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Monday Nov 10, 2014

Mega park proposed for Cape Flats

In the pastelled diagrams, the meandering waterways that converge at the north-western edge of the Cape Flats achieve an almost pastoral aspect, more countryside than city fringe.

A diagram of the extended Two Rivers Urban Park proposal.

In reality, to use the phrase of Cape Town architect Guy Briggs, they are virtually open sewers seeping through the scruffy backyard of the city, toxic, littered, inaccessible and hostile to humans.

Yet, is it inconceivable that these rivers and wetlands could, in 10 or 15 years, be the centrepiece not only of a feature of the city to rank with Table Mountain, the Waterfront and Cape Point as a fixture on the tourist's must-do list, but the catalyst of a longawaited redrawing of the apartheid-city spatial form?

Urbanist Edgar Pieterse, for one, has no doubt about that. The director of UCT's African Centre for Cities regards the precinct as a golden opportunity to create the precedent of an attractive, mixed-use, socioeconomically integrated community that could stimulate similar progressive development on the metropole's key undeveloped sites of Culemborg, Wingfield, Ysterplaat and Youngsfield.

These large sites are still held by national departments, which have so far been reluctant to release them.

But in the emerging consensus that bold thinking, coupled with incremental, professionally managed projects, the Two Rivers urban park precinct - incorporating Valkenberg, Oude Molen, the Observatory and neighbouring properties, including the old Athlone power station site - is being seen as a decisive opportunity to break Cape Town's apartheid-inspired socio-economic barriers, and set the pattern for a new, denser and socially integrated city.

Without denser, integrated communities, Pieterse argues, an enduringly divided city will become increasingly volatile and expensive.

The conception of a mega urban park, driven by strong ecological principles, and fringed by up to 25 000 mixed housing units, is one of three speculative planning projects undertaken by the Density Syndicate - South African and Dutch designers working in conjunction with the city - as an adjunct of the City Desired exhibition mounted by the African Centre for Cities and the International New Town Institute.

The city already has a Two Rivers Urban Park project - which, though still at an early stage of planning, and with a smaller footprint, aims to achieve objectives comparable to those of the Density Syndicate' s "provocation", a schema intended to provoke debate and fresh thinking.

Belinda Walker, mayoral committee member for special projects, commends the exercise as "extremely useful".

"It's converging with what we had put forward ... they have come from a very different viewpoint in an iterative community-driven process, but with a proposal for development, which is encouraging." She agrees the precinct is "hugely strategic".

"This is an ideal place to build more compact forms where you have work and leisure opportunities, and mixed housing, from the wealthy down to less wealthy. This is aligned with what we are trying to do in bringing people closer to where they can find opportunities for work, education and access to facilities, instead of building islands out on the edge and then saying, now, they need a clinic, a park, a school."

The city is at an early stage of assessing the site's considerable infrastructure requirements - especially expanding its inadequate sewage capacity - "seeing what we can do in incremental steps, what to put on budget and what we need to start planning for now".

Walker regards the practical and the imaginative processes as being "two sides of the same coin".

Briggs, a member of the Density Syndicate team, notes that "identifying the problem is a way of steering toward solutions, and the problem is that we have island communities (the site is encircled by Maitland, Pinelands, Langa, Athlone, Rondebosch, Mowbray and Observatory) which are self- referential, inwardlooking, and the opportunities to connect are virtually nil".

The objective is "connecting the islands so that neighbourhoods flow from one to the other, by replacing the borders with a series of bridges across the interstitial spaces, the railway lines, infrastructure and open spaces".

Another team member, Khalied Jacobs, says it is "the beginning of an argument as opposed to an end state", and getting existing owners and users of properties in the precinct to "start talking to each other".

And this, Pieterse argues, can be the beginning of a new phase of reshaping the City of Cape Town.

"I am really hoping this initial and admittedly sketchy and suggestive work can open up public debate which compels us to pursue the Two River project, but in its larger context. The city needs to optimise this opportunity."

