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Thursday Aug 08, 2013

Cape Town's defense of Philippi property development 'makes no sense'

Having read the response of mayor De Lille to the many critics of the council's decision to amend the urban edge in order to alienate a significant parcel of agricultural land in Philippi for housing and commercial purposes, we are more alarmed than ever about the current quality of decision-making in the city.

There are a number of dimensions to this:

  • The statement that the 'urban edge is an artificial barrier that assists the city with planning and can be moved or amended as needs require', is breathtaking in its inaccuracy and clearly reveals that some politicians do not have a clue about their own policies. The very role of an urban edge, the demarcation of which must be based on careful analysis (it is far from arbitrary), is dependent upon it being, at worst, very long-term and, at best, permanent.

    The primary, interrelated purposes of edge demarcation are twofold: to prevent urban sprawl from running roughshod over rural and wilderness landscapes, doing irreplaceable damage in the process (in fact, 'unassailable urban creep' is not inevitable - the edge is meant to combat this), and to promote greater compaction and structural intensification (by channelling growth inward) in the interests of efficiency, greater equity and convenience, and climate change mitigation. By omission, the edge should define the future growth path of the city. It makes absolutely no sense to have such a policy if it is continuously being changed.

  • The argument that because people want to sell land, this is a case for changing land use rights, is ludicrous, particularly in relation to agricultural land. For example, the same argument was used many years ago to facilitate the suburbanisation of the agricultural land in Constantia, until there was an administration with the courage to say 'no more'.

    The reaction of the remaining farmers was to consolidate agricultural land, to reinvest in agriculture and to diversify. Today, these farms are among the jewels of Cape Town. If people do not wish to farm, they must sell the agricultural land to those who do. It is a primary role of local government to act as custodian of valuable resources for future generations. This council is failing badly in this role.

  • The mayor is quite correct in stating that the agricultural potential of the land is not the same across the entire horticultural area. It is particularly threatened in the north-west, where both water and soil quality has been compromised through informal settlement and illegal dumping (issues which the council has failed to address). Given this, it is totally baffling why rights should have been awarded in the most productive part of the horticultural area.

  • The argument that produce from the area does not reach the poor is simply wrong. There is a great deal of informal trading which occurs. Similarly, not all of the produce is of export quality: in fact, the produce permeates into all levels of the market. The inevitable consequence of reduced supply will be increased prices, which will negatively impact on everyone, particularly the poor.

    Finally, it should be noted that the proposed housing is not aimed at the poorest of the poor, where the real demand lies: it is simply another speculative housing scheme with commercial rights. Whatever happened to a vision for the city? The facts of the matter are these:

  • The Philippi horticultural area is uniquely suited to vegetable production. The combination of friable soils, good-quality water and a high water table enables production over 12 months of the year. It currently produces over 50 percent of the vegetable consumption of the city. Reducing its capacity will undoubtedly have negative impacts on food security in future years.

    Its productive capacity has been built up through centuries of investment in soil fertility and irrigation infrastructure. This investment will be negated by the land use change. Similarly, there will be a significant loss of skills capacity.

  • Philippi's value does not only relate to agriculture. It is also an aquifer recharge area, it has significant ecological value, and is a very important part of the cultural landscape of the Cape. It is, in short, one of the jewels of the Cape.

  • The decision to allow development represents the not-so-thin edge of the wedge. There are three aspects to this. First, remaining farmers are unlikely to invest in the land if there is a sense that they may have to move. Second, it will become increasingly difficult, on the ground of administrative fairness, to reject future speculative applications if this one is approved. Third, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the provision of extensive urban infrastructure in the area will attract further development, both formal and informal. Infrastructure has a strong 'lock-in' dimension.

    In short, it's a poor, short-sighted and dangerous decision. Once again, we must appeal to Minister Bredell to overrule the decision of the council.

  • David Dewar, Julian Cooke, Fabio Todeschini, Vanessa Watson, Nancy Odendaal
    School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, UCT

    Cape Times


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