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Moghayedi, A.; Mehmood, A.; Michell, K.; Ekpo, C.O. Neighborhood Wellbeing of Townships in South Africa. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 05 December 2023).
Moghayedi A, Mehmood A, Michell K, Ekpo CO. Neighborhood Wellbeing of Townships in South Africa. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed December 05, 2023.
Moghayedi, Alireza, Abid Mehmood, Kathy Michell, Christiana Okobi Ekpo. "Neighborhood Wellbeing of Townships in South Africa" Encyclopedia, (accessed December 05, 2023).
Moghayedi, A., Mehmood, A., Michell, K., & Ekpo, C.O.(2023, June 07). Neighborhood Wellbeing of Townships in South Africa. In Encyclopedia.
Moghayedi, Alireza, et al. "Neighborhood Wellbeing of Townships in South Africa." Encyclopedia. Web. 07 June, 2023.
Neighborhood Wellbeing of Townships in South Africa

Townships in South Africa are characterized by underdeveloped urban neighborhoods on the periphery of cities, where their inhabitants suffer from a poor quality of life. 

housing neighborhood township socioeconomic wellbeing

1. Introduction

Enhancing the living conditions and quality of life of a broader South African populace in the national upper poverty line around townships remains a daunting task and a huge concern to both the state, civil society, and international organizations, as efforts to improve the wellbeing of cities and citizens are prioritized and emphasized [1]. South African townships are adjudged to be semi-permanent human settlements in the form of dormitory spaces for low-income earners, found in major South African metropolises. These townships are characterized by poor, inadequate, and substandard housing that offers no tenure of security for residents and inappropriate housing that is often non-compliant with building bylaws or planning regulations [2]. Occupants regularly experience indoor air pollution, overcrowding, and inadequate access to healthcare, basic services, and public amenities [3], combined with minimal access to utilities’ infrastructure such as energy, water, education, and employment [4]. Urban density is partially attributed to these inappropriate spatial settings and insufficient property rights’ adaptations [5]. The wellbeing of the township habitants of urban communities is usually exacerbated by their exponentially unplanned growth [6]. This is partly triggered by the migration from rural to urban areas for greener pastures [7]. The micro- and macroeconomic benefits of migration have already been covered in previous studies [7].
However, the wellbeing of residents and communities in these townships remains poor, as the lack of essential reliable urban infrastructures and adequate housing is weakened by rapid and unanticipated urbanization [2]. Consequently, as the population grows, the townships become more dense, giving rise to the need for more housing [2]. This has prompted the South African government to initiate various housing intervention programs, but housing backlogs have continued to persist [8]. Furthermore, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) integrated housing approach has extended housing concerns beyond the dwelling areas to also include the communities and neighborhoods as interconnected facets that contribute to health and wellbeing [9]. Thus, the wellbeing and health of housing occupants not only depend on the infrastructural enhancement and tenure security but also on the neighborhood environment and structural design attributes [10]. There is an interdisciplinary consensus that peoples’ habitat broadly contributes to their overall health and wellbeing [11]; yet, the township inhabitants in South African cities are increasingly plagued by disproportionate economic and health burdens, exacerbated by poverty and vulnerability [12]. This reinforces the physical and mental health risks, further entrenched in the persistent disparity in health and socioeconomic opportunities [12]. The location and conditions of the townships’ infrastructure and services alone are not sufficient to address wellbeing issues. The health and wellbeing of individuals are greatly influenced by the social, structural, spatial, and environmental makeup of the area [13].
Many scholars have alluded to the fact that the resilience of cities and urban neighborhoods is strongly linked to the health and wellbeing of citizens [14][15][16]. Various scholars have used different mathematical techniques to model wellbeing in neighborhoods. 

