Disconnection and connection in Cape Town

Brett Petzer and Rashiq Fataar of Future Cape Town assess the influences and confluences of connection in Cape Town’s spatial, institutional and economic landscape.  

Apartheid transformed Cape Town from South Africa’s least to most segregated city. The clear economic and racial zones perfected by Apartheid social engineers have survived that system’s demise largely intact. Predominantly white, wealthy residents live in the City Bowl and along the slopes of Table Mountain to the West and far to the South. The city’s “coloured” and black population is dispersed across the Cape Flats and its flood-prone land, with black newcomers to the city (chiefly from the Eastern Cape) occupying the worst areas.

These racial/economic zones are very clearly defined by major features of topography, often fortified and enhanced as a political barrier by Apartheid. One of the clearest examples of this – best seen from the slopes of Table Mountain National Park – is the belt of golf courses, industrial land and transport infrastructure that cordons off the wealthy Southern Suburbs from historically “coloured” suburbs.

Population Density in Cape Town (Turok, I and Mans, G; reproduced courtesy of HSRC).

Cape Town exhibits a stark polarity between blackness, poverty and dispersal on one hand, and whiteness, wealth and centrality on the other. Each of the disconnects that so vividly mark the physical city are traceable to institutional, political and market failures that are harder to pinpoint but no less real in their effects. However, where these disconnections have been entrenched and ingrained in the social and physical landscape of the city, opportunities and future prospects for connection also become apparent.

South Africa continues to urbanise, and city planners therefore see their influence over the country’s development continue to deepen. The emphasis of urban designers and those who shape the built environment must then lie in directing cities from a state of disconnection towards meaningful connection.

From broken institutions emerge broken spaces

The current trajectory of South African cities is, in part, towards sprawl and exclusive growth[i] and away from sustainable densities and inclusion. This trajectory is, however, not due to a lack of policy and research. The problem begins with the lack of alignment between the interests of planners, developers and elected representatives.

Nancy Odendaal, a widely published planning academic with the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, observes that the timescale of politics is electoral, while that of developers follows business cycles.[ii] The planner’s timescale, meanwhile, is measured in decades. The planner’s outcome is therefore very often measured in the harm avoided (for all the current and near-future residents of the city) as much as in the good produced. For this reason planners expend their political capital in defence of constituents who ‘exist’ only in the future. Additionally, property developers remain substantially free to repeat the kind of car-centric development that has proven most profitable since the rise of the private motorcar.

Elected representatives must drive a hard bargain against developers, but financial and commercial naivety often prevents this. The system as it is currently conceived is good at reproducing the status quo of rapidly delivered greenfield housing, typically far from opportunity and of mixed quality. Most often, it is the planning profession that is left to argue for the interests of stakeholders yet to be born or consequences that will only manifest over decades.

Despite this bleak prognosis, good projects happen. Although the city still lacks a flagship success in public housing sited close to a historically wealthy suburb, Cape Town’s new transport interchanges (such as the celebrated Kuyasa Transport Interchange) offer some examples of reconnection, where Apartheid moats and trenches have been filled in to make the city fabric contiguous. The success stories tend to share certain attributes: (1) a single, wily leader, committed to seeing the project through; (2) a degree of financial independence, which constitutes a deterrent against incursions and interference from elected representatives, and (3) the ability to combat those in competition for the same resources[iii].

Image: Kuyasa Transport Interchange. MEYER+VORSTER Architects.

The coincidence of all three factors is rarer than it might be. Odendaal identifies several changes that need to be made if planning professions are to become more empowered and their advocacy more successful. The first of these is a higher degree of fluency in the quantitative aspects of city planning: the ability to translate quality of life and environmental issues into hard statistics that are difficult for other interest groups to dismiss.

Ivan Turok, formerly professor of Urban Economic Development at the University of Glasgow, now at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, has indentified the continued devolution of formerly national- and provincial-level powers to municipalities as a second aspect that could empower planners. This devolution renders elected representatives more accountable to their immediate constituents for the overall quality of the built environment, thereby strengthening the planning professional’s case when she argues against narrow commercial interests.

However, it is clear that the single greatest change to the entire spatial economy in Cape Town would be the advent of city-scale residents’ groups and/or commuter groups as a major metropolitan constituency. This constituency would be able to fund its own expert commentators and lobby for its own long-term interests, while articulating the voice that is so deafeningly silent in planning debates.

