Can a global city be good to locals?

Gardens, Cape Town Source: Shinji Akhirah


Creating better lives for citizens should be on the agenda of every Mayor, but making sure that changes to a city are inclusive may be more complex. In this series Sharyn Sassen explores how our city’s strategies for progress can aggravate the marginalisation and compromise the well-being of its vulnerable citizens.

 A Better City for Who?

“Making progress possible, together”, stands boldly at the top of the City of Cape Town’s website homepage.  However, the ‘together’ part of the slogan is really the catch. As we celebrate our progress towards becoming a globally competitive city, I believe we need to take stock of whether the benefits of our progress are experienced together. Unless we move forward together, it is debatable whether we’re moving forward at all.

A recent point of progress towards global city-ness is Cape Town’s designation as the World Design Capital this year. In similar vain to the City of Cape Town’s slogan, World Design Capital, Cape Town 2014 is themed around the role of design in social transformation. But there’s a murkiness to the wave of excitement about brilliant design for a better city.

The question begs to be asked, ‘A better city for who?’. Already, there is a rising voice of critique for initiatives targeting the improvement of the city around the real impact of these initiatives on marginalised groups in Cape Town. Springing to mind are articles such as Ilhaam Rawoot’s “Cape Town’s Pretend Partnership”, “Cape Town’s Devious Designs” by Glenn Babb and Oliver Wainwrights article on Cape Town being paradise for a select few.

Coupled with the historically notorious forced removals of the Apartheid era and the ongoing manifestation of socio-spatial polarisation in the city, these critiques are gaining traction. Socio-spatial polarization is when extreme variances in socio-economic conditions occur in a spatial pattern. Oliver Wainwright paints the picture well in this excerpt from his Urban Futures article for The Guardian,

“Outside her makeshift home in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, on the eastern edge of Cape Town, barefoot children play on the banks of an open sewer, while cows roam next to an overflowing rubbish heap. Panyaza shares this tiny cabin with her two daughters and four grandchildren, a family of seven with two beds between them. “We can’t sleep at night because of the smell,” she says, speaking in Xhosa, a language peppered with clicks that echo the droplets beginning to drum on the corrugated metal roof. “I’m worried that the children are always getting sick”…..Twenty minutes’ drive to the west, the seventh course is being served at a banquet of assembled journalists, here to celebrate Cape Town’s title of World Design Capital 2014 on the terrace of a cliff-top villa.” 

Essentially, our city risks a bad reputation when it comes to our approach to the marginalised. More than ever, Capetonians need to be alert to the issues, and be anything but passive. As we plough ahead for “progress… together”, we need to look back and take stock of who has been left in the dust and re-evaluate our course.

Copyright Times Live 2014


Can a global city be good to locals?

Both the successful hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the designation of World Design Capital in 2014 have put Cape Town on the map as a globally competitive city. However, the underbelly of a global city status is the risk of deepening social and spatial rifts between people groups in Cape Town, bolstering marginalisation. A real concern is that with the spotlight cast on achieving global city-ness the everyday needs of vulnerable citizens may be overshadowed by efforts to grow tourism and improve investment. In the past, such a focus has been associated with the increased exclusion or removal of historically marginalised groups (Lemanski, 2007).

How do we build a better Cape Town for all without undermining the vulnerable and marginalised? How do we create a more beautiful city by celebrating difference and diversity, rather than seeking to remove it in favour of creating ‘surface calm’ in our City? Should the well-being of citizens be a criteria in the standards for a global city?

These are the questions Cape Town should be asking.  Keeping investment and tourism penultimate to citizens’ well-being may just be the cornerstone on which to build an inclusive and sustainable city.

As an occupational therapist I hold to the philosophy that what people do or are able to do comes to bare on their experiences of well-being or ill-being. The science of human occupation constantly seeks to understand the everyday things that people do and how these affect who people are, what they can become and their overall well-being. Peoples’ well-being can be affected by various aspects of cities. For example, the design of public spaces can foster meaningful experiences of social connectedness that enhance well-being. Similarly, the ways public spaces are used can highlight social polarization and cause ill-being experiences such as social marginalisation. These and other examples will be unpacked in future articles in the series.

In this series, I use this human occupation lens to look at two specific vulnerable groups, namely homeless individuals and informal traders, considering the question, “For whom are we building a better city?”.

Drawing on my research as an occupational therapist and experiences as a Capetonian, I hope to raise awareness and stimulate dialogue around how Cape Town’s urban upliftment initiatives can compromise the well-being and aggravate the marginalisation of vulnerable groups. The idea is that acknowledging these issues in the discourse on “transforming lives” could contribute to a sustainably better future Cape Town, one that is better for all of its citizens.



About Sharyn Sassen

I'm a City dwelling occupational therapist with a vision for justice and well-being in the everyday things that people do and the spaces they live, work and play in. Also, more coffee please.