FUTURE CAPE TOWN | Can a game help plan the future of a township?

‘The participants move around small blocks that look like mini-buildings’


A group of  local stakeholders in Cape Town, aim for collaborative solutions by engaging with design of the Khayelitsha Business District, using a game called Play Khayelitsha.

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by Charlotte Scott

To one side of the Khayelitsha train station rows of bustling independent container shops and haphazard informal stalls cater to the non-stop pedestrian traffic with barber shops, carpenters, cellphone chargers and clothes all on display. On the other side of the station is the outdoor Khayelitsha mall, with its wide-open paved walkways. As trains come and go between the platforms, commuters can grab a takeaway cup of coffee or a packet of naartjies for the road. Outside the shopping mall people pile into waiting taxis or drive home out of a parking lot that seems to have partially merged with the sandy plot it occupies. On the other side of the railway line there are no spacious parking bays or tree lined walkways, only taxis who swing round the sharp bends in Kwesi Crescent competing for the first passengers.

This hub of trade and transport, known as the Khayelitsha Business District (KBD), was identified to “establish a mixed-use, viable and vibrant central business district for the residents of Khayelitsha, in which the local community participates and is empowered to take up economic opportunities”.

Like many South African townships Khayelitsha is geographically isolated from the Cape Town city centre, cultural facilities and affluent areas. It is positioned between a bleak, windswept section of the False Bay coastline and the hurtling N2 corridor. According to a case study on the KBD, co-produced by National Treasury and the South African Cities Network in 2011, Khayelitsha was originally anticipated to accommodate some 270 000 residents. It has grown to more than 400 000 (using official sources) but some say this figure could be closer to 1 million.

In an effort to stimulate economic growth the site for a potential central business district, the KBD, was identified by the local government for development in 1996, with the aim of achieving urban renewal and to reverse under-development during apartheid. Situated between Ntlazane Road and Khayelitsha Hospital, its focal point is the bustling Khayelitsha train station. Today, the KBD is often the only accessible regional centre that meets the retail and service needs of residents.

According to the case study the KBD development is one of the first cases of its kind in South Africa. It is unique in that the Khayelitsha Community Trust (KCT), with its various subsidiary companies, is the major equity holder on behalf of the community of Khayelitsha.

The KCT was established by the City of Cape Town in 2003 with the specific purpose of advancing the KBD through the development of commercial, residential and community facilities. In 2004 the KCT entered into a Land Availability Agreement with the city of Cape Town (CoCT). Rights for the development of all undeveloped land within the KBD precinct were given to KCT, currently approximately 70 hectares of land. Today, the KBD continues to be funded from both private and public sources.

However, despite the fact that Khayelitsha’s business district contains huge unrealised potential in its dynamic young population, proximity to tourist attractions and access to untapped consumer markets in Khayelitsha itself – economic growth has largely stagnated. Large plots of sandy land remain vacant except for scattered beachgrass and few discarded tyres, and limited infrastructure investment is stalling potential growth.

“The overwhelming sentiment expressed by most stakeholders is frustration at the lack of real (and swift) progress in terms of sustainable commercial development” says Thembisa Jemsana, a Development Manager at KCT. “The kind of development that translates into positive and impactful socio-economic enhancement, particularly by way of improvement in the quality of life and access to  the mainstream economy for the people of Khayelitsha” adds Jemsana.

Jemsana has worked at the KCT for a number of years and is responsible for shaping and implementing the development vision of the KBD. Her work has involved development and project management, particularly in emerging or re-emerging urban spaces such as Gugulethu, Johannesburg inner city, and now Khayelitsha.

Playing the city as a game


Inside Khayelitsha’s well-used Harare Library people can be seen standing around playing on a large circular table, interacting, debating and explaining. The participants move around small blocks that look like mini-buildings around the map which covers the entire table surface. Upon moving closer, the table and its map appear to be a plan of the KBD with participants engaging like a game of monopoly, exchanging property and negotiating investments and business models. Around 50 local stakeholders have gathered to negotiate a collaborative vision for the Western Forecourt of the Khayelitsha Business District, using a game called Play Khayelitsha.

