An idea for transforming Africa’s decaying urban centres

Jonathan Liebmann is the man behind Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct, a previously deteriorated neighbourhood that has now been upgraded into a vibrant community. During the recent World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Addis Ababa, Liebmann explained how he managed to transform the area.

Jonathan Liebmann

Four years ago I identified an area on the east side of the Johannesburg CBD that was previously degenerated and dilapidated. There was very bad crime. Locals and tourists wouldn’t go into the area. It was a complete no-go zone.

I saw this degeneration really as an opportunity and I started thinking of ideas of how it can become a new place for people to live, work and play.

I began to initially attract artists for my first development, which is called Arts on Main. I attracted a really major artist, his name is William Kentridge. Following his interest, many other leading institutions followed and eventually I had an artistic community that became my foundation for what I now call The Maboneng Precinct. Maboneng means “place of light” in Sotho, which is one of the languages spoken in South Africa.

Following the artistic community that had been built, I started thinking of a much bigger idea – basically an entire area that can be developed around Arts on Main. Since then I’ve bought another 19 buildings, we’ve got 20 buildings now, of which five have been converted into office spaces, hotels and residential spaces.

We renovated the buildings in a very clever way so as to promote collaboration and creativity amongst the tenants and owners. This has also helped to create a proper foundation for the community of Maboneng.

Recently we have introduced a transport agency. So we are starting to look at taking over what would normally be a government role in an urban environment. We’ve got a shuttle service and we’ve started bicycle hires. We do all the pavements and all the landscaping in the area. It is a complete infrastructural upgrade of the area.

We have also created many opportunities for young entrepreneurs from all over Africa. So we have Senegalese, Tanzanian and Ethiopian restaurants, furniture designers and fashion designers. It has really become a melting pot for Africa.

We have also engaged a lot with the poor community around the area. We have started a programme called ‘One Crèche at a Time’, which upgrades crèches in the area. We have also started a skateboarding programme with the kids, which happens after school every day. We are really trying to integrate the poorer and wealthier communities of Johannesburg city.

My message to property developers across Africa is to see the potential in the dilapidated buildings in our cities and to transform them into spaces that inspire ideas.

This article is a slightly edited extract from Liebmann’s comments during a session entitled New Solutions: Urban Africa at the 2012 World Economic Forum on Africa.