The wrong reasons for planting pine trees on the Grand Parade

Cape Town’s tree-lined Grand Parade in 1894. Image: Flickr

I’m fond of the Grand Parade. It is essentially Cape Town’s oldest public square, dating back to 1697. Even though its primary use has been as a parking lot since the first half of the 20th century, it has tremendous potential and a number of efforts have been made to improve it. There are many factors that need to be considered in order to make the Grand Parade a well-functioning public place, but I’m not going to dwell on these. This is simply a personal view, a rant of sorts, on the planting of Stone Pines around the perimeter of the Grand Parade.

Many will know about the upgrade that the Grand Parade underwent before the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Essentially a tarmac parking lot, it was resurfaced, lighting was upgraded, and 120 pine trees were planted. This also meant the existing mature trees were removed (ficus trees if I’m not mistaken). There were various reasons for the removal of the existing trees and the decision to plant Stone Pines.

Stone Pine trees are not indigenous and considered an invasive species, and there has been an active effort to rid them from the Cape’s unique fynbos ecosystem. This was acknowledged by the City of Cape Town, but it was said that there was no indigenous alternative that served the desired functions. This is where the reasons for planting them come in, which are what I believe to be flawed.

The planting of the double row of Stone Pines was based on historical photos of the Grand Parade. The Grand Parade, as the name suggests, was originally a parade ground. It was a vast space that facilitated the exhibition of military might. It was not designed as a public space. Do we really want to base the design of our public spaces on our colonial heritage? And who ever said those who originally planted the trees knew anything about or had any interest in creating good public places?

It was stated that Stone Pines would allow for uninhibited views of Table Mountain and City Hall, as well as accommodating CCTV surveillance. The tall trees would also avoid attracting “vagrants and loitering”, as the existing trees were conducive to. Planting trees, an investment that is to last generations, based on the ability to monitor an area with CCTV cameras is rather pessimistic and based only on treating symptoms. It is the presence of people that will make the Grand Parade safer, not the presence of Orwellian eyes spying down from 10 meters up.

I imagine that Stone Pines do actually inhibit scenic views anyway. And then what is the point of even trying to allow for views if there is no one to enjoy them. The most important views in a public space are the views of other people, as people-watching is primarily what attracts us to such places. Surely then we should be planting trees that invite more people to the square, and provide the right spaces in which to sit and stay? Trees that show the seasons, provide shelter from the summer heat, and lose their leaves in Winter to allow the sun through but still leaving a canopy under which to feel comfortable.

I hope the City comes to its senses and realises that the planting of Stone Pines was a flawed decision. They’re not even 3 years old. Let’s kill them now before we start getting sentimental.