Cape Town is not a truly urban city. It is largely suburban, with the dense central city primarily used as a commercial center. Citizens of the Mother City come into the city for work, many by car, where they are welcomed by roads six-lanes wide, designated parking spots, and assumed priority to all other forms of mobility.
A wise future for Cape Town’s central city would be a denser one, with more people living and working in the area, and the city making single-occupancy private vehicles coming from the suburbs unwelcome (and unnecessary, to an extent). I thought it would be interesting to use the presence of car-related businesses as a barometer of car domination in the City Bowl, as their presence represents the demand for such services.
I counted car-related businesses (including car dealerships, mechanics, fitment centers, and car hire companies), open parking lots, and petrol stations along Buitengracht, Bree, and Loop Streets, stretching from Hans Strijdom Avenue up to Buitensingel Street (a section 1.4km long). Along these streets, I came across:
- 33 car-related businesses (13 in Buitengracht, 13 in Bree, 5 in Loop, 2 in Nuwe Kerk),
- 17 open parking lots (12 in Buitengracht, 3 in Bree, 1 in Loop, 1 in Nuwe Kerk), and;
- 3 petrol stations (all in Buitengracht).
Besides these services responding to the presence of a car-driving market, their form neglects the human scale. For anyone walking along these streets, the experience is both unwelcoming and uninteresting (not to say venturing into a mechanic’s workshop wouldn’t result in an interesting experience). One is forced to walk along narrow sidewalks, past car dealership windows half a block long, behind which is a row of cat-like French cars staring at you.
Buitengracht is a particularly uninviting street to walk along. There’s not much that would attract anyone there, but then again it is pretty much an inner city freeway. Parking lots leave large scars in the street, with buildings set back a few dozen meters.
For now, the presence of these businesses and the form they take is a sign of the times. But who knows? Maybe we’ll see significantly different streets within the next decade. Perhaps Buitengracht will have a narrower roadway, wider sidewalks filled with people, and smaller retail and dining businesses replacing the large car orientated spaces that currently line the street.
Image: Gareth Pearson
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Having spent a few weeks in Holland, I’ve been taken aback by the lack of exactly these services here… or maybe “lack” isn’t the right term, because they’re just not as needed here. A petrol station in itself is almost impossible to find in any Dutch city centre, but even in the “suburbs” it’s not remotely as prominent as in SA (for obvious reasons I guess). Maybe we can take a lesson from Europe (and very much the Dutch for that matter) in creating more livable outdoor spaces, and maybe cultivating a culture of spending time outdoors (cycling to the Spar as opposed to getting into our metal bubbles to block out the outside world).
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