2. Wellbeing Definitions, Interrelations, and Intersectionality

Attention has been paid to wellbeing research using various indicators for its evaluation. The term wellbeing may be popular in the scientific debate, with diverse interpretations, but it does not have a standard definition at the conceptual level [17]. However, WHO defines wellbeing as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This does not only apply to an individual’s physical health but also embodies the diverse perceptions of the urban environment and the degree of compactness and crowdedness with the associated spatial experience [18]. Urbanization and industrialization are the key factors that aggravate population growth and increase the degree of congestion in cities, with challenging spatial formations such as townships. These spatial formations are weighed on different scales ranging from the house to the general neighborhood and form a crucial part of the definition of wellbeing. Moreover, the housing composition, the psychosocial home environment, and the attributes of the neighborhood and community (low income) have a significant impact on the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of low-income neighborhoods and communities [19].
Again, density and wellbeing are viewed from the prism of sustainability and resilience concepts. There are increasing discourses that cities offer exclusive opportunities to improve resilience to the negative occurrences in cities but also to attaining sustainable development [20]. So, sustainability conceptualizations generally require that humans do not compromise the needs of the future while addressing the needs of the present generation. The concept arose from the realization that there is a need to balance economic growth and social progress with environmental concerns [1]. The United Nations reports that 68% of the global population could be living in urban areas by 2050. Moreover, in 2015, Africa had the second highest population growth in the world, with about 200 million slum dwellers, which then aggravates the challenges of housing, infrastructure and basic services, and the growth of inadequate housing and neighborhoods [21]. Therefore ecological, social, and economic tri-domain sustainability concepts are the parameters adjudged in tackling inadequate human settlements’ and townships’ sustainability challenges.
The conceptualization of urban resilience [22] can be traced to C.S. Holling’s momentous works defining resilience as “a measure of the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables” [23]. In broader evolutionary terms, urban resilience is seen as “a proactive rather than reactive view to planning, policy-making and strategic steering in which communities play a vital role for resilient place shaping through their capacity for active learning, robustness, ability to innovate and adaptability to change” [24]. Resilience has been related to the institutional ability to minimize danger and threats and to adapt, impact, and regulate urban systems after a disruptive occurrence or a challenging event [25].
Studies have also signified how psychological aspects of resilience exist as safeguarding factors in minimizing the social, economic, and environmental challenges in neighborhoods [22]. It is broadly acknowledged to be the individual or collective capability to effectively cope with stress or change [26]. It is also associated as a competing concept when incorporating the social and cultural aspects of sustainability [27] or as a measurable indicator [28]. One of the significant aspects of psychological resilience in terms of wellbeing could be associated with family resilience, defined as a household’s ability to resist and recover after stressful misfortunes or to even become stronger and more innovative, as the township dwellers appear to have adapted to similar stresses. This is manifested in a household’s cohesion, communication, understanding the challenges, and being able to remain resilient in the face of adverse situations, by being resourceful and persistent [29][30].
Subsequently, resilience can be transformed into health and social wellbeing when faced with sudden disasters. Being able to resist and cope with adversities naturally strengthens one’s mental and physical wellbeing in the townships. Zeng et al. [31] affirm that urban sustainability and resilience solicit the conservation of communal and societal health and wellbeing in the broader framework of environmental transformation. The United Nations Conference on housing and sustainable urban development (Habitat III) in Quito 2016, proposed the new urban agenda, representing the new shared vision of cities and settlements for all in their “right to the city”. The sustainable integrated urban approach aims to achieve suitable and affordable housing as a key tool for achieving an adequate standard of living and wellbeing. The principles of the agenda are to promote access to physical, social infrastructure, and services to all human beings equally and to demolish all forms of poverty. The UN’s eleventh goal aims to increase affordable housing and consider upgrading the slums and, in addition, to ensure that all people around the world have the right of access to affordable, adequate, safe housing and settlements.
In South Africa, a township is an area on the periphery of a town or city that has historically been used to uphold racially segregated living arrangements. The township system was originally put in place during apartheid, a political system that was in place from 1948 to the early 1990s. Living conditions in townships were typically poor and overcrowded. After apartheid ended, the townships in South Africa were desegregated and some have been improved to provide the development of greater wealth for their occupants, including the development of a middle-income group. However, most of the South African townships still lack essential infrastructure, and many residents of townships live in poverty with poor wellbeing conditions [32].
Hence, township dwellers encounter both social and spatial marginalization and are exposed to mental, physical, and overall wellbeing risk [3]. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) accentuated the importance of addressing this need particularly through the universal advocacy for adequate housing and sustainable habitats in SDG 11. This goal attempts to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” via gaining access to safe, adequate and affordable housing for all. WHO’s Housing and Health Guidelines [33] stress the impact that an existing habitat has in shaping and influencing one’s health and wellbeing. SDG 3, on the other hand, promotes healthy living and wellbeing for everybody at all ages. The interplay between SDG 3 and SDG 11, which targets addressing the lack of habitable surroundings (SDG11), is crucial for achieving health and wellbeing for all (SDG3). Concerns on densities and the general deplorable environmental hygiene of townships are raised because they provide the work force for most cities in Sub-Saharan Africa generally. This by implication means that the higher the wellbeing associated risks, the higher the chances of infection and the transmission of infections in those settlements, which consequently poses risks for other parts of an urban precinct or the city as a whole [34].

