Gentrification should be worked into the City: The challenge for Cape Town

by Rashiq Fataar

Gentrification has many forms and definitions. A recent Case Study on gentrification in Woodstock defines it is as, “a transformation of a dilapidated neighbourhood into an upgraded, attractive area with an influx of a higher social class that is pushing out the original, poorer residents”. For Cape Town, the definition and form of a dilapidation may vary, and in some cases ‘dilapidated’ may be an extreme word, but Bo-Kaap, Woodstock and an already largely gentrified Green Point, are facing the challenges of balancing gentrification with economic and social inclusion.

In the article, Can gentrification work for everyone? by Will Doig, some balance is provided, in an often heated debate on Gentrification and its impact on the communities in which it occurs. The debate usually seems solely focused on the negative impacts e.g. the displacement of the urban poor.

Cape Town, faces similar challenges as areas like Woodstock cleans up its less savoury streets and alleyways, as the design and creative sector moves in, while concurrently witnessing the erection of high rise walls, gates and parking areas. Features that only enhance the perceived creation of enclaves of wealth that look inward, rarely reaching out to the community in which they have come to thrive in. In Bo-Kaap residents are selling their homes due to skyrocketing property taxes, which are quickly snapped up by wealthier locals and foreigners while coffee shops start appearing on street corners.

In the Cape Town context, when considering Bo-Kaap, an additional effect is present. Gentrification, not only could result in the displacement of people in this neighbourhood, but may also see the gradual displacement of the culture, heritage and authenticity which makes Bo-Kaap unique to Cape Town. How do we ensure that the smell of koesisters in the air remains standard on Sunday mornings, that the colourful and vibrant Minstrels continue to parade all the way up Wale Street as part of a century old tradition or that the Muslim call to prayer continues to echo up and down the cobble-stone roads. Bo-Kaap in the last 2 or 3 decades has not resembled a dilapidated neighbourhood, which the definition of gentrification so often calls for, but it could nonetheless be facing a form of gentrification which threatens the heritage of an entire city and a tourism product, which we so boldly promote on the pages of our tourism guides.

But balance is difficult. The introduction of small to medium businesses into an area like Woodstock should be seen in the context of promoting robust and improved economic activity, critical in Cape town. On the other hand, a series of developments like the Old Biscuit Mill, The Boulevard and The Palms do little to instill confidence that gentrification in this form, may potentially be inclusive. In a community, with such close proximity to the City Centre and in a time of high transport costs, we should be promoting and developing an area like Woodstock to accommodate more people in affordable housing, closer to the city, not simply be watching as they are forced out.

But it is the very same gentrification which sees the benefit of increased activity into the area, as a workplace during the week and as a place to visit over weekends. Rather than attempting to block or slow down gentrification, the role of public sector and civil society should be to work alongside the private sector, and create incentives which sees the benefits spread beyond the gates of an organic fresh produce Sunday market.

The public sector can also not command control of the property market in an attempt to ensure that residents of Bo-Kaap or Woodstock retain ownership and are not forced to move. But what can be done is to find a middle ground. As the article suggests, one way to achieve this is to implement an affordable housing strategy in and around the same neighbourhoods. To ensure that those within a community are part of the improvements, included in the vision for the area and supported where feasible.

City planners should hold developers and the private sector to account by encouraging  and setting guidelines for urban planning and building, which engages with and invites the community in, rather than shutting them out. We cannot slow down the evolution of neighbourhoods or prevent the positive impacts which gentrification brings, but gentrification should be supported as part of a wider regeneration project, ensuring that is worked into the broader vision for the City.

So can gentrification work for everyone?

Read the full article at Salon.

Image courtesy of edschonsett at