Tall Buildings Week: The impact of Cape Town’s status quo on our future

by Andres de Wet

Part 1: The impact of the status-quo on Cape Town

The Status Quo in Cape Town

• There is a general aversion to taller buildings by the general public.
• There is a general psychology amongst Capetonians that new equals heritage destruction.
• There is a general possessiveness of “views of the mountain or sea.”
• We see buildings being preserved because they exist, rather than analysing true aesthetic value; is the building in question really heritage-worthy, or just an older building.
• Progress is often seen as destructive to the natural or historic built heritage.
• NIMBYism is out-of-control; rather than listening to pros-and-cons of development rationally, emotive responses are made by affected parties and create an emotional, rather than pragmatic agenda.
• Cape Town is running out of space, especially in premium areas like the CBD.
• Cape Town is and must pursue a policy of densification.
• Increased building density and height favours provincial/city policy of public-transit first.
• Cape Town, as 2014 World Design Capital, is lagging behind in cutting-edge and daring building design; a very conservative approach is often followed.

The impact of the Status Quo

The fierce protective attitude of the average Capetonian towards their natural surroundings, the “mountain” and the jealously guarded views are stifling development and has created an out-of-control NIMBYism problem in the metropolis. Indeed, we must be environmentally and spatially sensitive to our surroundings, creating an urban fabric that celebrates our location and doesn’t cut residents off from it. However, for each building to demand an uninterrupted mountain or sea view is tantamount to every Sydneysider demanding a view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House; it is simply unrealistic in a world of spatial, population and resource pressures. Cape Town cannot be compared to a seaside holiday village. It is a large city and must develop and evolve spatially as a large city.

For Cape Town to live up to being a World Design Capital, we are going to have to push the envelope more. Currently, the heritage, height and view concerns outweigh any innovative, awe-inspiring or iconic design. Buildings are seen as affronts to history; this cannot continue. We are building what Capetonians will view as their heritage in the year 2150. We’re conserving any and all that is older or status quo at the cost of the creation of our future heritage, today. Will Capetonians of 2150 say nothing of significance came out of the early 21st Century, because we were too cautious, too conservative and basically everything was a watered-down version of the 2010’s design trends?
We need to balance the needs of the preservation of our heritage, with building our future heritage, today. We need to balance the natural environment with a dynamic world city.

It also appears that we have so little faith in our amazing natural surroundings, that the only way we feel we can preserve it, is by designing small, by building short and by creating buildings that under-whelm as to not “offend the mountain.” This shows little faith in both our ability to creatively design, but also how majestic our location really is.

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.