Where issues of infrastructure, or commercial development projects, are discussed, current rules favour the participation of immediately affected residents, the city, planning professionals and developers. But, since the voice of the residents of greater Cape Town is missing, the NIMBYs (those who oppose development because it is close to them, rather than in principle – taken from Not In My Back Yard) prevail. Local residents feel the costs (in disruption and loss of open space) strongly while the benefits, which may be greater, accrue evenly to a larger number of people. This creates a classic problem of economics in which the return on opposing a project is great (because a few people pay a large individual cost) while the return on promoting a project is small (because an enormous group receive a very small individual benefit). In this way, value is destroyed for cities and regions.

Examples such as the continuing opposition to Cape Town’s MyCiti routes[iv] are proof of the status quo – in which thousands of commuters’ interests are held hostage to a smaller, but more highly organised, narrow-interest group. The MyCiti integrated rapid-transit system, when fully integrated with density zoning and land-use planning over time, is intended to radically alter the fabric of the city. However, the system risks years of delay and the compromise of its routes due to the fact that the poor and spatially marginal, who most stand to benefit from it, are least able to contribute formally to the public participation process.[v]

Fixing the city’s spatial economy will necessarily require inclusive and resilient growth. Turok points out that the quantified demand for housing in densification schemes in central Cape Town for example, should be a key informant of planning projections from the start[vi]. Poor Capetonians, in essence, will not survive in the city unless the CBD’s higher prices for basic groceries are more than offset by the savings in transport costs effected by move from outlying suburbs.

Building connections between people and economic growth

Economic growth prospects towards 2025 in Cape Town are expected to average just 3.5% per year, according to a report by Price Waterhouse Coopers[vii]. This, coupled with an unemployment rate of 21.7%, presents a significant challenge for the city. In response to the crisis created by slow regional growth and the severe mismatch between the lack of skills of the unemployed and the shortage of specialist and high-skilled labour, and in pursuit of an inclusive, resilient economy, there are no easy answers. There are only local, small-scale answers and a necessity to experiment and start from first principles.

The recently launched FARE (Future of Agriculture and the Rural Economy) process, by the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership and the Economic Development Forum, is one important example of fostering dialogue and building partnerships around economic challenges. Recent wage strikes and conflicts in De Doorns, a farming community in the Cape Winelands, and other farming areas have brought the challenges facing the agriculture sector to breaking point. The protests there were an acute example of opportunistic local politics exacerbating a global sectoral problem – the increasing mechanization of agriculture in a context of shrinking demand for unskilled workers in South Africa. Many of the issues facing the sector are beyond the resources and scope of any one stakeholder or level of government to resolve.

The FARE process is open-ended and non-partisan, without defined outcomes except information. All other outcomes are secondary to the production of knowledge of the interests and perspectives of all stakeholders, especially some of those least likely to articulate a position in a public, formal way (e.g. seasonal/migrant labour). However, and importantly, the gulf between stakeholders whose views and interests are known (farmers, government) and those whose views are either unknown, or known only through spokespersons who may or may not represent the broader view (representatives of seasonal labour), is to be bridged through discussion and consultation. FARE is at once a pragmatic indaba and an acknowledgement of the huge information deficit underlying South Africa’s failures to reconcile its two economies and its two types of city, the formal and the informal.

In this context, Cape Town’s designation as World Design Capital 2014 represents an important and uncommon opportunity for the urbanist discourse in the city. The hitherto fragmented debate on the spatial future of Cape Town might now be overhauled into an organised body of knowledge that valorises lived experience and measures the long-term consequences of the effects of spatial inclusion and exclusion. The 2014 theme, ‘Bridging the Divide’, would gain some heft if knowledge itself became the bridging infrastructure that would render possible a commerce of ideas and a contestation of rival visions for the city.

Very much in this vein, the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading project (VPUU)[viii] is both an ongoing attempt to create built interventions in Cape Town’s formal and informal poor settlements and a long-term programme of research. As an information-gathering initiative, the VPUU has built up one of South Africa’s great corpuses of quantitative and qualitative information bearing on life in a township. Consequently, the VPUU has proof of what people want for their own neighbourhoods, in their own words. The polling process thereby turns urban planners from the authors of space to the editors of a clearly articulated demand for space. The result is that the planning profession is on firmer ground when it must defend the integrity of a project from the competing interests and timeframes of the private sector and of elected representatives.

Building connections through mobility

If the liberation of essential data that bears on all residents’ lives is the best institutional method of ‘reconnecting’ Cape Town with its disparate parts, the best spatial method for doing this is in the better movement of people (whose talents and services are increasingly the city’s dominant export). Building connections between people, place and opportunity through investment in public transport infrastructure will likely be the lead cause of the most fundamental restructuring of the spatial landscape in Cape Town in decades, affording the city an opportunity to re-shape and re-wire for the future.

