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Wednesday Jun 05, 2013

'Why WesCape must be stopped before it starts'

We are appalled at the proposed development of WesCape, a "new town" of some 800 000 people 25km north of central Cape Town, and seek to address you directly about our concerns. We base this on a number of planning principles.

The first issue relates to process. The city recently concluded a metropolitan spatial development framework, involving considerable public participation, political approval and representing a social contract between the city and civil society. Despite this, the city has just approved a major revision of the urban edge which is an important part of the framework: a revision which will have major impacts on the future growth of the city.

It appears that the city has abandoned sensible planning for short-term political advantage and developer-led urban growth. Further, it makes a mockery of the concept of urban intensification and the urban edge as an instrument to promote this. Approving this shift means that the city has no grounds for holding the line elsewhere.

The second issue of principle is that the proposal is "selfish" and short-sighted: it takes little cognisance of the real problems of the city. Cape Town, along with other South African cities, is highly dysfunctional. A 2008 UN review of world cities found South African cities to be spatially the most inequitable and inefficient in the world, due largely to their fragmented form and extraordinarily low densities.

While there are pockets of overcrowding, densities are too low and the city too sprawling to yield qualities of urbanity. The costs of this sprawling and fragmented urban form are felt in terms of loss of productive time, household budgets, infrastructural investment in service delivery, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and has negative ecological consequences which could exacerbate our future risk profile in terms of climate change.

The lateral spread of the city must be controlled (a primary purpose of the urban edge is to achieve this) and future urban growth directed inwards in order to intensify and infill, not everywhere, but around structurally important lines and nodes. In this sense WesCape is extremely selfish. It siphons off the growth of the future to its own ends without leaving the city the resources to rectify the mistakes of the past, and promotes leapfrog sprawl, with profound implications for the growth of the city.

Thirdly, the future of the city does not lie in grand solutions. Cape Town has had its fair share of these - for example, Atlantis, Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha - and all have been abject failures. Urban areas are complex: they cannot be comprehensively planned. International experience shows that the larger the project, the greater the uncertainty, the greater the downward risk and the higher the cost of failure.

If this initiative fails - and many believe it will - the ability of Cape Town to meet its service delivery responsibilities will be severely constrained. Rather, the future lies in undertaking many smaller, high quality, projects on strategically located land within the city's boundaries, so that each contributes to improving overall city performance.

The fourth point is that the balanced end-state condition, implied in the WesCape model, never comes about in reality. Population growth inevitably exceeds job creation. The outcome is very large numbers of new commuter trips, placing intolerable demands on the movement systems to the north which are already stressed. In a range of ways, the development will almost certainly worsen the position of the poor.

We examine some of the claims of the developers in greater detail below.

WesCape aims to deliver up to 25 percent of its total units as subsidy housing, placing 50 000 poor households at an average distance of 25km not only from the wider job choice in metropolitan Cape Town, but as importantly from informal work opportunities, higher order public services and people's social networks - all critically important for the survival strategies of the poor. If these households had choice it is extremely unlikely that they would choose the move to WesCape, yet this is where much subsidy housing will go over the next few decades if the development goes ahead.

The developers claim they will create 300 000 jobs over some 20 years through construction and then related consumption demands. By comparison, a City of Cape Town study estimated that if the whole of Cape Town had an economic growth rate of 6-7 percent per annum, it would create 40 000 jobs annually. WesCape on its own, and in a slow growing economy, claims it can create 15 000 jobs a year. This is highly unlikely, and implies that poor commuter households will again be spending 25-30 percent of their monthly income travelling to work, as they currently do from Atlantis, Khayelitsha or Mitchells Plain.

WesCape developers argue that it is impossible to release land at scale within the urban edge, especially for low-income housing, and hence "leap-frog sprawl" is the only alternative. This is misleading. A 2010 City of Cape Town study showed that even at current low densities there is enough land within the urban edge to accommodate growth until 2021, and even longer at higher densities.

