Young Urbanist movements in cities like Cape Town showcase an opportunity that Australia is missing as we shape the culture of our cities.

Cape Town, South Africa is a scenic paradise. You know, those images of a majestic Table Mountain, with the fog rolling off it, blanketing the city beneath it. And in the distance, with an ocean backdrop, an iconic Cape Town stadium. A stunning image of built environment meets the natural. It’s a city that you can fall in love with quickly.

Between Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria, it’s easy to find your urbanist instincts becoming finely tuned. And regardless of setting, sector, or belief, if you care about your city, you are an urbanist. This is what matters at least, to Rashiq Fataar of Future Cape Town, a non-profit think tank based in Cape Town, South Africa.

And for Fataar, it was here that Future Cape Town germinated.

A city shaping project, the spark

In 2010, South Africa became the first African nation to host the World Cup, the international championship for men’s football. Like many other cities throughout the country, Cape Town would play host to multiple games as part of the competition, thus becoming the recipient of multiple new infrastructure investments, including the Cape Town Stadium. And for this stadium alone, a price tag of more than AU$400 million was accrued. No small price for a city in deep need of more basic infrastructure such as rail, housing and health care.

But for the Cup, the investment would yield catalytic investment that would bring legacy opportunities to the community. Or would it? That’s questionable, says Fataar.

From the start, this major public infrastructure investment was exclusionary in terms of its engagement with a wide public. Little to no information about the design process was made public (as many as eight designs were proposed for the publicly funded stadium, but none were made public except the winning design), and the community was not afforded the opportunity to participate in the process, given the strict government and FIFA deadlines.

Fataar found this unacceptable. How does a City invest in such a critical piece of urban infrastructure for public benefit and not even engage the community? The fundamental principles of democracy, of transparency, of accountability were non-existent.

This was the spark that lit the Future Cape Town flame that now burns bright across other national and international cities, including Johannesburg, Lagos and London.

Nurturing the next generation urbanists

From a humble blog site to a global resource for urban affairs, Future Cape Town has done nothing but thrive. But more recently, something really exciting happened, with the launch of Young Urbanists, a network of more than 100 people under 40 who are coming together to network, exchange and deliberate on the future of their city. The goal, says Fataar, is to connect the next generation of urbanists who will influence, shape, develop, and ultimately impact the transformation of our cities.

Throughout the year, they run events, including field trips to development sites, buildings, and other spaces. The Young Urbanists take turns hosting film nights, socials, informal lunches and dinners. Engagement with industry and the corporate sector also plays an important role, with job and networking opportunities now a common activity.

“Your City Needs You!” is the message driving the Young Urbanists program. This message resonates and inspires. At a recent Young Urbanists dinners when I was in Cape Town saw young students and practitioners deep diving on city planning, management, urban design, politics and collaboration. Strategic questions were asked, fundamental principles were challenged, and some great home-made soup was had.

cape town

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Looking at young Australians getting their feet wet in urbanist ideals over the years, those options have not been readily available. Where were projects such as Future Brisbane? Where was the networking with visiting global leaders, participating in charrettes with local development projects, advocating for inclusive growth in our country?

A beer with fellow students was as good as it got, kind of, and maybe a conference or two. It was good networking, yes, but was the infrastructure in place to nurture a culture of future urban leaders, cross sector urbanists, community organisers, and change agents? Not really.

Young Urbanists Australia

And so, here we are, 2016. The lucky country neck deep in urban challenges, from aging infrastructure, housing and affordability challenges, to a carbon intensive economy, and the NIMBY voices. Our cities designed for the automobile, its fingerprints touching all aspects of our lives.

Yes, we are doing some spectacular things, advancing some great policy, programs and projects. But let’s not get carried away too quickly. We are passing on some pretty wicked problems to our kids and those that follow them. But looking at what’s going on in Cape Town and elsewhere, there is often a generation of young urbanists with an appetite for learning, deliberating, risk taking and innovating. They are not shy in speaking up. They ‘get’ cities. They are hyper-connected, and can mobilise quickly. They are socialising urbanity, and loving it.

If we invested more in our young urbanists, our exhausting sprint to a sustainability utopia would be just that much more effective. It feels like it’s just the right thing to do, like we should light a spark and see what happens. So let’s fire up a young urbanists movement – our cities cannot afford us not to.

Image: Future Cape Town