‘It once was the gritty, bustling heart of this city’
A bold new vision for re-establishing part of the city’s links with the sea – will it be implemented, and if so, how will it work for all Capetonians?
Walking to the V&A Waterfront from the centre of Cape Town, a first-time visitor could be forgiven for thinking they had lost her way. After crossing five lanes of traffic, our prospective visitor is treated to the sight of an empty car park to the left, and to the right, a petrol station and car dealership, with no suggestion that the city’s most vibrant public space lies just a few minutes’ walk ahead.
Yet hundreds of locals and tourists alike navigate this shadeless, exposed route every day, negotiating a very rudimentary pedestrian route across a busy traffic circle before reaching the Silo District, where the Waterfront’s celebrated pedestrian realm begins.
If, at this point, someone told our visitor that she was surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in the country, she would very likely have to ask whether those sources had been checked, because she is surrounded by vast tracts of undeveloped land, and, behind that, a labyrinth of containers rising up from behind the access-controlled gates which announce your arrival at the Transnet-owned Port of Cape Town.
This is Cape Town’s seafront – cut off from the public by high barbed-wire fences. It once was the gritty, bustling heart of this city, where the public mingled freely with thousands of dockhands, but the Waterfront now stands as the only living interface between the city and sea; the rest is heavily fortified fencing.
Thankfully, after years of discussions between Transnet, the Western Cape Government, the City of Cape Town, National Treasury and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront Company, a vision for a brand new city precinct is slowly being brought to life in this corner of Cape Town.
The result of a collaborative workshop process between several diverse spheres of government, government agencies and the private sector, these roleplayers have come together through an open dialogue and visioning exercise to conceptualize a new waterside precinct, the “Port Gateway Precinct”, which, it is hoped, will be implemented in phases from the soon-to-be redeveloped cruise liner terminal at E Berth in Duncan Dock (for which the V&A Waterfront Company has just been announced as the preferred bidder).
Set on a 50-year horizon, the vision is outlined in a high-level concept report titled, Port Gateway: Strategic Vision and Long Term Spatial Concept Final Report, commissioned and funded by the Western Cape Government and jointly compiled by Meyer & Associates (architecture and urban planning) and City Think Space (now merged with GAPP architects/urban designers/spatial architecture, urban and spatial planning). The focus of the visioning exercise is the area of Transnet-owned land shown bounded by the Silo Precinct to the North, the historical Customs House to the South, E Berth and its proposed Cruise Liner Terminal to the East, and Walter Sisulu Avenue to the West.
The project brief was to develop a long term common vision for the Precinct, exploring the potential to establish a large mixed-use precinct that can stitch together the Waterfront, the Port and the Foreshore end of the Central Business District. The aim was to facilitate a conversation between key stakeholders that could lead to a common vision for this key site. The product of this process has no official status at this stage but is rather a “discussion document”, representing a consensus and a continued dialogue.
A city cut off from the sea
The Port Gateway project shares many parallels with the development of the V&A Waterfront over the last three decades. Ask Capetonians what their central city used to look like before this city precinct and you’ll likely be met with a look of bewilderment. For anyone under the age of 30, it’s difficult to imagine a Cape Town without its much-loved and globally applauded Waterfront.
And yet just over 30 years ago, the land that today comprises the Waterfront was an inhospitable no-man’s land as far as the general public was concerned. Since the Foreshore reclamation of the 1930s and 40s, Cape Town had been isolated from its seafront by high customs fences, port infrastructure and railway and freeway construction. As Pieter S van Zyl, former planning manager at the V&A Waterfront, describes in a white paper on the development entitled “The story of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront Development“, Cape Town’s Foreshore resembled “a treeless wasteland of sand and parked cars”. In large, it still does.
After vigorous campaigning by civic-minded Capetonians during the late 70s and early 80s, then-Cape Town mayor Sol Kreiner formed the Waterfront Steering Committee, and started lobbying to re-establish the physical links between Cape Town and its seafront.
