Defending Cape Town’s Princess

A proposed shopping mall brings communities together to defend a historical body of water.

Princess Vlei, a wetland system that runs through Grassy Park in Cape Town, is situated on the border between formerly “coloured” and white group areas, and is ideally located to offer a meeting point for Capetonians from diverse backgrounds. However, the bid to build a shopping mall on its banks has galvanised the community into reclaiming and rehabilitating the space. Future Cape Town’s Rashiq Fataar interviews Bridget Pitt, representative of the Princess Vlei Forum, to begin to unpack the complexities of space, engagement around it, and a the role of design, as Cape Town prepares to claim its title as World Design Capital 2014.

Rashiq Fataar: An important element of contested spaces is that there are difficulties (or a lack of will) around engaging with citizens and other stakeholders. How would a Princess Vlei engagement process support a “re-think” or “re-imagine” of such processes?

Bridget Pitt: The Princess Vlei, and similar projects, offer a different way of doing things. A way of creating public spaces by empowering citizens to engage with their cultural, natural, and social environment, to consider it critically, to assess its value both short and long term, to explore ways to enhance and sustain this value. And to work in partnership (ie. not as a passive audience to local planning decisions) with other stakeholders and local authorities to give expression to this vision in public spaces.

What is important about the Princess Vlei proposal is that it is fluid, adaptive and responsive. It is not a blueprint for community engagement, because all communities and contexts are different and any rigid tick box process can become dead and tokenist.

RF: How can design contribute and make the case for Princess Vlei as a public and recreational space, against other proposals, including the plan for a shopping centre?

BP: Princess Vlei has a number of features which provide unique challenges and opportunities for the designer. The physical space has many natural features that can be enhanced through sensitive design, such as the water body and the surrounding mountains. The sensitive ecology calls for a design that is environmentally sound and complementary of the natural processes. The cultural and spiritual practices, such as the weekly baptisms, call for design solutions to offer a dignified and sacred experience for those involved. The strong historical narratives, such as the legend of the Khoi Princess who was abducted and raped by Portuguese sailors and created the vlei with her tears, provide a textured layer of memory and association which can be highlighted and celebrated with appropriate design of any built features such as walkways, playscapes, open air market places and memorials.

Credit: Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance

RF: What are some of the lessons that the Princess Vlei Forum can share? and did other spaces across the city inspire the process and ultimately the vision?

BP: There are many examples of neglected and poorly used natural features in surrounding areas. What is strongly evident is that if it there are no efforts to provide people-friendly features, or to engage the community in taking responsibility, an open space can become a crime zone and dumping ground.

A source of inspiration for Princess Vlei has been the work of Kelvin Cochrane, a local community member and conservationist living on the banks of the nearby Zeekovlei. The shoreline of Zeekovlei was neglected and degraded until Kelvin galvanised his neighbours into a joint project. Working with the managers of the local Zeekovlei and Rondevlei nature conservation sites, Kelvin secured an agreement with several neighbours to join their properties in a waterfront nature sanctuary. In partnership with the City, Kelvin led the rehabilitation process, restoring the natural fynbos and creating a magnificent sanctuary on the banks of the vlei.

RF: Protests around the world, including at Taksim Square in Turkey, are related to pending urban developments and the protection of open and public space. What should Cape Town and its citizens learn from these experiences?

BP: A lot can be learnt from these protests. I have been following the protest in Istanbul with particular interest because it began with a riot about plans to bulldoze a park and build a shopping mall, so it obviously resonates with our situation.

The situation in Istanbul holds a lot of lessons for Cape Town. Firstly, there is the issue of what makes a city work. The modern city is a very tenuous organism in many ways. It is increasingly unsustainable ecologically, with its massive environmental footprints in terms of energy usage and waste production. It is also increasingly socially unsustainable as the gap between rich and poor grows exponentially. It is now assumed that all big cities in the developing world will house a sizable proportion of their populations in slums or informal dwellings.

It may seem obvious that changes have to be made, radical changes, to ensure that the environmental footprints of cities are reduced, and that citizens are provided with a healthy, decent living environment. This means giving nature space to thrive within a city, and providing green, safe recreational spaces for citizens. And yet governments, as in Istanbul, continue to invest in car-based transport systems, bulldoze parks for commercial development,  relocate poor communities to far distant dormitory townships which doom them to spending hours commuting each day.

What both the authorities and citizens can learn from these examples is that if local and national leadership refuse to implement the changes we need to make cities ecologically and socially sustainable, citizens will take matters in hand and take action to install a government that will implement these changes.

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 15 July 2013.

Main image: Princess Vlei. The Bottom Road Sanctuary.