Tall Buildings Week: Why Cape Town must go up. A future Cape Town skyline.

Tall Buildings Week consists a series of articles and blog posts focussed on the draft Tall Buildings Policy put forward by the City of Cape Town, which will “provide guidance during the early phases of the design and planning process for tall buildings in Cape Town”. The draft policy is available for perusal from 1 March 2012 at the City’s 24 Subcouncil offices, municipal libraries and Planning District Offices; as well as here.

by Brian Harker

Cape Town is a city with a great history and is older than some other world cities, like Sydney, Hong Kong and Singapore. Yet, the city looks mediocre and insignificant due to various issues, one of which I believe is its stifling policies on development.

The main problem with Cape Town is its conservative mind set. The city focuses too much on tourism for its development. Tourism is important, but it is unsustainable as the main driving force for the future growth of the city. Cape Town is first and foremost a city, not a resort. If Cape Town wants to be a serious world city, it needs to diversify and focus on becoming a leading business centre. It needs to become a choice city for global companies. However, to play in the big league, the city needs to think big- especially when it comes to development. Cape Town needs to enhance and develop its urban nodes with the focus on attracting businesses.


The core of the city, the so-called City Bowl, is unique and looks pretty due to its natural setting. However, this same natural, geographical confinement is curbing the expansion of the CBD. In addition, the transport network also commands space. Hence, the Cape Town CBD cannot afford to grow outwardly.

Currently, the city has a height restriction for various reasons. One of it is to ‘preserve the mountain view’. Trying to keep a lid on the CBD’s upwardly development for the sake of ‘preserving the mountain view’-like it’s a holiday resort, is not only ridiculous, but shortsighted and simply not realistic. This is no excuse to limit a building’s height to about 30 storeys .

Another reason for not going taller, I believe, is to protect our urban heritage. Cape Town has a wealth of beautiful historic buildings in the city centre. Great efforts are being made to preserve them and to incorporate them into new developments, i.e. Rhodes-Mandela Place and the Cape Quarter. I cannot see why other cannot follow. However, it also needs to be taken into account that if every new building is to “blend in” with the surrounding architecture or reflect our heritage, then we basically achieve nothing new, but to conform to the past. This is hardly the mentality of a city looking to the future.

A future Cape Town skyline

The city needs to densify. It cannot happen with short, stumpy buildings taking up prime space. Furthermore, a city centre with mere office tower blocks has no soul and leaves the city empty after dark. The city centre therefore, needs to be a multi zoned area. The city’s permanent population needs to increase multi-fold. A safe, vibrant city centre will lure more visitors, which in turn will encourage investment. To accommodate a big influx of a permanent population, the city needs to encourage tall apartment developments.

Buildings need to be taller in order to preserve prime city space and accommodate a bigger population. New office buildings shorter than 15 storeys should simply not be allowed. The Foreshore & Roggebaai precincts should be Cape Town’s core financial and business districts, where buildings should have a minimum height of 30 storeys and could go as tall as 50 storeys. It is sad that many stumpy new developments have gone up in the city, that are simply taking up ground space. Besides a waste of prime space, they do not add value to the city’s skyline.

Skyscrapers should also not simply be tall for the sake of it. They must add value to the city profile, as they have an impact on the skyline. Therefore, skyscrapers in the city should be daring and exciting in design.

With Cape Town being the new World Design Capital 2014, the city should not shy away from being bold, daring and inspiring. A tall, signature skyscraper in the city is what is needed to claim Cape Town’s stake on the international scene. However one looks at it, a tall skyline exudes prosperity and power.

Brian Harker is a born and bred Capetoninan and currently a post graduate student at UWC. He has lived and taught in Asia for almost 6 years- a year in Japan, 3 years in Seoul, South Korea and now almost 2 years in Taipei, Taiwan.