The last census showed that Cape Town is growing more slowly than previously thought. In terms of Dorrington's medium projection there will be only 556 000 new residents in the entire Cape Town metropolis by 2031. WesCape claims it will attract 800 000 residents by 2035. Where will all these people come from? WesCape also adds a housing backlog of 400 000 people in need, but a more recent and realistic provincial estimate is 277 000. It is true that it is extremely difficult to release land for development in the metropolitan area, but gaining access to land is just one of many factors which slows public housing delivery - land is no guarantee of delivery.

Further, low-income households forced into this remote location will very possibly find themselves in a poverty trap for the foreseeable future. Attracting marketlinked households at the scale suggested, and hence achieving cross-subsidisation to gap housing, is speculative. At Fisantekraal, households able to afford a R500 000 to R1 million house have found it very difficult to get credit. Further, why would households with this option choose to go to WesCape, when better located and more attractive alternatives exist? WesCape proposes to deliver 7 400 gap and market units per annum. During the boom years of 2001-2007 the entire metropolitan area produced only 7 000 gap and market units per annum. If WesCape cannot deliver its target and the developer goes bankrupt, it will be the municipality which picks up the cost.

Generally cities try to curb leapfrog sprawl because of the cost of infrastructure: instead of being able to link in to existing infrastructure, new satellite cities require new and dedicated bulks. WesCape developers promise to cover these full costs, excluding transport. But this very large cost may well have to be passed on to residents and thus raise the cost of subsidy and market housing beyond what it might be in a better location.

The worry is that the new sanitation, water and waste bulks will ultimately come from city budgets thus diverting funds from servicing the rest of very needy Cape Town for the next two decades. Service backlogs would continue to grow in the metropolitan area while resources are devoted to this single, high risk and speculative development.

The developers do think government should pay for the new rail and bus links. Prasa has three new rail priorities, each very costly - the Blue Downs link, Fisantekraal and conversion of the Atlantis line to commuter traffic. Blue Downs already has thousands of low-income people with limited access to public transport. Surely this must be the first priority over the possible growth of new WesCape commuters in the future? WesCape also argues that a BRT line will be in place. An Atlantis service is planned in Phase One - a largely political decision, because it makes no financial sense where much of the route has no ridership. But BRT is not free and continued government funding is not predictable. WesCape to city centre could cost R8-12 per trip (R320 per month), an intolerable burden for poor households.

Correctly, WesCape developers want to see a full range of community facilities and not just housing. They plan 400 education facilities, a university, 30 health facilities, 370 public service facilities. Usually constructing such facilities, as well as staffing and maintenance costs, is carried by government. Almost always the provision of these is well behind need, and new demand within the city taps into existing facilities while waiting for government to catch up. With WesCape it is highly unlikely that this scale of provision and staffing could be covered by public budgets. People will simply have to go without, or more likely travel back to Cape Town where services exist, even if overcrowded. What guarantee can WesCape offer that the required level of public services will be available?

One purpose of the urban edge is to protect agricultural land beyond it. WesCape developers claim the land is of low value, but there are working farms on that land. Given the long-term loss of agricultural land and growing issues of food insecurity the city should be doing everything it can to protect productive agricultural land.

Finally, WesCape lies within the 16km zone around Koeberg within which development is limited for safety reasons. The National Nuclear Regulator has strongly objected to the proposal, stating that it is unlikely that this population could be safely evacuated in the event of a nuclear accident. In our view, it is simply irresponsible to deliberately house almost a million people within a nuclear evacuation zone.

For all these reasons, we believe strongly, on planning grounds and on the grounds of the highly speculative nature of the proposal, that the development should not be allowed and that the application to redefine the urban edge should not be granted. We urge Minister Bredell to rule accordingly.

Emeritus Professor Dewar, Professor Watson, Dr Odendaal, Ms Katzschner and Dr Winkler are all with the City and Regional Planning Programme at the University of Cape Town.

Cape Times

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