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  • Patrick Moerane & Martin Bolton

Metabolic flows and infrastructure transitions

This project examines the prospects for reducing resource consumption and waste flows through the transformation of infrastructure networks in the Gauteng City-Region (GCR). The need for such an assessment arises from the realisation that city-regions can no longer continue to grow while assuming unlimited resources. The project focuses on tracking the throughput of water, energy, biomass (food and non-food), waste and if possible other materials in economic and human activities in the GCR, as well as on analysing the infrastructure that conducts flows of these inputs and waste outputs into, around and out of the city-region. While government has previously commissioned investigations into the state of environment or the state of energy in the province or its parts, this study looks to provide an overall picture of total resource consumption and waste outputs, in order to help clarify what would be entailed in an infrastructure transition to increase resource efficiency and sustainability in the GCR.

The Metabolic flows project has key policy relevance as it is expected to inform decision-making in both provincial and local government with respect to: addressing water, energy, biomass (food and non-food) and waste challenges; planning for bulk infrastructure transition; and formulating spatial plans that will help shape the morphology of the city region. The study is of academic relevance both nationally and internationally, hopefully contributing to the theory and practice of metabolic flow assessment, especially at a city-region scale. In addition, it is intended to provide a different view on how to conceptualise the GCR through the lens of its resource ‘footprints’, and in turn a basis for benchmarking it with other regions where such studies have been undertaken.

The project has gone through various stages since it was first conceptualised around 2011. In 2011/12 the project saw initial work with the development of a project proposal, followed by an exploratory investigation into the concept of urban metabolism and different methodological approaches for quantifying metabolic flows. This first year of work also saw a number of scoping studies providing direction for data collection.

In 2012/13 and 2013/14 the project saw the extensive collection of flows data on waste, energy, food, water and materials, either through commissioning of experts or through research by GCRO’s own staff.

In 2016/17, some of the insights from the project were written up in a jointly authored journal article, published as Culwick, C., Götz, G., Butcher, S., Harber, J., Maree, G., Mushongera, D. (2017). 'Doing more with less (data): complexities of resource flow analysis in the Gauteng City-Region' in Environmental Research Letters.

The current period will see the writing of a GCRO Occasional Paper that both consolidates and builds on the work done to date in the project, and also lays a foundation for future GCRO research in this space.

Looking to the future it is recognised that considerable further work could be done in this arena, inter alia to:

  1. Comprehensively map the infrastructure networks that span the region;
  2. Analyse and quantify the past and future sustainability challenges represented by how these networks are configured;
  3. Define the opportunities for a transition to new modalities for planning, financing, building, integrating, and maintaining new generation urban services systems and technologies;
  4. Analyse, through ‘political-economy of infrastructure’ / ‘ethnographies of the state’ lenses, those structures, processes, embedded policy assumptions etc. that inhibit the move to more sustainable resource consumption patterns or infrastructure configurations.


An Occasional Paper on the governance of resource flows and infrastructure transitions in the GCR is currently being researched and written. It examines current government thinking and practice around the governance of resource flows and infrastructure transitions, with a specific focus on Johannesburg.

Other work is underway, including rapid research papers on the coupled crisis around water security and infrastructure failings affecting specific suburbs in the city region, and on a regional approach to the energy crisis.


Academic publications

Culwick, C., Götz, G., Butcher, S., Harber, J., Maree, G., Mushongera, D. (2017). 'Doing more with less (data): complexities of resource flow analysis in the Gauteng City-Region'. Environmental Research Letters. 12(12) 125006. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa7c2


Alexis Schäffler-Thomson and Graeme Gotz (September 2020). 'Governing resource flows in the Gauteng City-Region', Southern African Cities Studies Conference, 3 September 2020.

Christina Culwick (May 2019). 'Data and complexities of resource flow analysis in the Gauteng City-Region', Urban metabolism in policy & practice: A global discussion, Cape Town. 9 May 2019.

Christina Culwick (November 2016). ‘Johannesburg perspective: Metabolic flows and futures’. REsource FUtures for sustainable Urbanisation(REFURB) workshop, Sheffield (UK), 22 November 2016

Christina Culwick (October 2016). Invited panellist on ‘Leaving no one behind: Challenges of urban water governance in the global south’. Decision Centre for a Desert City (DCDC), Arizona -State University, 13 October 2016

Gotz, G. (September 2013) ‘Resource crises and infrastructure transitions’, Gauteng Planning Forum, 10 September 2013

Gotz, G. Schäffler, A. and Bobbins, K. (July 2013) ‘Governing resource flows in the Gauteng City-Region’, 19th International Sustainable Development Research Society (ISDRC19) Conference, Spier Estate, Stellenbosch, 3 July 2013

Musango, J. (November 2012) ‘Understanding and measuring urban metabolism: the GCR perspective’, AFD-Wits Roundtable: Sustainability in Johannesburg and its wider metropolitan region, University of the Witwatersrand, 7-8 November 2012

Musango, J. (June 2012), ‘Conceptual foundations and approaches to urban metabolism assessment’, GCRO-ACC-SI workshop, Stellenbosch, 13-15 June 2012

Musango, J. Schäffler, A. Mushongera, D and Storie, M. (June 2012), ‘Towards assessing the metabolism of the Gauteng City-Region’, GCRO-ACC-SI workshop, Stellenbosch, 13-15 June 2012

Last updated: 3 March 2024


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