Towards a 24-hour city for Cape Town

The N2 and train tracks on the perifery of Cape Town, showing the slopes of District Six. Photo by Jacques Marais Media

An innovative housing solution for Cape Town (and for so many cities like it) is overdue. We have inherited urban planning that was based on a legacy of segregation and our challenge has been — and continues to be — how to shift this geographic foundation into a new socially cohesive reality. As we rise to this challenge there are a number of tensions at play.

Recently, the Cape Town Partnership co-hosted a discussion – entitled Reviving Our Inner Cities – about the pressing need for a more diverse housing solution in Cape Town, particularly near and in the Central City. Our symposium partner was the National Association of Social Housing Organisations (NASHO), but importantly the City of Cape Town, the Western Cape Government and the private sector were all at the table as we debated the complex issues surrounding urban densification and the need for more affordable housing in our city.

An innovative housing solution for Cape Town (and for so many cities like it) is overdue. We have inherited urban planning that was based on a legacy of segregation and our challenge has been — and continues to be — how to shift this geographic foundation into a new socially cohesive reality. As we rise to this challenge there are a number of tensions at play.

Connecting Cape Town’s spatial divides

Global urbanisation is escalating and the percentage of the world’s people living in urban centres is expected to rise to 60% by 2030. The population itself will rise significantly at the same time. The end result is that a lot of people will need to live effective, meaningful lives in a dense urban culture. Urbanisation is a form of social transition and within the transition there not only needs to be an observance of the very basic of our human rights, but there also needs to be respect for the quality of human life and happiness. How will we strike the right balance between the provision of mixed-income housing tiers, how will we sustain the right to diversity of our urban population, and how will we avert the crisis that may very well evolve if we do not create a city mirrored by the values on which we wish to be identified and defined?

A crucial factor in breaking down socio-economic divides, the importance of an integrated housing strategy for communities in Cape Town’s urban development cannot be overestimated. The continued construction of lower-income housing closer to our city’s economic centres will go a long way towards reducing the extreme socio-economic inequality that is a legacy of our divided past and a sign of our transitioning present. By building communities that provide housing options across multiple income tenure systems, we will start to undo the spatial divides that still splinter our city.

Encouraging more affordable housing opportunities closer to the Central City will help to encourage higher densities, thus reducing transport costs for lower-income individuals and decreasing wasteful time spent in transit. Speaking at the symposium, Professor Francois Viruly (independent non-executive director at Orion Real Estate Limited and a professor in real estate investment and finance at the University of Cape Town) pointed out that South Africans spend on average 20% of their salary on transport and 20-30% on housing. Densification will not only ease this financial stranglehold but will allow people more time to create opportunities and integrate with their families and communities. This will also ease the environmental payload that sprawling low-density housing units put on our delicate ecosystem.

Learners in the Central City, photo by Jacques Marais MediaCreating a 24-hour city

The Cape Town partnership has been in existence for thirteen years and, in 2008, together with the City of Cape Town, the Central City Improvement District and our private sector partners, we put together the Central City Development Strategy, which served as a guiding framework for our mandate as Cape Town Partnership;  to manage develop and promote the Central City of Cape town and create a blueprint for the future of our central city. One of the key objectives laid out in this vision was that we would need to triple densification over the subsequent ten years. We lag behind on this goal. Five years in, we have approximately 3200 high-end residential units but around 60% of them are not occupied by permanent residents, rather serving as a pool for short-term to- lets for business or holiday tourists.

In a tryst of interconnectivity, the densification of the city both needs and stimulates the presence of a night-time economy. The night-time economy not only provides for a safer city with more employment opportunities, but a 24-hour working city also attracts more tourism, culture and creativity. At present the city, with the exception of small pockets, becomes a ghost town after dark and on the weekend. The reason for this is that there is no resident community to populate it, no one left to shop, stroll, eat and visit once the working day is done. If we are to reverse this trend and meet the demands ahead, we must look to a mixed-income, mixed-tenure, mixed-use housing model for Cape Town, supported by a strong rail and bus public transport system.

At the present moment, Cape Town offers a split housing market, both financially and geographically. The Central City and the majority of the suburbs surrounding it contain some of the highest valued real estate in the metro. These properties exist financially in the upper brackets of the housing market, inaccessible to the majority of Cape Town’s citizens.

Designing social cohesion

The remainder of the city’s residents live in the urban periphery. Whether in informal settlements, RDP housing, rental units, or new affordable options, these communities are either unsustainably dense – as is the case with most townships and informal settlements – or unsustainably sprawled, which is the case with most new development and “affordable” units. The decentralisation of housing forces our nurses, fire fighters, government workers, newly graduated entrepreneurs and many others to commute in excess of 30kms every day to get to their jobs.

The upper end of our housing supply discourages participation with the lower-middle class through price points and ill-fitted finance vehicles, thus cutting off a vital component of our urban population from a well-located housing supply. As a result, the affordable and gap market housing – recognised by many as a vital component of a future integrated housing market – is pushed to the distant urban periphery of our city where land is cheaper.

A perpetuation of the current status quo would see more and more people spatially isolated, and even more excluded from participation in a functioning and inclusive housing market that provides opportunities. Left unaddressed, our city and its people will lose out through continued urban sprawl, disconnected communities, decreased economic opportunities, and the perpetuation of destructive spatial divides.

Moving forward, we need to make a decision as a city to support a healthier and more sustainable network of integrated human settlements by changing the way we think about, and implement, housing for people.

By establishing new and integrated housing options in close proximity to economic activities, communities help to catalyse new economic growth, more sustainable transportation options, and more socially cohesive environments. As more people walk instead of drive, streets become safer and more interactive. Retailers will benefit from greater footfall, and our natural environment benefits from fewer miles travelled on oil. Multiple housing varieties in integrated communities mean that the spatial divides that have characterised our Central City and CBD for centuries will begin to crumble and the city becomes one with a 24-hour heartbeat.

Speaking at the housing symposium, Western Cape MEC for Transport and Pubic Works Robin Carlisle outlined the roles that the various spheres of governance can play, and pointed out that the thorniest issue was that the development and management of mixed-use tenure projects requires strong partnership between government and the private sector. All parties present were committed to striving towards the development of such a partnership.

As we follow an accelerated trajectory to our year as World Design Capital it’s only fitting that we stop to observe what is probably the key element in the success of a new housing reality — that it must be cleverly and mindfully designed. There is a misplaced perception that building integrated communities will mean a reduction in property prices or a decrease in safety.  In fact, it is quite the opposite: Sites of new housing development will support the creation of new economic activities that helps to build stronger and safer communities by adding the one critical component needed: People. It is only a city made of people that will be re-imagined in the end.

Text by Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, MD of the Cape Town Partnership. Photos by Jacques Marais Media.

This article was first published in the Cape Times on 11 September 2012.

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