The result has been an indisputable success – Africa’s most-visited destination, with 23 million visitors annually, described by renowned American public space-planner Fred Kent as the best waterfront in the world. The V&A is a mixed-use development that has managed to preserve the continued operation of a working harbour and provides Capetonians living in the inner city with access to their seafront, albeit a small corner of it, run for profit.
However, despite its success, the V&A Waterfront comprises only a small portion of the central city’s seafront. Most of the city’s downtown grid remains cut off from the sea along its north-eastern edge. Brett Herron, the head of Cape Town’s new transport authority, Transport for Cape Town (TCT) , recently told the Weekend Argus that “the Waterfront, which has matured over the past 30 years, has proved a remarkable success, but there is still a sense that the Waterfront is not the port, and that though one can see port activities from there, for people the actual port areas are quite forbidding”.
Over the next few years Herron’s team at TCT will play a major role in shaping the discussions around the development of the Port Gateway vision. New connections in and around the lower CBD and their effect on reducing congestion in the inner city are some good examples of the possibilities that Herron and his team can explore.
A collaborative approach – enquiry by design
The visioning exercise made use of a collaborative process known as “enquiry by design”. The process is built around a series of design charrettes (meetings of small groups, in which informal and collaborative design work takes place). This process facilitates the development of ideas and concepts, allowing stakeholders with different views to hear one another’s perspectives and contribute to co-creating solutions.
In light of the immense task associated with developing a long term vision as complex as that required for the Port Gateway project, which involves powerful stakeholders with potentially competing interests, the Western Cape Government’s Department of Economic Development and Tourism enlisted the support of the Government Technical Advisory Centre (GTAC), an agency in National Treasury which provides technical project advisory services as well as leadership training.
The role of the GTAC was to “see the development of a plan through a collaborative process that aligns the work of the different spheres of government role players in the interests of inclusive economic growth and job creation”, says Matt Cullinan, Senior Technical Advisor at the GTAC. Cullinan, a planner by training with a background in finance, has led the GTAC through similar processes including the Integrated Wild Coast Development Programme and the Abuja (Nigeria) Waterfront Development Framework.
In a country well-known for its polarised political landscape and often unconstructive mudslinging, it is refreshing to see different levels of government working together to achieve a long term vision which, as Cullinan points out, “has the potential to unlock substantial economic development (which) requires the close cooperation of all three spheres of government to do so”.
Components of the Vision
The cruise terminal – catalyst for a new precinct
The cruise terminal, the catalyst and perhaps the centrepiece of this precinct, has been presented and debated on several occasions in the media. Future Cape Town has presented several viewpoints over the last 4 years, including the initial vision for Table Bay Harbour in 2040, the potential use of the E-berth as a dedicated cruise ship terminal, Guy Lundy’s thought piece on the need for a cruise terminal and an extract from the Cruise Liner Study for Southern Africa commissioned by the National Cruise Liner Steering Committee, which evaluated the suitability of Cape Town as a homeport for cruise ships.
In 2012, in a move that foreshadows the current national tension between domestic security concerns and tourism growth, South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs banned cruise liners from docking at the V&A Waterfront’s Jetty Two, citing security concerns. This left passengers of the visiting Queen Mary 2 to disembark from the Eastern Mole and make their way into the city over railway lines, manholes and bollards
A number of interest groups have lobbied intensely in recent years for a redeveloped terminal. These pundits argue that, because the average cruise liner tourist spends more per day than a regular visitor, making Cape Town more desirable for cruise liner tourists will provide greater economic spin-offs for the city, particularly in job creation. Having accepted the business case for a redeveloped terminal, Transnet has identified the Waterfront Company as its preferred bidder, meaning that this project is at last gaining momentum after lengthy delays.
Pedestrian-transport connections and public spaces
One of the major themes of the report is creating a new network of streets and boulevards in the project area, in order to connect the currently disjointed downtown CBD, the Waterfront and the Port. One of the key expressions of this theme is the vision of a new public boulevard running alongside the redeveloped terminal building connecting the Clock Tower Precinct at the Waterfront to the downtown CBD (at the CTICC and at Heerengracht) running first to the north of, and then underneath, the elevated freeways.
Drawing inspiration from cities including Seoul, Toronto, New York and Nashville, the report also presents the possibility of a central public space directly in front of the new terminal as well as landscaped pedestrian connections, and smaller parks throughout the Precinct for Capetonians and visitors alike to enjoy while picnicking, jogging or people-watching. Dedicated cycle routes, jogging tracks and a dockside promenade are also put forward as possible design interventions.
Whether or not these interventions will ever successfully be implemented is, of course, another story. The Roggebaai Canal Tourism Precinct, a mixed-use development initiated by Transnet on the land bordering the Port Gateway Precinct area, involved the development of the Roggebaai Canal in 2005. A decade on, however, nothing has come of this project. “Apart from Harbourbridge and Canal Quays, a total of 8 sites remain vacant and open for development” as someone commented in an online forum in November 2004. More than a decade later, the situation is unchanged. The much-anticipated ferry between the Waterfront and the CTICC seems to operate only on special occasions, and the vacant sites backing the canal resemble the “treeless wasteland of sand” that Pieter S van Zyl referred to when speaking about the early days of the Foreshore reclamation.
While those unconnected with the project can only speculate as to what impediments have delayed the private development of this area, it is clear that grand spending on canals and pedestrian connections is not enough to create interesting, vibrant places.
That aside, what is guaranteed to be welcomed by vehicle-bound Capetonians is a more efficient routing for the MyCiti bus between the Civic Centre and the V&A Waterfront, via the new cruise liner precinct. “What is most important to me is the opportunity this effort has brought to identify how the area between the CTICC and the sea and to the north-west of this can be better developed as an extension to the City with a variety of access points which dilute the bottleneck effect at the Buitengracht intersection”, says Catherine Stone.
As Herron notes, “the mobility proposals contained in the Gateway project report are intended to ensure that the port is a people-centred, user-friendly, space that is well connected and permeable to the city centre. If the precinct is developed as proposed, over the long term, then we would want to encourage non-motorised and public transport access to support a mixed use environment – with residential units, retail, commercial and public spaces.”
From a transport point of view one of the most interesting proposals put forward is a possible MyCiti/cycle route along South Arm Road connecting the Port Gateway Precinct with the north-eastern corner of the Waterfront at East Pier Road, running over a proposed new bridge spanning the entrance to the Victoria Basin.
The idea for this route emerged in in visioning for the V&A Waterfront, offering an additional connection between the CBD and the Atlantic Seaboard and inviting locals and visitors to access, use and experience the end of the Breakwater – a remarkable but underused coastal place.
The long term vision for South Arm Road by the V&A Waterfront and the Port Authority would result in substantial new development – the area represents something in the region of 35 football fields (over twice the size of the Victoria Wharf shopping centre). Development like this would bring large numbers of new residents and businesses to the area.
Developing underneath the freeways to the water’s edge
Although the report does hint at the possibility that Cape Town’s infamous elevated freeways might be demolished, what is refreshing to see is a cheaper and more practical alternative to this drastic proposal – simply extending the city grid under the freeways and developing (hopefully) to the water’s edge.
The problem is not the foreshore freeway itself, but what it does to the city in the Northern Foreshore Area
“The problem is not the foreshore freeway itself, but what it does to the city in the Northern Foreshore Area”, says says Tiaan Meyer of Meyer and Associates, co-author of the report. The looming freeway casts a wide literal and figurative shadow on surrounding streets, symbolising the end of the city, and blocking North-South spatial connections. Development beyond this point would challenge this perception, particularly if the real barrier (the forbidding perimeter fencing of the Port) were to be removed or modified.
It is in this context that the Port Gateway project could ultimately solve Cape Town’s freeway conundrum. If port facilities are relocated, and development proceeds north of the freeways, they will cease to symbolise a boundary and recede visually.
It’s not as if cities around the world (including Cape Town) haven’t figured out how to work around elevated freeways and similar structures such as railway bridges. A tried and teste toolkit of approaches has worked around the world to invest these spaces with activity and life. Indeed, these vast ‘roofed’ outdoor spaces have been championed as “outdoor rooms” by urbanists of the calibre of Jan Gehl and James Howard Kunstler. The presence of a bridge or elevated freeway above is a ceiling under which pedestrians can shelter from the rain or sun, street performances can be carried out, and as in the case of the M3 in the Cape Town suburb of Gardens, skaters can skate. In short, it is quality urban environments that matter at street level – not what is happening overhead.
Making sense of the vision
It’s clear that the Port Gateway Project has the potential to unlock some very valuable spinoffs for the city. If successfully implemented, it could attract more tourists, create hundreds of jobs in the construction, retail and hospitality sectors, increase rates revenue (which can be redirected to low-income areas), unblock major traffic congestion around the Buitengracht intersection, and provide quality public space for all Capetonians to enjoy. But even with these likely benefits, the myriad of socio-economic issues which Cape Town faces, including years of underinvestment in historically black neighbourhoods, eye-wateringly high and persistent unemployment, and spatial inequality, means that we should think more carefully about the goals that should inform a project of this nature.
Because of the many characteristics it shares with the Port Gateway project, the V&A Waterfront is probably the closest tangible example we have of what we can expect the new precinct to look like. Do we as Capetonians want the Port Gateway Precinct to be a carbon copy of the Waterfront? Although an undeniable success, the Waterfront is also undoubtedly a consumer-oriented environment that is organised around the retail offering of big national retailers (think Vida è Caffé, Pick ‘n Pay, Clicks) and a residential component limited to very high-end apartments. In short, an environment more suited to the upper-middle class than the working class. Is it possible, then, to realise a precinct which achieves broader social goals of racial inclusivity, spatial transformation and the provision of low-income housing in the inner-city? Or should these sorts of projects, with high potential economic impact, not seek to achieve such lofty goals?
To answer these questions a logical starting point is to consider the issue of land ownership. The land is owned by Transnet, a company fully owned by the South African government, which is mandated to support and grow the country’s freight logistics network while operating efficiently and profitably. In fact, the main function of the Transnet National Ports Authority as set out in the National Ports Act is “to own, manage, control and administer ports to ensure their efficient and economic functioning”.
For this reason there appear to be at least some limitations on Transnet’s ability to invest in socially useful developments (such as libraries or low-income housing) if this would interfere with its mandate of operating profitably. As all state-owned enterprises face a fiscal near future in which government largesse may be sharply reduced, they have a fiduciary responsibility to maximise the financial yield on every available asset, making a degree of cold commercial logic inevitable in future planning.
Design interventions to make the Precinct an inclusive place for all Capetonians
Because the Port Gateway project is still very much a vision, much of the detail has yet to be resolved. Therefore, opportunities still exist to build real inclusivity into these future places, along the lines of the Sea Point Promenade, a truly democratic space characterised by a broad mix of social classes and very little in the way of commercial development.
One of the ways in which these goals could be achieved is through something called “fine-grained” mixed-use development, a concept emphasised in the report. Fine-grained development is characterised by small blocks in close proximity, each with numerous buildings with narrow frontages, closely-spaced storefronts, and minimal setbacks from the street. The benefit of this type of urban design is that it promotes street life and vibrancy, by closely resembling the self-renewing Victorian streetscapes of vibrant suburbs like Observatory or Woodstock. As barriers to entry and overheads are lower, these neighbourhoods are commercially and residentially accessible to a much broader range of people – think of the West African barbershops, Ethiopian restaurants and Chinese shops that lend such vitality to parts of Sea Point and Kenilworth. This more ‘granular’ structure is in sharp contrast to recent trends at the Waterfront, where developments have grown larger in scale and cost over time.
Beyond ensuring a finer grain, there are many other design interventions which can ensure that the Port Gateway Precinct becomes an inclusive place for all Capetonians. Issues such as security and policing will be key – how will public access be controlled? Will spontaneous busking, dancing or performing be prohibited or tolerated? Will groups of people, sitting on a pavement and socialising with one another, be considered ‘loitering’? While these behaviours are routinely used as a pretext to police the presence of the poor in our city, planners will need to anticipate this kind of surveillance and counter it in some way, if the Precinct is not to become another stillborn, moneyed space.
