Taking Cape Town into the 21st century. How?

By Alistair Mackay | @almackay

Cape Town’s population has increased by half a million people in the past five years, said Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson at the UCT GSB on Wednesday night. And the migration of people is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, putting a significant strain on our city. We are running out of space and water, and most of the urbanising people are poor and unskilled.

Making Cape Town a successful city in the 21st Century requires a massive investment in people, transport infrastructure and housing. We need to build a city that is connected, integrated and inclusive, in order to recover from the scars of our Apartheid spatial planning and connect citizens to work opportunities and to each other. And we need to develop in a way that is sustainable, and does not put our water supply system into crisis.

In order to lift residents out of poverty, production needs to increase and drive up salaries. The City will spearhead this by focussing on key sectors to drive Cape Town’s economic growth: namely the tourism, conferencing and events industry, the services and creative industries, and information and communications technology industry (ICT).

Government is investing in education and developing strategies to retain graduates in the city, but it is also time for the private sector to participate in alleviating the skills shortage, through internships, graduate training programmes and apprenticeships. Businesses in Cape Town complain about the diversity and size of the skills pool. There are four excellent universities in the city, with strong research capabilities – why are they not doing more to grow new industries and reward innovation that creates jobs?

The city is investing heavily in public transport. The MyCiti bus route now operational in the city Centre and Table View to Atlantis, connecting areas of the city previously disconnected. The long-term plan for the MyCiti system is to have a bus stop within 500m of every resident. And the City will also be working with Metrorail to improve the safety, efficiency and reliability of the Southern and Central lines for people living in Khayelitsha and the Southern Suburbs while the MyCiti infrastructure gets built.

One of our greatest challenges remains providing adequate housing. There is simply no way to build housing fast enough to clear the backlog and accommodate the new arrivals into the city every year. The city is therefore adopted a dual approach of providing basic services to those areas where residents need to construct their own housing, while accelerating the provision of housing. This requires liberating planning from the Land Use Control System in order to provide space for affordable housing closer to the city centre. Our current model of spatial planning is antiquated and has resulted in large residential areas of poverty far from the city centre and work opportunities. The future requires more mixed used buildings and areas. And densification. Alderman Neilson was very clear that densification is no longer a debate. Densification in the city is necessary as we have run out of green-fields space and urban sprawl, aside from the social ills it creates, makes conservation of biodiversity and agricultural land on the outskirts of the city difficult.

All of these initiatives require strong leadership. They require an intelligent, multidimensional long-term strategy based on real needs of residents. And the problem, of course, is politics. Politicians need to think beyond their next election or term in office, and to do what is fundamentally right. We cannot afford to lose time resting on our laurels, or bickering about parochial, single-issue causes and ideological divides.

Cape Town has the potential to be a prosperous and cohesive city if we focus on developing our people, liberating our land usage, and integrating and improving our transport systems. Those are the priorities of our local government. What do you think of them? And how would you add to them?