The investment in transport infrastructure over the last decade has largely been road-based, with major investment in road infrastructure improvements, and the MyCiti bus rapid system. Both of these were to some extent kickstarted by the then looming deadlines of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Image: MyCiti bus. Bruce Sutherland.

With Phase 1 of the MyCiti bus rapid transit system underway towards the West Coast, Phase 2 to the Metro South-East in planning, and the promise of 3600 new rail vehicles over the coming decade at a cost of over R50 billion,[ix] the opportunity for spatially connecting the city is stronger than ever before. But building connections through public transport investment is not without its challenges. Where these connections – physical or other – are implemented, how does one measure and define the success? For example, the introduction of an express service on the N2 freeway, the chief road linking the City Centre with Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha, merely provides additional capacity while the rail system remains poorly maintained and unreliable. It does not propose to cut through and connect different parts of Cape Town and thereby foregoes its own potential for fostering social and spatial cohesion.

The ability to forge sustainable connections across communities, people, and backgrounds, and to link people to opportunity depends on the continuous struggle to marry urban land use and management with investment in transport infrastructure. This challenge is elaborated on in the October 2012 Business Plan for the MyCiTi bus system[x], which acknowledges that building bridges between urban planning and public transport “can result in significant operational savings and enhanced urban efficiencies”.

While these linkages still need to be operationalized within local government, a “crucial motivation for devolving public transport to metropolitan governments is the need to integrate public transport with other ‘built environment’ related functions,” according to the plan. “Not only is alignment between these functions necessary, but also there are opportunities for synergy if integration is well managed.”

Transport infrastructure – especially public transport and non-motorised transport – must therefore continue its transformation from the status of an amenity to that of a spatial qualifier. For example, when rail journey times from dormitory suburbs to employment opportunities fall by half – perhaps because of the low-hanging fruit of rolling stock upgrades and scheduling improvements – the effect is the same as if the suburb was half as far from workplaces. Thereby, the city achieves a kind of densification in time that is more easily and quickly achieved than a densification in space. This will be achieved by the expansion and interconnection of all transit modes, by a harmonisation of the means of payment across rail, bus and minibus taxi networks, and by continued adherence to the discipline of transit-oriented densification.

Promoting connection

The building of connections and the undoing of disconnection in Cape Town, where urban fault lines of race and class were previously enforced by legislation and legacy, is both challenging and complex. However, it is a job currently left to the few (planners and the City) rather than the many. Incentives and disincentives must continue to evolve (at municipal and national level) until sprawl and exclusionary growth become unprofitable. At the same time, large tracts of underused or even vacant land held by large state and private entities must become viable, compact communities that end the Apartheid-era ‘spatial tax’ that condemns many of the poor to spend up to a third of their income, for life, on transport[xi]. In this area, only government can lead.

Meanwhile, the state and City can and should be made accountable for the speed of delivery of these and other outcomes by an enhanced constituency of end-users: ratepayers, housing waiting list applicants, and the like. Where there is a breakdown in communication, dialogue must be fostered and structured. But even where these processes do succeed, the constellation of Cape Town’s energies and capacities – public and private – will not fall into alignment overnight, or in any one provincial premiership or mayorship. Spatial justice, because the built environment changes so slowly, therefore demands that the leaders of this contested city and its province bequeath each other a very large legacy project, decade after decade, until the city works for all its residents.

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 18 June 2013.

Main image: Bruce Sutherland


[i] Todes, Alison: “Rethinking Spatial Planning.” Presentation given at the South African Planning Institute Planning Africa Conference, Sandton, April 2008.

[ii] Dr Nancy Odendaal, interview with Brett Petzer, 5 May 2013

[iii] Dr Nancy Odendaal, interview with Brett Petzer, 5 May 2013

[iv] Cape Times, 21 May 2013. Golden Arrow to appeal ruling.  Accessed: http://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/golden-arrow-to-appeal-ruling-1.1519109

[v] ‘Objections delay roll-out of Cape Town’s new MyCiTi routes’, Cape Times 25/1/2013.

[vi] Driving densification higher: Challenges for Central Cape Town. Profressor Ivan Turok. 2009

[vii] PricewaterhouseCoopers, UK Economic Outlook 2009 (2009), p13

[viii] The Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading programme in Khayelitsha (vpuu.org.za) aims to prevent social, situational and institutional crime through the long-term upgrading of social spaces and the urban fabric of Khayelitsha. The entire approach is informed by careful and extensive dialogue and consultation with the community.

[ix] 2012 MyCiTi Business Plan, City of Cape Town

[x] 2012 MyCiTi Business Plan, City of Cape Town

[xi] National Household Travel Survey 2003, National Department of Transport of South Africa.

About Brett Petzer

I'm a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at brettpetzer.com

There is one comment

Comments are closed.