Building a City of Neighborhoods

Architect Mokena Makeka discusses housing inequality in Cape Town, and gives Urban Africa an insight into his dreams for the city. Interview by Future Cape Town’s Brett Petzer.

Mokena Makeka is a Cape Town-based architect responsible for the redesign of the city’s main transit station – the heart of a 20-year vision of high-density neighbourhoods – and the celebrated Thusong Service Centre in Khayelitsha. Brett Petzer spoke with him about the wait for better spaces.

Brett Petzer: Why, within walking distance of Cape Town’s Central Business District, is there still no definite sign of housing for the poor and the community facilities that would make such housing into a neighbourhood?

Mokena Makeka: It has to do with the value proposition of government. Cape Town’s value proposition has, for a long time, been order, good governance and clean audits. That is the yardstick by which government measures its own success and by which civil servants progress. Being innovative is rarely rewarded in the way that state bureaucracies work. To solve the housing issue requires serious and meaningful integration and action across line departments which often operate in isolation.

Government must ask civil servants how they have innovated – whose lives have been improved? We should, in short, ask of our senior civil servants whether they have personally authored a new way of making space or spatial justice, and then back what works.

BP: With this sort of municipal entrepreneurialism, this innovation, comes the risk of failure, of public money being used experimentally. Is this acceptable?

MM: We can be compliant and still innovate. A few streets closed, a few blocks powered by renewable energy – we can learn by doing. The point is that politicians won’t deliver what constituencies don’t demand. This is where our well-off suburbs can use their time and resources to express a vision that benefits everyone, so that we move beyond a constituency-based discourse [into a city-based discourse]; that is democracy at play. Wealthy neighborhoods should be as concerned and as vocal about impoverished neighborhoods because the damage of inequality affects us all. Enclaves and a laager mentality kills economic growth and vibrant cities. The city is an ecosystem, not discrete parts connected by infrastructure.

Infographic: Brett Petzer

BP: You have delivered a large public project in the form of the Cape Town Station refurbishment in the lead-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Given a budget and the political will, what would be your dream project for Cape Town?

I would like to see a library or cultural or design centre in every ward in the city. Every one of them should be attached to a public square, should activate its surrounding context, and in the process promote economic opportunity. They should be open late; we are far behind on that front. They should open until 9 p.m. or 18 hours per day. Activity there would stimulate other businesses – a restaurant, a shop – and eventually intensify a street [and convert dormitory suburbs into neighbourhoods with real cores].

BP: Which cities would you seek to emulate and learn from, for the betterment of Cape Town?

MM: One thing we can learn from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo is the way they have managed to invest in – I would even say over-invest, in some cases – in their informal areas. In Cape Town, it would be unheard of to put major infrastructure and public buildings – that are essential city-wide – into the townships. In Brazil, cities realise at least that sharing out the infrastructure can make ‘place’ – and that gives hope. It urges people to invest. We cannot forget the primacy of the CBD, but that has been – and cannot remain – an excuse to provide substandard facilities elsewhere just because these communities don’t know better.

It’s not just about density, but intensity [South African townships, which are low-rise, achieve some of the highest population densities in the country – however, most still remain dormitory suburbs without a full range of local services]. More important than density is a resilient and diverse mix of services and opportunities that hum for all of the day and much of the night and constitute a spine of activity, safety and exchange.

The state might begin with transit and, say, a library, and then foster related businesses that take root around these.

This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series and was produced in collaboration with our partners Future Cape Town. It originally appeared at the Urban Africa website on 21 June 2013.

Main image: Harare Public Library, Khayelitsha. City of Cape Town.