Turning East London into a university town of 'new of opportunities'

EPD’s Professor Leslie Bank recently received funding from the Buffalo City Municipal Development Agency (BCMDA) to look at ways of maximising opportunities afforded by the rust-belt city of East London. This is part of the broader placemaking and development theme within in EPD. On Friday the 16 November 2018 Leslie chaired a workshop with stakeholders from local, provincial and national government and local business and education representatives. The purpose was to reflect on the past and consider possible pathways to ensuring East London is in the position to seize several new opportunities. Having worked in the region for two decades and worked with various local stakeholders from diverse backgrounds Professor Bank was considered to be the ideal person to facilitate this process. He is tasked with developing an action plan with BCMDA to bring various public, private and academic stakeholders into a partnership process for inner city urban regeneration. The BCMDA CEO, Mr Bulumko Nelana, has a strong vote of confidence from David Savage of the National Treasury and is seen as the man who will be able to put this plan into action.

Leslie Bank motivated restructuring East London’s inner-city precinct as a ‘university town’ with the 3 inner city universities (UFH, WSU and UNISA) and the three hospitals (Frere, St Dominic’s and East London Private) collaborating as urban anchors around which new opportunities for knowledge production and investment can be structured. He also urged the city to see students as an asset rather than a problem in the city and galvanise their contributions and creativity to drive an innovative and knowledge economy. In his presentation Professor Bank argued that research in East London and internationally enforced the need for “students, faculty and young professionals to live, work, learn and play in one attractive and fit-for-purpose area". However, he also warned that as the regeneration process gained momentum, and investment increased, it was critical to ensure that the precinct remained open and accessible to all. It is vital, he stated, that the “city must retain its graduates. We need a climate in which creative people flock to BCM”, rather than to other metropoles.

Some participants were more sceptical and argued that politics, inertia, weak local government structures, corruption and problems of capacity were confounding and delaying the ability of the city to realise development opportunities. As a result, they argued that property prices were plummeting as the city centre was becoming valueless and was not a sought-after investment site. However, a surprising number of optimists argued that investment in the city campus, residences, learning institutions and sports facilities would improve the campus, campus-life and subsequently the city centre making the entire area more attractive to investors and entrepreneurs. Investment in a science and innovation institute and a possible graduate school of business, many noted, would increase the value and ensure collaboration between the private sector and city officials. This would lead to greater opportunities for all, not only students and academics, and ensure sustained local investment in BCM and the dissemination of university knowledge, skills and innovation into the city. An agreed spin-off of the inner-city regeneration was the social and economic upliftment of the Quigney and Beachfront area. If planned and operationalised correctly this would ensure social and economic investment and increased employment and investment opportunities.

The optimists were adamant that BCM politicians and officials would need to step back and avoid political interference in implementing an agreed upon plan. The next steps in the project involve the production of a strategic report which will form the basis for various collaborative agreements between the different universities, business and the city. In January 2019, the 55 delegates will reconvene to thrash out an action plan which can be taken forward by BCMDA for endorsement by the city. Professor Bank has agreed to a similar process for regeneration in the city’s tourism sector, with a focus on heritage and cultural tourism.

Both the projects are the result of Professor Bank popularising his two most recent books produced at the HSRC amongst East London city leaders. They are Imonti Modern: Picturing the Life and Times of a South African location (co-authored with Mxolisi Qebeyi, HSRC Press, Best Red, 2017) and Anchored in Place: Rethinking Universities and Development in South Africa (co-edited with Nico Cloete, African Minds, 2018). Professor Bank’s final volume in the trilogy, which is a historical sociology of the city since the Second World War, City of Broken Dreams, will be published by HSRC and Michigan State University Press in January 2019.

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