCT, one of my most charismatic (and controversial!) lecturers was Prof Bryan Davies, who had a keen interest in reservoirs and inter-basin water transfers and their effects on rivers. He, along with two leading freshwater ecologists, Dr Jackie King and Dr Jenny Day, was involved in engagements with the Department of Water Affairs at the time when national government was taking its first tentative steps towards considering the river as a legitimate ‘user’ of water.

The role played by these individuals was a key factor in ensuring that South Africa was one of the first in the world to legislate for ‘ecological water requirements’ for rivers. Today, this concept is well-embedded in how we think about river management and water abstraction, despite some of the challenges with implementation.

Similarly, the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’MOSS), developed and championed by our own Dr Debra Roberts, is now entrenched in the town planning schemes of eThekwini Municipality, providing the foundation for the ongoing battle to secure the protection and management of our remaining terrestrial ecosystems. Climate change adaptation, another key concern for cities like Durban, has fast become an equally strong component of the global debate as climate change mitigation, thanks in part to the efforts of many cities around the world. These examples remind me that change does happen, even if slowly.

Protecting the forests at Bufflesdraai

Photo: Errol Douwes

Some final thoughts…

There is no doubt that we have a long way to go to ensure environmental sustainability. But amidst the ongoing challenges of illegal sandmining, inappropriate development and increasing consumption and resource use, there are also signs of some of the shifts that are needed. We see this in the role Durban continues to play under the leadership of the Mayor in the climate change space; we see it when officials from multiple departments grapple with what it means to bring sustainability considerations to the forefront of how capital project investments are prioritised; we see it when firefighters battle blazes to protect the forests at Buffelsdraai; we see it in the persistence of our open spaces and nature reserves in the heart of our city; and we see it in the growing recognition of the need to work together in creative partnerships to achieve what is needed.

And so, as urban environmentalists, we keep showing up. We attend meetings where we know our message will be met with resistance. We look for opportunities to understand the complexities of our city’s challenges and embed the environmental message in ways that are meaningful; we monitor the state of our environment and the impact of our work to help strengthen the sustainability narrative; we stand firm in the spaces that are uncomfortable, when it would be easier to back down; and when we feel overwhelmed, we remember that change does happen, even if not at the pace we might like.

And so, while my heart might still pull me into the wilder places of our beautiful natural world, I like to think that my younger self would recognise that, for now, there are equally significant environmental contributions to be made right here. It’s in the centre of these urban spaces that the future of our African cities must be determined and reshaped.

Author photo: Pat McKrill

About the author

Jo Douwes works for eThekwini Municipality in the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department. Her work has a broad focus on urban resilience and sustainability and involves identifying strategic gaps in these spaces and then working across municipal sectors and external stakeholders to explore innovative and collaborative mechanisms to address them, to ensure a more sustainable development path for the city. For further information please contact Jo at: