Mayor Solly Msimanga is fighting corruption in Tshwane, South Africa. Plus: getting Yangon on the move again and news from Buenos Aires and Madrid.
South African cities are infamously hobbled by mismanagement. With an infrastructure gone to rot, services such as running water, sanitation and electricity are hampered by dodgy contracts and malfeasance. But Solly Msimanga, the new mayor of Tshwane – home to South Africa’s administrative capital Pretoria – is trying to change tack.
“We inherited a corrupt administration,” says Msimanga, who won the local elections last August for the opposition Democratic Alliance party. He cites vastly inflated contracts (many signed without following due process), a top-heavy civil service stacked with political appointees and more than 200 ghost employees in city hall as the reasons that the city is zar2bn (€147m) in the red.
The mayor began by rolling back on a glut of ceremonial functions, cutting unnecessary travel and introducing a more transparent budget and streamlined civil service. He hopes to free up the cash to set plumbers, electricians, cleaners and tree-cutters to work on the city and its 170 informal settlements. “You need clean government,” says Msimanga. “Otherwise whatever resource comes in goes into the same bottomless pit.”
It’s not much fun when your neighbourhood doesn’t appear on city maps. That’s long been the case for Villa 31, a sprawling Buenos Aires shanty, but since mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta moved his Department of Education there last year the area has been getting back on track. He has also secured a €380m loan from the World Bank, €160m of which is earmarked to modernise Villa 31.
The decrepit old buses that bully their way through Yangon’s gridlocked traffic have long been a necessary evil, responsible for ferrying a quarter of the city’s seven million residents around the former Burmese capital. But since January the city has been in the midst of a public-transport revolution: 300 public bus routes have been slashed to just 70 and 4,000 hulking rust-buckets are being replaced by compact models from Japan and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, hundreds of new bus-drivers are being trained with the aim of fixing the network’s woeful safety record. Most important, however, is the appointment of a streamlined civilian-run body – the regional government’s new Yangon Urban Transportation Authority – that has replaced the notoriously corrupt and reckless military-backed system.
Behind the shift is Yangon’s chief minister Phyo Min Thein, a former political prisoner who took his position after Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2016. The changes are profound, upending an ossified system shaped by decades of authoritarian rule. As with most revolutions there has been plenty of public confusion and chaos but urban-planners say that these audacious moves – a metaphor for Myanmar’s broader transition from military rule – will make sense in the long term.
Madrid is letting the locals decide how to remake the Plaza de España. In 2016, Madrileños were invited to choose from 60 ambitious proposals to revamp the plaza and the winner, called “Welcome Mother Nature”, ditches the square’s jumble of stone, dirt and restrictive railings for a tree-filled park. It buries surrounding traffic lanes and reconnects the plaza to the Royal Palace and ancient Egyptian Temple.
Good urbanism demands good planners - but there's a wide disparity between nations. In terms of accredited urban planners per 100,000 of the population, the UK has 38, Nigeria has 1.4 and India just 0.2.