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Eco-estates ‘failed to contribute to just sustainabilities’
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 15/03/2022

​Do eco-estates or “green" gated communities in South Africa enhance economic and social sustainability or is the focus solely on environmental sustainability? Are they simply islands of sustainability or do they actually contribute to the broader sustainability of urban areas?

These are just some of the questions Anjali Mistry and Dr Manfred Spocter from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Stellenbosch University tried to answer in a study published recently in Local Environment. Mistry and Spocter investigated eco-estates in South Africa to establish whether they really contribute to just sustainabilities.

The researchers say it has been posited that eco-estates or “green" lifestyle estates contribute to the greening of the built environment through various design features; that they play a role in the conservation of scarce natural resources; and that they promote greater sustainability through living in harmony with nature.

“What we found, however, is that although eco-estates have been touted as the answer to the negative social, economic, and environmental impacts of gated communities, they have failed to contribute to just sustainabilities, that is, sustainable development that also focuses on social and economic equity.

“Benefits such as security, exclusivity, and open space accrue only to those inside the eco-estates, certainly not to broader society or the environment as a whole. In doing so, eco-estates do very little toward addressing human inequalities and real societal needs. There are no just sustainabilities.

“The inherent exclusionary social, economic and environmental nature of eco-estates does not equate with a just sustainability which advocates a state in which environmental quality is linked to human equality. Environmental quality and human equity cannot be separated nor seen as two individual components."

According to researchers, just sustainabilities in eco-estates will remain a pipedream unless interventions to widen the access to nature and sustainable living are implemented. “Until then, eco-estates will remain islands of exclusion of nature and 'green' living."

They point out that in 2018 there were 68 operational private eco-estates, consisting

of purposely-named “eco-estates" and estates marketed as environmentally friendly, with another 46 such estates on the cards nationally. The 114 eco-estates are (or will be) concentrated and clustered in and around Cape Town and Johannesburg. Four of the nine provinces (Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and Limpopo) account for 72% of all built and proposed eco-estates.

The researchers argue that these eco-estates may be able to respond to and mitigate some of the environmental impacts of development by protecting “natural" land, but they have commodified nature through preserving this land and this is in no way sustainable.

“The quality of life that eco-estates offer, along with the nature they claim is being 'conserved', are assigned a market value. Property developers misuse the terms 'eco' and 'sustainable' for marketing purposes, thus engaging in greenwashing to create false impressions of engaging in sustainable development.

“Also, agricultural activities are prohibited in the eco-estates. This alludes to a very 'selective sustainability' produced by these estates. This also compounds the issue that these estates do not conform to the notion of 'just sustainabilities'.

“If food is produced in these estates, it should be made available to others outside the estate. This seems to be a promising way for eco-estates to become inclusive and to contribute to a just sustainability."

Although having mechanisms to reduce reliance on municipal services, eco-states also contribute to urban sprawl, which brings its own environmental challenges and headaches for city planners, add the researchers.

“The upgrading of infrastructure to accommodate these developments, such as the widening of roads, increased levels of pollution and changes to the microclimate when trees and other vegetation are removed, results in further loss of natural capital."

Natural capital refers to the natural resources and services provided by the ecosystem that contribute toward climate regulation and the carbon cycle, which ultimately enable life cycles to continue in a sustainable way.

According to the researchers, the social, economic, and environmental influences of gated communities could drastically affect the sustainability and ethical credibility of any type of gated community in South Africa.

They add that the lack of clarity on what constitutes an eco-estate will continue to have far-reaching influences on the way eco-estates are developed and marketed.​

  • SOURCE: Anjali Mistry & Manfred Spocter (2022): Just sustainabilities: the case of eco-estates in South Africa, Local Environment. DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2022.2027352