This will mean broadening the existing process, or initiating a new one "to bring adjoining communities into a visioning exercise that can treat the work of the Density Syndicate as an input, one way of thinking about the potential", said Pieterse.

"But it would mean bringing in all communities and having properly financed and professionally facilitated public engagement that allows people to enrich initial provocations," he added.

If done in a "careful and thoughtful way, in a year or two we can have something that can be translated into an investment portfolio over the next 10 to 15 years which can be a symbol of our commitment to overcoming our spatial legacies, and to build and live differently".

The proposals "really speak into the entire spectrum of people, from the homeless to the enlightened middle class which believes in the importance of an ecologically driven model for development".

Just as important is "educating the market that you can combine social, public and privately financed accommodation, combined with commercial activity, in a single precinct, which is the norm of all great cities. You don't get fantastic cities without that mixture".

"What makes the provocation so interesting is that it suggests a metro-scale park, different from Kirstenbosch or Green Point, dominated by waterways and on a scale that lends itself to non-motorised mobility - bicycles and skateboarding, say - and all kinds of activities, including farming, but at the same time is more accessible potentially to a larger proportion of the Cape Flats community.

"If we get that right, we'll add to the five big attractions of the Cape, but also serve the local community. That's an opportunity that only comes every 50 years or so."

Pieterse adds: "We don't need to turn this into a political controversy. Because the economy is growing so slowly and the low churn in real estate markets is more or less matching demand, what you really need to focus on is bringing a manageable number of housing opportunities to market to cater for the gap (between lowcost and bonded accommodation) and those entering the market for first time, and that will cascade over time."

  • Activist Zackie Achmat is vowing to lead a court bid to stop any sale of public land in Cape Town until there is a "genuine" plan to densify and integrate the suburbs - a gesture the city itself dismisses as simplistic.

    The argument is at the heart of efforts to confront the lingering post-apartheid challenge of making Cape Town a more equitable and accessible place for people subjected to race-based spatial planning - the subject of a conference that took place this week on urban density and access.

    But, while Achmat called for a "radical property realignment" in the city, suggesting existing policies were inadequate, veteran councillor and mayoral committee member for special projects, Belinda Walker, said that while densification was essential and a core element of city planning, integration required subtler management to avoid the pitfalls of social engineering at one end of the scale, and, through inaction, preserving the status quo at the other.

    Walker said in an interview the city did not sell off land lightly, and that Achmat's threat would make no contribution to overcoming "awful apartheid boundaries" between communities, and densifying the city to ensure a sustainable future.

    Speaking at the conference last Monday, held under the auspices of the City Desired exhibition at the City Hall, mounted jointly by UCT's African Centre for Cities and the Netherlandsbased International New Town Initiative, Achmat praised the Spatial Land Use Management Act as "one of the most radical tools to integrate cities", and to ensure cities were shared by all, with priority given to poor, deprived communities.

    "It means everything must be owned by them too, not by white people, or rich black people, but all of us. So what are we going to do? We will stop the sale of land in the city by going to court until there is a plan to densify - not two or three little projects, but a genuine plan to integrate the province.

    "We cannot let Rondebosch, Claremont or Salt River remain unchanged... we must ensure a radical implementation to bring the people closer to the city."

    Businessman Martin Kearns, on the other hand, said while the private sector "sometimes comes in for unnecessary bashing because we are seen as evil", the business opportunities inherent in "density and access" meant it could be a vital agent in making better neighbourhoods.

    But it was profit-driven. "If we are not making money we cannot do anything."

    The public sector could stimulate investment by structuring tax incentives for particular development, such as affordable housing.

    Kearns said: "If there's a way to make money, the private sector will be involved. It's pretty simple. Tax incentives are one way to stimulate this, and everyone benefits."

    International New Town Initiative director Michelle Provoost said that "to say private parties and developers are the bad guys is just too easy".

    "Partnerships are vital, and it's possible if you have a strong vision for the common good."

    Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

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