Play the City is the Amsterdam and Istanbul-based City Gaming company which designed and developed Play Khayelitsha. A team of members from the organisation spent some time in Cape Town designing the game and facilitated the Harare Library sessions. Play the City have used the ‘City Gaming’ method around the world in response to the traditional method of engagement city government often resorts to. Much like a facebook post, residents are often only afforded the opportunity to like or dislike a development proposal in their city and cannot directly engage with its formation or design or the other stakeholders it will affect. That’s if they can overcome the barriers to do so or find the obscure newspaper development in which the development advertisement is hidden.

Play the City designed Play Khayelitsha as a negotiation and design game to simulate complex real life development decisions for the KBD. The organisation believes that games have the potential to accelerate consensus amongst multiple stakeholders, support informed decision-making and resolve conflicts.

“The City Gaming method, we at Play the City have been experimenting with since 2008, has proven to perform most effective in complex urban processes where various interests are at stake from market [entities] to governing bodies and civic organisations,” says Ekim Tan. Tan, who is the founder of Play The City and in an interview says that when the City of Cape Town expressed interest in a city gaming pilot, “Khayelitsha was one of the first urban challenges that came to the table”.

Born in Istanbul, Tan graduated as an architect from the Middle East Technical University with the Archiprix Award in 1999, and received a second degree in urbanism in 2005. In 2014 she finalized her PhD in Urban Planning and Design at Delft University of Technology focusing on city gaming.

The Play the City gaming method has been implemented for large-scale projects in Amsterdam, Istanbul, Brussels, Tirana and, in Khayelitsha’s business district in Cape Town. For Play Khayelitsha, the approach includes an extensive mapping of stakeholders and power relations in the area prior to the game. This helps identify which powers need to be simulated be at the table and what dynamics to anticipate. In the case of the KBD, this took the form of infographics and maps of existing public utilities and access to social institutions. 

The Play the City team then set about creating a game prototype to be tested during the Department of Design events in July 2014. Around 60 players, including members from the City of Cape Town municipality, Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), local businesses and residents of Khayelitsha joined the first demo round of the game. Then in November 2014, the game ran again for three structured sessions in Harare Library.

The use of games to facilitate collective learning and innovation is not unique to cities. Anticipatory, inclusive, and participatory approaches for designing and implementing disaster risk management operations have become a popular method to transform traditional thinking across all scales. The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and its partners have designed at least 45 games on a wide range of humanitarian issues such as disaster preparedness, gender, food security, climate information, health, road safety and the management of urban waste. Participatory games and simulations can be decision-making tools that can reflect complex systems and promote learning and dialogue on risk management among a range of stakeholders.

The game comprises a three dimensional representation of the KBD and players have access to a library of over 600 game pieces which represent physical components of potential urban projects, for example; housing or office blocks as well as organisational components such as social networks or public support. Much like in an online game of Sims, players can create buildings and partnerships, moving them around the board and test out different ways to configure new developments.

“People understand 3-D far better than plans,” says Olwethu Jack from UGM consultants.  Jack has worked with the Community Organisation Research Centre (CORC) and South African Slum Dwellers International (SDI) Alliance to support communities as a technical advisor. Currently he is the founder and Managing director of UGM Consultants, a group of experienced professionals who are designers and community development facilitators in South Africa.

“The informal traders really lead the process and stood their grounds in the discussions.  This was very good and really influenced the functionality and incremental upgrading process which accommodates the end users). They voiced their concerns, problems and came up with a plans and solutions,” says Jack.


A few basic game rules assign each player a role for example: designer, land owner, NGO, street vendor, investor, developer, facilitator, planning department, local resident, small business or council member. The Play the City team then facilitates their engagement with one another as they negotiate over their given amount of currency in the game.

“It [takes] people out of their comfort zone and they have to negotiate with others to achieve outcomes,” says Marco Geretto, an urban designer for the City of Cape Town. The City was involved both in initiating support for the gaming session, and as active participants in each of the three rounds.

The business district of the future

By the end of the three sessions in Harare Library, a series of color coded lego pieces representing urban activities dot the Play Khayelitsha table. Some are closer to the station while others are further away. These boxes indicate the type of development that has been negotiated through the game.

The Play Khayelitsha sessions generated a number of collaborative solutions. Local traders suggested the development of a local co-operative for securing land tenure in the long-term. This would help traders match private investments and apply for government funds. The lump sum needed to purchase the land could then be sourced both through pooled savings and external funding. For many of the players around the table, this was the first they had heard of such a suggestion.


