Exploring the Concept of a GIS-based Decision Support System for the Upgrading of Informal Settlements in South Africa’s North West Province

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Morrow, Edward
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With its first democratic elections held in 1994, The Republic of South Africa underwent a profound change. The newly elected regime faced a starkly polarized geographic and social landscape. On one hand were affluent suburbs and prosperous urban centers offering promising opportunities, while on the other were overcrowded, impoverished informal settlements on the urban peripheries. Underpinning this for many years was a system of racially biased planning that emphasized separate social, economic and physical development among black and non-black racial groups - a system which inscribed deep divisions into both the geography and the social memory of the country and its people (Turok, 2001). Unfortunately, the negative economic and social forces set in place under apartheid did not cease with the arrival of South African democracy. While some improvements have been cited with regard to housing provision and extension of services into previously neglected peripheral townships, the scale and character of investment from one locality to another varies markedly, implying broad continuity of past practice rather than progressive transformation (Turok, 2001). The legacy of apartheid remains embedded in conservative institutional and social practices that persist. Additionally, as recent assessments indicate, there is growing tension between the promulgators of law at the national level and those charged with implementing law at the local and municipal levels (Huchzermeyer, 2009). These negative realities, past and present, impede the nation's advancement, overriding the positive spirit and transformative intent of the new Constitution and its associated policy implements. Several years after heeding the UN’s call for the improvement of living conditions for “slum” dwellers with the endorsement of the Millenium Development Goals, a substantial proportion of South Africa’s population remains housed under conditions termed 'informal.' Further, it is estimated that the rate of informal settlement growth exceeds that of affordable housing provision (Turok, 2001). In situ upgrading, or upgrading in place, is internationally recognized as the best practice for addressing the plight of these fragile communities. Though the South African Constitution is clear in its commitment to this course of action, a lack of specificity and the absence of a replicable methodology for the implementation of the in situ upgrading process has created wide inconsistency and, often, irresponsibility in the handling of informal settlements (Huchzermeyer, 2009). Recent technological innovations have significantly increased the capacity of urban administrators to provide timely and consistent analyses of a high quality. Satellite imagery and other remote sensing technologies have enabled monitoring of urban growth, morphology and a wide range of phenomena essential to sound future planning. These outputs as well as data from other sources can be combined in a geographical information system (GIS) for management, interpretation and modeling (Bolstad, 2005). A GIS-based decision support system of this nature holds the potential to help South African municipal and provincial housing officials improve the quality, consistency, and effectiveness of investment through more informed planning. A GIS can be used to identify priority areas based on either urgent needs or latent potential for growth. It will also facilitate greater balance in the consideration of physical and social factors in the planning process, and provide a firm basis for decision-making. This paper will review the core objectives and structure of the National Informal Settlement Upgrading Program, and explore the concept of a provincial GIS-based decision support system to guide future upgrade projects in South Africa's Northwest Province.
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