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7 Ideas to Tackle Urban Sprawl


On the 2nd of May 2013, Future Cape Town hosted its first FCT Summit and the topic covered was Urban Sprawl in Cape Town. This mid-morning session hosted a small gathering of local government officials, urban developers and planners, and academics. The aim of the Summit was to create a forum to discuss the contentious issue of urban sprawl, and formulate a way to facilitate sustainable spatial urban growth in the City.

Below are 7 major highlights and ideas on the contextual constraints in Cape Town and future steps toward denser inclusive communities that come out of the session:

1)     The major problems and challenges in Cape Town

The Summit panel raised the following key problems currently affecting Cape Town urban development and perpetuating urban sprawl: a lack of accountability in the process of responding to urban development applications, inadequate civic engagement and lack of political willingness to address the planning legacy in the City. Developments are often pursued as a matter of political expediency rather than as a result of sensible planning, and there was also a sense that tough decisions were put off because of political considerations.

The point was strongly made that public housing projects often have several serious shortcomings, which are likely to cause major problems going forward. An example shared was the inability of the city to align housing provision with economic development, leading to poor people being given houses they cannot afford to maintain, located on the margins and with densities inappropriate for them to obtain economic betterment. The result is asset depreciation and the growth of city sprawl, without concomitant economic growth.

2)     Towards a Sustainable, Inclusive Urban Form

The Summit panel generally agreed that Cape Town cannot continue to be developed as it has been up until now. Infill of under-used spaces and densification were agreed on as necessary steps to begin changing the spatial character of the city, as detailed in the Densification Strategy of the City of Cape Town. Currently the city is amongst the least dense in Africa.

It was also acknowledged that there is currently little motivation or incentive for developers to create dense or low-cost housing projects. This was due to lower land costs for developments on the urban edge, as well as the existence of almost insurmountable civil, bureaucratic and legal hurdles to creating dense infill developments or low-cost housing within the city. The Summit panel believed that steps should be taken to make it attractive for developers to create these developments within the city limits, such as improving zoning laws, freeing up unused land owned by the various government structures, and providing clear incentives.

3) Civil Buy-in: Building a Non-Partisan Voice for Sustainable, Inclusive Change

The Summit panel believed that there is a need to get civil buy-in for development policies that favour density and infill. Their suggestions about the way forward include:

  • The creation and communication of a compelling vision for the city and region, with need for clear buy-in
  • The need to come up with numbers and hard facts to show politicians, decision makers and citizens the economic and other implications of various decisions
  • Changing of the expectations and desires around housing, public land and the future city
  • In terms of low-income and affordable housing: the need to rephrase political debates from simply discussing the provision of housing, to addressing issues around increasing access to economic opportunity

4) Debunking Myths on the Urban Land Situation

The Summit panel challenged two common misconceptions regarding Cape Town:

  1. That Cape Town lacks the space for new development (i.e. that the city is full); and
  2. That the problems caused by the apartheid design of the city are insurmountable.

The Summit panel highlighted large portions of state land within the city centre and established suburbs that are ideally situated for dense housing. However, it was explained that there has been an inability on the part of local, provincial and national government to open it up for development, and where land has been made available, private developers do not consider dense low-cost projects profitable. This is a problem that is exacerbated by the high cost of land and the large number of regulatory hurdles.

Furthermore, the Summit panel blamed ineffective redevelopment of Cape Town as the reason for the perception that the apartheid design problems cannot be solved. It was agreed that a lack of political, policy and financial congruence was a significant factor for this deficiency.

5) Positive Stories in Cape Town Need to be Highlighted

There was consensus that focussing solely on the problems facing Cape Town is a narrow approach, and there are benefits in discussing, engaging with and studying stories of more positive developments in the city. Positive stories of housing and development activities in Cape Town are rarely shared or highlighted.

The following positive case studies were mentioned:

  1. Mitchell's Plain: The community is showing signs of becoming a workable middle-class neighbourhood. It currently has the lowest amount of backyarder dwellings of any township community in the Western Cape. A number of Mitchell's Plain residents are now working in the area, and major investments in the rail facilities have improved the commuting experience significantly.
  2. Pook Road: A small informal settlement, which has relatively low crime and is well serviced by the community.
  3. The Swartland: It was claimed that high levels of economic growth have led to the disappearance of informal settlements in this region.

The Summit panel noted that these achievements do not appear to be linked to any formal planning policies but are rather a product of each community's efforts and localized economic growth.

6) Super Urban Development Agency: A New Kind of Human Settlements Institution

A surprising outcome of the Summit was the overwhelming agreement on the need to explore a kind of Super-Urban Development Agency to oversee and co-ordinate development in the City, across departments, political parties and tiers of government. This body would ideally be non-partisan, exist outside of political structures, and have a great deal of independence, allowing it to pursue the difficult decisions that need to be made and to effectively bridge the silos between current departments.

Part of Agency's mandate would be educating civil bodies and politicians about the need for certain development decisions, hopefully creating a forum for constructive debate. Mention was made several times of the now-defunct Housing Board and its effectiveness in serving in this arena, and how its' dismantling had negatively affected housing delivery in the City.

7) The role of Future Cape Town

As highlighted above, the discussion concluded on the need for stronger civic engagement devoid of purely political motivations. As stated by Rashiq Fataar, Future Cape Town's Managing Director: "Future Cape Town strives to be a strong independent advocate for constructive urban debate and development".

To these ends, Future Cape Town is always looking for partners in building civic engagement and knowledge to stimulate discussion and grow civic education in government and the private sector, amongst interest groups and, most importantly, with the public to create an awareness of the issues impacting the city.

For further reading on the Summit Discussion and Proceedings, please see our final report and our previous Media Release on the summit findings.