This snowballed into an idea of developing a mixed-use container park integrated with a mini taxi rank, gym, ATM, tourism agency and creche. Investors participating in the game, seemed keen to facilitate this plan by supporting the organisation and maintenance of services for the development, but suggested first organising monthly pop-up markets to test viability. The container park, participants suggested, could also host a deconstructed shopping mall, with a variety of small stalls selling different produce but all contributing to the same till.

A number of service improvements were suggested to support to deconstructed shopping mall, like better lighting in the quarter, pedestrianisation of Kwesi Chres and a local recycling plant. Players identified new land for social housing adjacent to a dense informal trading zone along Ntlazane road. In fact the Ntlazane road itself needed to be rezoned to accommodate the intensifying land use along it. Increasingly, there is more and more potential for tourism in the area, and local businesses and investors talked about developing B&Bs and even a boutique hotel along Ntlazane.

Amongst these discussions, expectations from the city by older generation residents and local traders were raised. To its credit, the city opened up and admitted that the public sector is often a less than ideal landlord. Younger generation Khayelitshans displayed a more pro-active behavior in self-organization of local development in their town. Parallelwise, the city encouraged residents to take their own steps towards ensuring their existence on the site, and have the city play a role as connector and facilitator of development.

The politics of planning and communities

The gaming environment brings to the fore a number of conflicts, often existing tension between statekholders. There were apparent tensions between local traders and the City of Cape Town over expectations of service delivery and the cost of regularized rent for shops in the KBD. Play the City detailed many of these conflicts in their 11 page report on the demonstration of the game. According to the report, issues such as “discrepancies in the cost of rent between Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain, vacant retail spaces and unpaid rent on occupied shops in the KBD have been frustrating local traders and city officials”.

“The majority of residents don’t understand that private businesses are trying to contribute to the infrastructure and development of Khayelitsha. They are opposed to private enterprise in the community and expect hand-outs or free-bees,” says Karu Pillay, a land owner/developer and participant in the game. “One of the greatest challenges is the perceptions that the community expects to gain something from business without contributing.”

“Locals expressed a long-term interest in permanent ownership of the land they currently use for trade,” according to Tan. “Some of the landowners and land developers were present in this session as well. The use and ownership of the valuable land around the Khayelitsha Station was exactly where the interactions during the game became heated.”

“The dynamic between the local government, informal traders and market parties has become clearer during the third sessions of Play Khayelitsha, played on 20th of November 2015,“ says Tan.

“I really could appreciate how the local government has honestly confessed that they have not been effective in ‘playing the landlord’ in former projects in the township; the best example being empty formal shops constructed by the city due to their high rents. Consequently, the local government took a facilitating role rather than initiating one during the game.”

“The city would like to be players [in the game], but they don’t want to have to be the landlord anymore. They’d like to see other players take initiative.” Similarly, Tan says, you can see this shift in how the city engages with residents in its new slogan, previously “This City Works for You” and now “Making Progress Possible. Together.”

“Government is seen as the institution that should address all the challenges. Private businesses and beneficiary communities do not come to the party in an adequate manner.” says Monwabisi Booi. Booi is the Interim Programme Coordinator at the Mayoral Urban Regeneration Programme (MURP) which focuses on the regeneration of identified areas within the City of Cape Town, particularly areas instrumental to addressing inequality which is still a reality for many communities within the City and part of the legacy of many generations of spatial and economic exclusion.

These areas were prioritised to redress the spatial and economic exclusion of the past, and also because they are mini CBDs close to transport corridors, which helps stimulate growth and development. Prioritised areas include Manenberg, Hanover Park, Lotus Park, Nyanga/Gugulethu, Bishop Lavis, Valhalla Park, Bonteheuwel, Harare and Kuyasa interchange precinct, Bellville transport interchange precinct and Voortrekker Road corridor, Wesfleur Business node (Atlantis), Athlone CBD and Gatesville, Ocean View, Mitchells Plain Town Centre and Macassar.

“A significant part of getting any development or project off the ground, is being able to lobby and garner support and endorsement from a variety of interest groups, interested and invested parties, local authority and the higher sphere of government.” says Jemsana”. He adds that “traditional public participation process and stakeholder engagement frameworks do not have the flexibility to allow people to really engage and entertain the significance and implications of the proposed development or project proposed,” says Jemsana, Development Manager at Khayelitsha Community Trust (KCT).

The gaming environment “demystifies, softens and humanises what can be a very technical and often alienating urban design, planning and stringently legislative building control process,” PLAYKHAYELITSHA6

During the three rounds of the game, the Play the City team records all gaming sessions, translating insights and opportunities revealed by players during the game into strategies and action plans for real life interventions.

