Losing Farmland is Forever

See yesterday’s post here on the facts surrounding the Phillippi Horticultural Area debate

In Cape Town, the Philippi Horticultural Area, a major source of employment and food security is under threat from encroaching development. Future Cape Town’s Brett Petzer analyses the city’s about-face on supporting development in the area.

The fight for better cities is seldom as clearly defined as when water and food are at stake. Yet access to both hangs in the balance at the Philippi Horticultural Area – 3074ha of fertile land that has been the city’s breadbasket since the 19th century. This single block of land, tilled for decades, provides employment and food security in a drying and warming climate, as well as a large, strategic reserve aquifer unique in the Western Cape. Above all, though, the PHA – as a source of sustenance in close proximity to 3 million people – is an end product that other cities of the global South are desperately experimenting to create against the clock of climate change, rapid urbanisation and rising sea levels.

And yet the PHA is itself being devoured like a ripe fruit. Property developers Exclusive Access Trading 570 (Pty) Ltd (also known as MSP) and the unfortunately-named Rapicorp (who seek to develop 300ha and 472ha respectively) have won the latest hurdle in securing parts of the PHA for high-density housing.

For a long time, the City of Cape Town resisted development of the PHA. In 2009 its own “Philippi Horticultural Area Task Team Report recommended retaining the land as a “bona fide farming area”. As late as 2012, the City’s detailed report, “The Role of Philippi Horticultural Area in Securing the Future of the City,” called for the development of “already identified and planned for new development areas in the vicinity of the PHA” in place of any development of the PHA itself. This report, in language the City must now regret, mentioned the PHA’s “exceptional horticultural production”, its silica mining potential, and its role in securing affordable food and long-term water supply in Cape Town. The report writers are at pains to state that the City must “secure the resource for future generations” in light of the evidence that “contradicts the notion that the area’s horticultural role is declining”. The report mentions urban infill sites that are to be considered instead of any whittling away of the PHA – Ottery, Strandfontein East, Zeekoevlei, Pelican Park and Youngsfield.

The same report calls Philippi land “the most productive [horticultural farming] in the country per hectare”, with up to five harvests a year in places. Its aquifer is the largest remaining area of the Cape Flats aquifer not yet built over, and the Southeast portion – where EAT/MSP will put the 20,000 housing units  – is the “area of greatest transmissivity (absorption) of the aquifer”.

Now, following a 31st July vote, the City is in favour of expanding Cape Town’s urban edge to allow the development in the EAT/MSP and Rapicorp parcels. The City’s about-face, after a consensus stretching back to at least 1968, comes in the context of what Glenn Ashton, writing in the Cape Times, called “increasing cosiness between the DA-led city and the Western Cape Property Development Forum” (a forum representing private-sector developers). In the same year as its sudden change of heart about the wisdom of Wescape – a massive exurb that would house 800,000 people close to a nuclear power plant – the City of Cape Town Mayoral Committee (Mayco) has found it useful to house people easily on a greenfield site rather than tussle with landowners to bring about infill development.

Mayor Patricia de Lille’s Cape Town This Week letter of 29 July 2013 pre-empted criticism of the council vote by describing a Philippi that can and should yield to housing pressure in the area. Mentioning that only a third of the current PHA was under cultivation, she said “some of those who do farm their land are interested in selling their land for development for a range of reasons, including: concerns about safety and pilferage; land invasions; lack of generational interest in farming; the high probability of imminent land sterilisation; and the unassailable advance of urban creep”.

The City’s own 2012 report on “the role of the Philippi Horticultural Area in Securing the Future of the City” once again refutes these claims almost word-for-word. Section 8.7.1 states very clearly that only policy clarity and unequivocal City support for the PHA can prevent land speculation in the area. In the same year, a study commissioned by Rooftops Canada-Abri International and the African Food Security Network called “PHA – A city asset or potential development node?” showed that Philippi farmers, despite great institutional challenges and a dearth of institutional support, spoke of their farming futures in 30-year timelines. Emerging farmers as well as new direct distribution into poor communities are Philippi’s future, the report concluded, as long as the City provided a minimum level of support against urbanisation creep.

It would appear that instead of stepping up its commitment to a vulnerable asset, the City has accepted its own failure to protect Philippi’s croplands as the rationale for its own partitioning and selling-off of that very same land.

The city’s proposed solution in this case is not pro-poor because it essentially deepens and sharpens two problems rather than solving one. By allowing the growing number of Capetonians urgently in need of housing to settle on the land that feeds the city’s poor with fresh produce, a few housing recipients benefit while all those on low incomes lose out on their best chance at decent, cheap nutrition.

The Philippi community itself realised in 2011 that existing spatial development frameworks did not reflect the real value and the future needs of its land, and then drafted its own policy document, the PHA Vision Plan. The Plan, cognisant of the pressure for housing on the Cape Flats, offers marginal agricultural land (approximately 800ha) for urban development, commercial and industrial activity, and saves the best farmlands for food production. It is an example of a community staking out a plan that is generous and respectful of its neighbours, but also realistic about the future health of the natural asset on which its livelihood (and citizen’s health) depends. The PHA Vision Plan was presented to a full City of Cape Town in February 2012, and is actively supported by an unusually broad-based coalition of urban agriculture, academic and activist groups. Against it is a handful of private developers, and, as of very recently, Mayco and a few top officials with the City.

Time will tell whether irreplaceable natural resources are converted into tract housing for the few at the expense of the many, or whether Cape Town continues to take its food future seriously. Failing to act will be, in the words of Nazeer Ahmed Sonday, chairperson of the PHA, a “design disaster of epic proportions”.

This article was produced by Future Cape Town as part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series.

Photo credit: Nazeer Ahmed Sonday/Natalie McAskill.

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

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