Planning a Sustainable City in Cape Town

BY: LAUREN D’SOUZA, Web & Social Media Coordinator

Note: Lauren is studying Global Sustainability & Environment in Cape Town, South Africa this semester. Read her previous post on the program to learn more.

The 1987 Brundtland Commission famously defined sustainability as balancing the “interlocking crises” of three broad areas of concern: environmental, social, and economic. [1]

When I first arrived in South Africa, I thought I would be studying sustainability—but I placed my focus on the environmental sphere. Of course, that’s the sphere that jumps to everyone’s mind at any mention of sustainability, immediately conjuring images of drying rivers, extreme weather patterns, deforestation or air pollution. But my most important lesson so far in my program is that social sustainability may just be the strongest force in dictating global patterns over the coming decades.

Visualization of Cape Town’s population density. Source: Future Cape Town

Cape Town is a microcosm of the world’s imminent social challenges. A city of almost four million people, Cape Town suffers from more urban sprawl than Los Angeles. Its population density is inversely correlated with income, as the legacies of Apartheid still dictate who is able to live in the wealthy coastal and central areas of the city (Sea Point, Hout Bay, Waterfront) that have low population density, and who is still limited to the distant and poorly serviced townships in the Cape Flats (Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Wallacedene) that only continue to densify. The city still faces an immense housing shortage, particularly for the low-income affordable rental market—and the government has an obligation to provide, as Section 26 of the South African Constitution mandates that every citizen has access to adequate housing. [2]

Today, over half of the world’s population lives in cities around the world, and the United Nations predicts that the figure will rise to 66% by 2050, with 90% of the growth occurring in Africa and Asia. [3] In some ways, urban growth is beneficial—rural-dwellers are at greater risk of dying from treatable illnesses, not having access to clean water or adequate sanitation, and being far from government services. However, urban expansion poses great challenges that test the limits of the environment and the city’s ability to provide.

Southern California is not alone in the mandate to conserve water—Cape Town is in the midst of the most severe water crisis in its history. Electronic signs dot the N2 freeway, with the terrifying message: “Reservoirs at 31% / 121 days of water left / Save water now!”

The 3,000 hectare Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) is outlined in red.

Cape Town is blessed with a 6,000 acre urban farming complex—called the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA)—in the middle of the Cape Flats. The PHA is comprised of many plots of small-scale farming operations, gives the city 40% of its fresh produce, and provides about 5,000 low-skill jobs to farm workers. Moreover, the PHA covers the city’s most valuable resource at the moment: the Cape Flats Aquifer and recharge zone, which could be the answer to the water crisis.

Farmer Nazeer Sonday runs the PHA Food and Farming Campaign to oppose the proposed real estate developments on the land.

But as always, there’s a catch: the area is currently being threatened by real estate developers, who want to build mid-market housing on vital farming areas of the PHA to help ameliorate the city’s housing shortage. While it seems like the easy and logical conclusion to prioritize the food, water, and jobs that the PHA provides, South Africans who have lived in tin shacks on the far outskirts of town need a place to live, and the city is tempted to see the PHA as 3,000 hectares of land waiting to be developed.

So what’s the solution? Forward-thinking Capetonians suggest densification of the city center and better long-term urban planning that prioritizes affordable housing.

Today, the five other students on my program and I visited the Cape Town Civic Center to participate in an evaluation of six proposals to re-plan the Foreshore District of Cape Town, where unfinished freeways and bridges currently form ugly and poorly used space in a prime waterfront location. 

An overview of the Future Foreshore project. (Click to zoom)

After spending weeks discussing the city’s dismal social and racial segregation, the undervaluation of productive land, and the constant battle between development and resource security, viewing those proposals gave us hope. We began to picture a beautiful future for this amazing, vibrant, gorgeous, and energetic city—one with affordable and social housing, kilometers of green spaces and urban parks, a streamlined public transit system and less traffic congestion.

Cape Town is one of the greatest cities in the world—I wake up every morning to a view of gorgeous Table Mountain; I can hike, swim, eat, and see the continent’s best wildlife any day of the week. I’m so blessed to be studying sustainability in a city that faces complex challenges, but will constantly innovate to solve them.