“The informal traders really lead the process and stood their ground in the discussions.  This was very good and really influenced the functionality and incremental upgrading process which accommodates the end users (informal traders), argues Jack. “They voiced their concerns and came up with plans and solutions. These ideas were easier to visualize due to practical examples in the Play the City game.”

“Hearing about the traders talking about incremental upgrading and a strategy of ownership in a long run was my highlight, says Jack. “As a community designer it really give you an understanding of the people you dealing with and the type of design they want.”

The state of participation in Cape Town

How and to what degree citizens participate in decision-making in their city is the best sign of flexible, participatory planning that responds to the needs of people first and foremost.

According to the city’s Public Participation Unit, between 2011 and 2012, the City of Cape Town ran more than 218 participative processes (including Junior Council meetings) with roughly 29,462 participants.

One of the primary modes of city decision-making is the setting of the city budget. According to Ndifuna Ukwazi,  last year saw 37 public submissions made during the period available for public comment on the city budget. In a city of over 5 million, that’s not much to write home about.

This year, Ndifuna Ukwazi and the International Budget Partnership, operating predominantly in Khayelitsha, engaged in an intensive door-to-door campaign to elicit comments on the city budget from residents.

In total they received over 600 contributions, which they handed over individually to the city. The city has promised to respond to each contribution, many of which were concerned with sanitation issues in Khayelitsha, one of the primary focus areas of the Social Justice Coalition’s work.


While 600 is a lot better than 37, it’s still only a tiny percentage of the city’s residents and only captures the perspectives of one group of stakeholders- residents (although arguably the primary recipients of the budget’s deliverables). While it’s possible that these submissions included 600 unique contributions, it seems far more likely that many residents may have similar opinions to their neighbours and could benefit from engaging with residents who have different opinions, or local businesses or community organisations. Not only is it time consuming for the city to respond to individual submissions, but having a public participation process that allows residents, businesses, NGO’s and CBO’s to engage with one another (as well as the city) allows for more constructive debate and a consolidated, innovative range of proposals.

Play the City estimates that in 9 months over 500 players could be reached simply by playing one session a month. Through the design of Play Khayelitsha, Play the City expects to observe new ties emerging between existing players, while inviting new players to join the process.

The challenge, Jack warned, was how to turn these suggestions into actionable plans and projects. “The games were helpful, but they need to be accompanied by a follow-up strategy to realise their potential.”

More than a once-off game?

So after three rounds of Play Khayelitsha, what has the game achieved? And how could it change the way the public participates in Cape Town’s urban development and neighbourhood design?


“[Local traders] really appreciated being part of the planning of the development of the area they use and lived in. They even mentioned that this is the kind of involvement they would like to see happening when developments are happening,” says Jack.

Although the game hasn’t fed into a legal action plan yet for Khayelitsha, it has awakened appetites for more engaging participation and decision-making tools. The game has been instrumental in demonstrating the power of interactive methods to raise awareness, and create consensus and innovation. What is also promising, according to Tan, is the city’s commitment to exploring the medium of gaming and the active participation of both private investors and residents.

“We had moments where the head of city planning was taking notes because the locals were explaining what is happening outside. Local traders were explaining, for example, that there are no ATM’s on the side of the railway where the informal traders are. If you are a tourist or you want to shop, you have to cross over the railway line to the shopping mall to draw cash. And once they are there they stay there, they don’t come back. Instead, you get your coffee at the shopping mall, you don’t go back to Department of Coffee,” explains Tan.

Play the City hopes there is a chance to infiltrate the city gaming into everyday decision-making processes city-wide. According to Tan, with enough political will, a cyclical and open-ended generative city gaming method could become the principal medium of engaging with city planning.


But there is a long road ahead before city gaming could become a permanent fixture in annual participation. Jemsana, from KCT, echoes this concern, “It is apparent that the game has been enlightening and enjoyable. However I’ve sensed that some people wonder whether the momentum can be maintained and, most importantly, the often unsaid questions of “what then, where does it take us, how will this game help us achieve what we need to?”

With so much momentum behind it, the next developments for city gaming in Cape Town are still eagerly awaited in the coming months. After years of stagnation, whether city gaming will be enough to link the business centre onto a path of inclusive economic growth is still to be determined.