3. Wellbeing Attributes

The latest study of the relationship between health and building conditions has recognized that the enhancement of air ventilation, water use, and refurbishment are affiliated with positive impacts on mental and physical health and consequently the quality of life of individuals and families [35]. However, it was difficult to verify the causal connections due to the lack of empirical data and methodological rigor in the studies employed for the review. This is the crux of the issue. The limited empirical evidence due to the complexity and constant flux of townships presents a fundamental challenge for researchers [36]. The need to address most of the deficits enumerated here is stressed in the SDGs as synchronized expectations worldwide to attain sustainable development by 2030, in particular, via the provision of adequate livable healthy environments, which seek to create safe, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable cities. The risks of density in townships appear to be embodied in the tri-domain socioeconomic and environmental parameters of sustainability which affect the epidemiological aspects of the townships. The ‘new normal’ should involve adopting a more socioeconomic and environmentally responsive lifestyle for a better community. Sustainability, which promotes community resilience, in socioeconomic–environmental terms, should be the watchword in designing and planning for health. Therefore, the built environment should play that transformative role through innovative and creative thinking in planning and ensuring the environmentally responsive and friendly design of houses when the upgrading and restructuring of townships are allowed.
Many authors have agreed that a spatially incorporated development is meant to reduce urban integration and alleviate climate change [6][37]. This is almost impossible in townships as greenhouse gas emissions from crowded townships and informal settlement dwellings pollute the environment. The poor housing configurations are characterized by increased in-house gas emissions and environmental pollution. The inhabitants of these neighborhoods share some environmental risks that emanate from inadequate planning that lead to insufficient access to healthy sanitation and urban amenities [1]. This presents the perception of neighborhood effects, characterized by factors that impact health that are independent from household levels. These factors include geographic factors, social interactions, institutional factors, and the physical environment that people live in [38][39]. It is important to comprehend the complicated dynamic of the local context and conditions of the settlement’s surroundings while evaluating wellbeing.
From a spatial planning lens, Shekhar et al. [40] agree that wellbeing can be viewed as a subjective (individual) term, while Atkinson et al. [41] assert it from a collective (community) dimension, comprising shared culture and economy. The implications, the area for participation, access, and security are aspects to consider. Planning and policy practices have an impact on these aspects, and because of their interdependencies, a change in one element can either increase or decrease one’s sense of total wellbeing [40]

4. Township Situation in South Africa

South Africa is recognized as one of Africa’s most urbanized countries (68% compared to 44% average urbanization rate of Africa), with overwhelming post-apartheid rapid urbanization transcending the state’s capacity to provide adequate urban infrastructures and services. This has prompted the proliferation of formal and informal settlements in the townships with profound disparities and a warped urban landscape [4]. Apartheid spatial planning and the neglect of black urban residential areas remain evident in the planning system. These townships are often located at the urban periphery far away from the city’s core and are characterized by penurious housing and infrastructural absence, intense poverty, and multiple health and social challenges.
Aside from the apartheid planning laws that encouraged racial segregation, the housing formation challenge is partly attributed to South Africa’s planning and building laws commonly shared by all former British colonies in Africa inherited from Great Britain. The colonial regulations served partly to put in place a system of urban racial segregation between the colonizers and the colonized [42], and this was replicated in South African cities. This has largely impacted housing patterns in most South African cities. Although apartheid ended in 1994, it left a legacy of housing inequity, informality, and inadequacy throughout the country [43]. Apartheid laws restricted black South Africans in terms of property rights, justified the forcible relocation of thousands of black South Africans to the outskirts of the city, and left segregated neighborhoods. So, South Africa’s planning was based on these racial lines, whose structure served as a plan for apartheid’s spatial ideology, separating white and racially defined black communities [44].
There have been conscious attempts by the post-apartheid government to improve townships and housing brought about the introduction of township and housing policies, such as the Comprehensive Housing Plan and Breaking New Ground strategy, etc.; yet, little has been achieved to change the township situation in South Africa. The post-apartheid new constitution has defined the new South Africa to be deracialized and not limited to social and spatial potency for everyone [45]; however, the reality is different; a kind of “neo-apartheid has emerged, particularly in the socio-spatial distinction mechanisms and race-oriented seclusion procedures that are in place in the South Africa’s urban areas” [45], even though the policies were within a framework of a paradigm shift towards a complete integrated social change in which townships were identified as “a manifestation of structural social change, the resolution of which requires a multi-sectoral partnership, long-term commitment and political endurance” with emphasis on economic development and sustainability [4]. However, the wellbeing challenges in townships still persist, and little has been achieved in addressing the problems. The problems identified in the case studies are similar in nature.


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