Municipal planning law and policy for sustainable cities in South Africa

Angela van der Berg

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Cities have long been the pioneers of and driving force behind the development and evolution of human societies. The significance of cities as drivers of the sustainable development agenda received its strongest recognition to date with the adoption of, amongst others, the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, and the UN Habitat III Declaration (the New Urban Agenda) in 2016. These international policy instruments frame the context in terms of which urban sustainability, or sustainable cities, must be pursued across the globe.

Of the many fields of law that are applicable to cities, several scholars and research groups increasingly maintain that planning law and policy has a specific role to play in addressing the challenges that cities face, and in guiding them towards a more sustainable development trajectory. Notably, South Africa’s planning law system has recently been transformed by a new planning law framework. In contrast with the pre-1994 legislation, the country’s new framework legislation for planning prioritises the transformation of South Africa’s cities into more efficient, equal, resilient and sustainable spaces. It also places municipalities at the heart of urban planning and enables them to develop and implement a number of governance instruments that can be used to integrate social, economic, and environmental factors into the development and reshaping of the country’s urban areas.

While much research pertaining to South Africa’s apartheid planning history and its shaping of human settlements and cities has been disseminated over the years, significant research and enquiry remains necessary to better comprehend and apply the country’s new planning system. This is particularly true in the context of municipal planning and rapid urbanisation, and the extent of local government’s legal responsibilities and authority for planning to promote sustainability in their areas of jurisdiction. The original contribution of this thesis lies in its use of a mixed method research. The approach consists of employing both legal research methodology and qualitative empirical research methodology towards analysing the municipal planning function, both in theory and in practice. The research also provides a detailed inquiry into the understanding of the sustainable city concept, and the scope of local governments’ responsibility to promote sustainability through planning. For this purpose, the research critically questions and analyses the extent to which municipal planning law and policy promotes the development of sustainable cities in South Africa. The Gauteng province is employed as the subject of a case study to illustrate the role and function of municipal planning law and policy in promoting the development of sustainable cities in the country’s smallest yet most urban province. Specific emphasis is placed on the planning law and policy instruments of three municipalities in the Province, namely the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality (a category A municipality); the Emfuleni Local Municipality (a category B municipality); and the Sedibeng District Municipality (a category C municipality). Each of the municipalities, despite their differences in size, faces unique sustainability challenges which include, amongst others, spatial segregation, service backlogs, high levels of poverty and inequality, and conflicting interests in terms of the protection of environmentally sensitive areas and responsible resource use on the one hand and the promotion of economic development on the other. The municipalities also differ in terms of their institutional and financial capacity. While these municipalities do not represent the entire Gauteng province, they do serve as a meaningful lens through which to consider the extent to which municipal planning law and policy currently promote sustainability in varying urban contexts.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Laws
Awarding Institution
  • Tilburg University
  • du Plesis, A., Promotor, External person
  • Verschuuren, Jonathan, Promotor
Award date6 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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