Moving Cape Town’s Harbour

 by Rory Williams


From certain positions, the elevated foreshore freeway looks like massive concrete ribbons that cut Cape Town off from the ocean, block views and overshadow barren land.

It seems like the idea of knocking down this monument to the automobile has been discussed almost since it was constructed. And if we went ahead, we would be in good company. Many cities around the world are searching for ways to overcome the challenges of freeways, and some have deployed the wrecking ball.

If ours had not been built, if we had developed as a city moved by public transport, we would certainly not consider building one now. But from where we stand today, most of the reasons why other cities have chosen demolition either don’t apply to us, or can be overcome:

  1. Freeways divide neighbourhoods. There aren’t any neighbourhoods on the foreshore.
  2. They limit access to waterfronts. Our access to the ocean is limited by the security barrier erected around the working harbour. Removing the freeway won’t change that.
  3. They undermine land value and discourage development. Development is happening right now around the freeway, and it has taken decades to fill in the foreshore because we have an abundance of land across the city, not because of the freeway. But we do need a discussion on how to manage land value so that things like affordable housing can be developed here.
  4. Elevated structures block views. As development proceeds around the freeway, it is being hidden from sight. If we are concerned about loss of views, we should be more concerned about tall buildings than the old freeway.
  5. They create barren, unattractive areas. With foresight and creativity, it is perfectly feasible to create safe, walkable places under and between the elevated freeway sections, as has been done already at the convention centre. The key is developing in a way that attracts people out into public space.

We usually confront the freeway question by looking at the options for the structure and asking how they affect transport. We assume that less physical infrastructure means less of a barrier to pedestrians, and the more mobile people will be. But removing the elevated freeway doesn’t stop cars, it just moves them somewhere else, unless we change the context. So let’s turn the question around and look at the context.

The barriers faced by pedestrians and cyclists are mostly about personal security and having to cross busy streets. And the economic role of the foreshore is to absorb the kind of growth that relies on big plots of land where developers erect large buildings that create an environment that is unpleasant and unsafe for pedestrians.

Buildings need to work harder at contributing to a positive environment – a challenge that would need to be taken up even if we did remove the freeway. To support growth and create a more vibrant city, we do need to encourage a shift to public transport, but nothing stops us from repurposing the freeway to carry public transport.

We need to increase the mix of activities in the inner city – including significantly more residential development – in order to bring life to the area, bring people closer to opportunities and reduce reliance on long-distance travel.

To take down the freeway is to believe that we can engineer anything, no matter how big, when the real challenge is about planning and design controls – and the harbour.

There is no good reason to keep the harbour in its current form, holding the city to ransom, when there are options on the table to move some of its activities to Bellville and Saldanha, and to an extension just north of the existing harbour.

Nobody seems prepared to seriously propose a reduction in harbour activity in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD, but municipal plans show that we yearn to reconnect to the sea.

If we push through to the harbour and create attractive destinations there (even reclaiming land from within Duncan Dock), there will be greater incentive to find ways to overcome the barriers that pedestrians feel around the freeway and other barren land.

Then we can change the way people experience the city, and the way they use transport. We will make walking and cycling the natural way to move, by improving the quality of streets and other public spaces. The most powerful change in behaviour comes not from forcing it, but from giving new meaning to the ways we interact with the built environment.


This article originally appeared in the Cape Times

– Feauture image by Lee Casalena

There are 2 comments

  1. Nick

    I think this is a short sighted approach. The full impacts of moving the harbour have not been adequately evaluated.

    A working port and harbour add an intangible feeling and character to the district without which the foreshore runs the risk of becoming “dry”. The working nature of the harbour is the butter for the bread. It is such an important part of the city.

    By moving the harbour you are effectively turning the foreshore into a white collar suburban precinct completely lacking in authenticity.

    This current authenticity is a great asset to Cape Town and shared by many other great port cities across the world for example Hamburg. The intangible needs to be carefully considered when evaluating the urban land economics of a district.

    Further research needs to be done.

  2. dandan.boshoff

    Its been some time.. do we know what the progress and any timelines are?

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