On a sunny afternoon in April, Luyanda Mphalwa gazed down on Portland, Oregon from the shiny silver aerial tram that climbs from the city’s riverside downtown to the hilltop campus of Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). Below, the angled cables of the Tilikum Crossing Bridge across the Willamette River echoed the slopes of Mount Hood on the horizon, just as they were designed to. Mphalwa was a long way from his home in Cape Town, where he works as an architect and urban designer for DesignSpaceAfrica, trying to make the city a better place to live for as many of its 3.7 million residents as possible.
At first glance, this Pacific Northwest city seems to have little in common with South Africa’s seaside metropolis, besides a proximity to water, mountains, and world-class wine making. But as a participant in the sixth annual EcoDistricts Incubator, a three-day boot camp on how to create thriving, environmentally friendly neighborhoods and cities, Mphalwa was seeing firsthand how lessons learned in Oregon’s damp northwest corner apply on South Africa’s sunny southern tip and beyond. Mphalwa’s team is one of six attending this year’s Incubator to learn how to put it into practice.
“We’re in the next-generation neighborhood-building business,” says CEO Rob Bennett. “We have created a powerful framework and tool for taking action – EcoDistricts Certified. It provides city makers with a collaborative, holistic approach to creating places where we all want to work and live. With two-thirds of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, how we build cities, especially at the neighborhood and district level, is the biggest challenge of our lifetime.”
The EcoDistricts-related project that brought Mphalwa 10,000 miles across the Atlantic is called the Old Mutual Mupine Development, a planned mixed-use affordable housing development in downtown Cape Town that is designed to reverse decades of racial segregation that continues long after apartheid.
“One legacy of apartheid in Cape Town is that the inner city has been reserved for white people,” he says. “People of color were displaced into residential suburbs and township areas, yet those areas that are closer to work are unaffordable.” Countrywide, the waiting list for affordable housing is approaching 400,000 families.
Every morning, hundreds of thousands of people pour into central Cape Town on an inefficient public transport network, spending hours in traffic and then repeating it in reverse every afternoon. Spending 40 percent of your paycheck on transportation isn’t unheard of—and in a country where half the people live in poverty, that’s a problem.
The Mupine project will replace a golf course on land owned by the Old Mutual Life Assurance company, whose headquarters is next door. As planned, the development will offer 700 affordable housing units, interspersed with recreation facilities and small-scale retail and business spaces.
The plans that Mphalwa helped create incorporate green design principals like bio-gas digesters and reed beds for water purification, along with plenty of pedestrian paths and green open spaces. Limited on-site parking and an existing rail connection with the rest of the city will encourage residents to leave their cars at home. It is designed to be a catalytic project from the City – showcasing its commitment to sustainability and livability.
Old Mutual has other, larger developments in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Bloemfontein, says Cheryl Hillman, Mupine Project Manager, one of the seven others on Mphalwa’s Incubator team. “We will be looking at implementing the same things that we put into the Mupine project. If we can make it work there, then it can work on any of our projects.”
Since the first Incubator in 2012, EcoDistricts has welcomed teams from 36 cities in 20 states and four countries to Portland to learn how to integrate sustainability, urban planning, and community development strategies to fight challenges like income disparity and ecological degradation. In total, more than 50 projects have come through Incubator, ranging from the redevelopment of a major downtown medical campus in Austin to a new integrated neighborhood and park development on the edge of Charleston, South Carolina’s historic city center. This year’s lineup included a team representing the Portland Innovation Quadrant (IQ), a chunk of the central city anchored by four education institutions: the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and Portland State University (PSU) on the west side of the river, and Portland Community College (PCC) and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) on the east side. Together, the IQ represents a large public investment in the south end of the central city that will ultimately be home to many more jobs and residents.
The acronym-rich project will cement the city’s growing reputation as a progressive, still-relatively-affordable hub for creativity, says Erin Flynn of PSU, member of the IQ Incubator team.
“We’re laying the groundwork for Portland’s innovation economy,” she says. “It’s been 20 years in the making, but it feels like we’re at a moment now where everything comes together.”
A major step was the 2015 opening of the Tilikum Crossing Bridge, the first in the country designed for buses, light rail, bikes, and pedestrians (but no cars), which directly linked Portland’s South Waterfront and industrial Central Eastside districts.
“How do we use this physical proximity to cross-fertilize and build a pipeline of new generation jobs and leaders?,” asks Flynn. “How do we keep industrial real estate affordable to incubators and startups, not just condos and typical commercial development? How do we leverage public and private investments to support the clean tech and green economy? These are questions we’re asking.”
Two teams at the Incubator hailed from the Homewood neighborhood in eastern Pittsburg. The predominantly African American neighborhood has struggled for decades with chronic disinvestment and high levels of unemployment, homelessness, and pollution, which ironically has left the area ripe for redevelopment, says Fred Brown, President and CEO of the Homewood Children’s Village, a local educational and community-development initiative.
“We have over five thousand vacant lots, but in the past 48 months property values have doubled and rentals have quadrupled.”
The challenge is preparing Homewood’s residents for the coming changes, Brown says, starting with about 2,000 children in three schools.
“Our job is to build vulnerable people’s skillset and to break through cognitive dissonance, such as steering people toward two-year degrees in IT or manufacturing to better fit the projected job market. We are attracted to the work of EcoDistricts because of their whole systems approach to building community.”
The final two teams were also from South Africa, each tasked with redeveloping part of downtown Johannesburg. The Metro Centre Precinct and Braamfontein West both propose a mix of commercial buildings and residential housing; the former incorporates a city council chamber, while the latter encompasses the technology hub of the Wits University.
As diverse as the projects were, they all had the same goal: sustainable, equitable urban development that doesn’t leave anyone behind. For three days, participants compared notes during presentations, work sessions, and tours to different parts of Portland to see how local planners and developers were dealing with the city’s explosive growth. They came away with a roadmap for taking action and a sense of common purpose with their colleagues from across the globe.
Mphalwa says the experience gave him new perspective and inspiration.
“Our challenges in South Africa are multi-layered,” he says. “How do you create residential opportunities closer to work? How do you make housing affordable and livable?”
Even as a middle-class professional, he says, it’s almost impossible to afford a home in Cape Town.
“Our cities are not livable in the sense of being sustainable and being multi-functional. They are very one-dimensional. I would like to live in a neighborhood where my kids can walk around and play, walk to school, and our cities just don’t provide that.”
That’s what brought him to Portland, he says—to share his plans and hopes for Cape Town, and to learn what Portland and other cities have done to achieve these goals.
“To have an idea about sustainability is one thing,” he says, “but to actually be able to implement it is another.”