Density’s promise for Cape Town

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What needs to change for Cape Town to move from a closed city that is limited by apartheid planning, to an open city catalysed by the benefits of densification? Dr Michelle Provoost, a director at the International New Town Institute, has published a detailed report on the findings of the Density Syndicate. 

The Density Syndicate is a think-tank initiative by the African Centre for Cities (ACC) and International New Town Institute (INTI). It aims to develop three site-specific speculative studios – in Langa, Maitland and Lotus Park – exploring densification options in Cape Town , create an archive of densification planning practices in Cape Town from the past five years as a resource; and function as a resource for future densification plans for the City of Cape Town.

Participants included Andrew Fleming from the Cape Town Partnership (who wrote about it here), Michael and Kathrin Krause from the Violence Protection Through Urban Upgrade project in Khayelitsha, Rashiq Fataar from Future Cape TownMark Swilling from the Sustainability Institute, Iain Low from the architecture department at the University of Cape Town, Christine de Baan from Department of DesignEdgar Pieterse and Rob McGaffin from the ACC, Catherine Stone and Liezel Kruger-Fountain from the City of Cape TownMarco Morgan from the Western Cape Government and Michelle Provoost from INTI.

In anticipation of an upcoming exhibition showcasing the three speculative studios, Michelle Provoost released a detailed report covering the findings of the Density Syndicate: “The Openheid State. From closed to open society in Cape Town.” Covering a few of her observations relating to housing, the report asks how city planning – the same discipline that separated neighbourhoods and facilitated widespread urban sprawl – reverse the spatial consequence of apartheid?

She explains that the townships’ city plans followed the Western European model:

Clearly defined units separated from each other by an infrastructure of highways. They consist of a number of neighbourhoods situated around a central square or sports field, with the neighbourhood facilities lining that central area.

The biggest difference between the townships and their Western European counterparts based on the neighbourhood principle is the intention of this formal structure and the way it is expressed. The central public space is not intended to facilitate encounters or be used by the collective; rather, it is designed as a type of panopticon to facilitate oversight and control by the authorities. This is underlined by the nature of the public buildings that line the square, which are occupied by the police station and ID card offices.

The way the roads are laid out is also highly significant. The top priority here was not creating connections and providing access, but controlling who went in and out of the neighbourhood. For that reason, there were only two connecting roads that linked to the main road network, making it easy (then and now) to close off an entire neighbourhood in the event of disturbances.

Observing that, while the urban design is more than 80 years old, the racist influences that informed its implementation still has an impact, she writes: “Apartheid or no apartheid, the people living in this neighbourhood are still poor and black.”.

Cape Town is still the symbolic capital city of segregation. The city has a huge footprint, consisting of a series of introverted white, coloured and black neighbourhoods, separated by inaccessible and unusable zones. It is a fragmented patchwork of gated communities, poor townships and even poorer informal settlements. The problems created by the urban sprawl are endless: spatial, economic, ecological and social. People live far away from their place of employment and waste hours on their daily commute; as a result, jobs are inaccessibly remote for the poorest of the poor living on the Cape Flats.

Facing the prospect of significant population growth, with current housing shortages already reaching levels between 200 000 and 400 000 homes, Cape Town can no longer opt for its usual expansion policies, continuing to let the city grow.

Despite understanding this, the City of Cape Town authorities have approved a New Town (a town designed from scratch) called Wescape.

Plans for a new New Town called Wescape were recently approved by the municipal government, paving the way for a private development that will build a city of 500 000 people in the agricultural region north of Cape Town. The well-trodden path of the tabula rasa urban sprawl is apparently hard to abandon. This clinging to familiar ways is partly because the tradition is solidly grounded in the densely intricate regulatory framework that makes mixed-use and higher densities more difficult.

Despite its complex nature, municipal authorities at the Density Syndicate emphasise that the city will “increase its floor-area ratio, by adding mass and volume to limit the city’s footprint” and so achieve the positive social and societal effects that are expected to result from increased density.

Cape Town primarily aims to achieve the social and societal effects that are expected to result from increased density: the possibilities offered by mixed use, a mixture of income brackets and ethnic groups, better integration and use of infrastructure on roads, rail lines and stations, the creation of better connections between neighbourhoods and city districts, and literal and figurative bridging of distances. Where the open compositions of residential blocks amidst green spaces were an expression of the concept of the open society in Western Europe, the converse holds true in Cape Town: density and urbanisation embody the ideals of the open society here. It is seen as the ultimate way to unite people, offer opportunities for disadvantaged groups to develop and emancipate, and forge the fragmented city into a coherent whole.

From the Cape Town Partnership perspective, density’s promise to address issues of affordable housing, placemaking and climate change, among other things, is what makes it essential to our vision for an inclusive city.



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