Barbara Southworth, lead urban designer of GAPP architects and co-author of the report, echoes the thoughts of other partners, underlining how this precinct could offer something much more broadly accessible than the V&A Waterfront. “It could be a place that could offer much-needed live-work studio environments catering for port support businesses, creative industries and the like. The inclusion of gap housing, and housing for young professionals and families who can’t afford to live close to jobs and market opportunities, is also seen as a key role for the precinct.”
The report indicates that up to 200 000m2 of bulk could potentially be introduced into the CBD. It has long been the vision of the City and the Cape Town Partnership to bring more people to live in the CBD, especially in the affordable housing category. More people in the CBD makes public transport more viable and keeps the city alive after hours. Southworth adds that that the ultimate success of the precinct will depend on it “being designed and developed to be as mixed as possible – both in terms of land use and economic profile”.
Lessons from Rotterdam
The City of Rotterdam has in recent years seen the dramatic development of new port infrastructure and the relocation of existing facilities onto around 2000 hectares of land reclaimed from the North Sea. Known as Maasvlakte 2, the project was completed in 2013 and was one of the biggest civil engineering projects ever undertaken in the Netherlands. In addition to increasing industrial and container capacity at the Port of Rotterdam, Maasvlakte 2 also involved neighbourhood precinct and real estate components similar to the Port Gateway project.
One of these, the Existing Rotterdam Area, comprised a series of sub-projects aimed at realising the dual goals of making better use of the existing Rotterdam port area (known as the “intensification” projects) and also improving the living environment in and around Rotterdam (known as the “quality of life” projects).
Boudewijn Jansen, of the international multi-disciplinary consultancy Rebel, believes there are a number of lessons from the company’s involvement in the Maasvlakte 2 project. As port finance advisor at Rebel Group for over 12 years, Jansen has implemented numerous port infrastructure assignments around the world. A strategic, commercial and finance specialist, Jansen is also clearly a supporter of the age-old adage “proper prior planning prevents poor performance”. According to Jansen, Maasvlakte 2 took over 10 years from business plan to development stage, and a multitude of studies had to be commissioned to ensure the ultimate success of the project.
“As soon as you’ve conducted an in-depth market study you are in a much better position to make out a realistic business case for development. You’ll be able to ask questions such as, “Exactly how much social housing can we introduce before we hit the break-even point? How much land can we allocate to public spaces?”
Crucially, these studies must be ‘living’ documents that are updated continuously – the market, after all, does not wait for planning processes to be completed. On site in Rotterdam, after careful real estate studies had called for a predominantly residential development, the property market swung suddenly in favour of commercial real estate. Plans had to be changed rapidly to accommodate the larger footprint of restaurants, bars and shops. The reward for such responsiveness was that the project launched into a market that was ready for it.
As part of the same information-gathering process, Rebel sought the advice of 20 corporates in order to anticipate the challenges that would be faced and to scout out potential partners, clients and suppliers. “Start building your network long before construction starts”, says Jansen.
“Every city has a waterfront…not necessarily with water – it can also be with desert, for instance – but at least an edge where it meets another condition, as if a position of near escape is the best guarantee for its enjoyment” says Rem Koolhaas. We have come a long way in the last 30 years since Sol Kreiner started lobbying to re-establish the physical links between Cape Town and its seafront. As we open up the City Bowl to its waterfront over the coming decades, we can provide a position of near escape for city residents, and in so doing carve out for ourselves a quality place of public enjoyment.
The important task at hand will be for all Capetonians to think carefully about what type of new seaside precinct we want to create – and then to make all stakeholders involved accountable for delivering it.
1. All figures and photos come from Port Gateway, Strategic Vision & Long-Term Spatial Concept, Final Report, February 2014.
While the Port Gateway project demonstrates what could physically happen with the area, all the identified areas of development will have to follow proper due diligence and feasibility studies will have to be undertaken. At this stage this is non-committal.