How Urban Sprawl Is Creating Echoes of Apartheid in Cape Town

| 05/30/2013 12:06pm
Will Doig | Next City

Cape Town’s official urban edge hasn’t stopped the city from expanding outward. Credit: Derek Keats on Flickr via Flickr Creative Commons

In the early 2000s, Cape Town began creating an “urban edge” around the periphery of the city in an attempt to combat its proliferating sprawl. The edge essentially demarcates at what physical point the city will stop providing the services and infrastructure necessary for continued outward urban growth. It’s been a useful backstop to some degree, but as urban planning tools often are, the edge has been made porous by politicians catering to the short-term interests of voters and developers.

Earlier this month, Future Cape Town, which describes itself as a “think-tank for the future of cities,” tackled this problem at a summit on urban sprawl. The discussion paper from that summit, published today, is eye-opening. Far from a compact, cozy metropolis nestled between a mountain and a coast — a San Francisco for sub-Saharan Africa — Cape Town is actually the second-least dense city of 15 major African cities, according to the African Green Cities index, with 1,500 people per square kilometer, compared to the average of 4,600. Its population ballooned by nearly a million people in the past decade, and its developed area increased by 40 percent between 1985 and 2005.

What makes Cape Town a unique example of factors that encourage urban sprawl is the Apartheid policies that created these patterns in the first place. For instance, the Natives Act of 1923, which declared the country’s urban areas officially “white,” and the 1950 Group Areas Act, which prevented blacks from owning land in “white” areas. “Apartheid legislation was intent on regulating the movement and settlement of non-white people in urban areas and resulted in people being pushed to the outskirts of urban areas,” according to the discussion paper. “The impact could be considered a form of accelerated, planned urban sprawl.” Today, Cape Town is having trouble undoing the land-use consequences of those long-ago decisions.

This is partly because, as a rising city in the continent’s economic powerhouse, Cape Town is caught between two competing interests: Undoing its Apartheid legacy, and courting developers who want to build there – or somewhere near there. The most glaring example of developers winning this battle is Wescape, a 7,660-acre planned community for 800,000 residents proposed to be built 15 miles from Cape Town proper. This is beyond the urban edge, despite the fact that a study conducted by the city itself revealed there is enough land within the perimeter of the edge to accommodate growth until 2021. “Developments [like Wescape] are often pursued as a matter of political expediency rather than as a result of sensible planning,” says Rashiq Fataar, director of Future Cape Town.

A rendering of Wescape, a planned community developers hope to build 15 miles outside of Cape Town. Photo credit: Wescape

This type of planned urban sprawl is reminiscent of how land use policies were used to segregate races during Apartheid, and indeed, could inadvertently create echoes of that type of segregation once again. Vanessa Watson, a professor of architecture at the University of Cape Town, has pointed out that Wescape’s plan to subsidize 25 percent of its housing helps cement the idea that the city center is for the well-off. By sending the poor to suburban enclaves, you isolate them “from informal work opportunities, higher order public services and people’s social networks – all critically part of the survival strategies of the poor. If these poor households had a choice it is extremely unlikely that they would choose to move to Wescape. If Wescape is approved – choice is removed – this is where much of the subsidy housing will go over the next couple of decades.” If that turns out to be the case, it’s not hard to guess who will occupy that far-flung subsidy housing — South Africa is a country where the poor population is still disproportionately black.

Though the Future Cape Town summit didn’t tackle racial issues head-on for the most part, it did identify several potential solutions to the problem of the porous urban edge, like providing developers with incentives to build within that edge, freeing up unused city land and improving zoning codes to encourage density. It also endorsed the creation of a Super-Urban Development Agency that would “oversee and coordinate development in the city, across departments, political parties and tiers of government.” But more broadly, the summit stressed the need for Cape Town to have a clearer sense that density and infill development are good for the city, both socially and economically, for all stakeholders involved.

“The shift in the urban edge, whether or not Wescape is eventually approved… sets a precedent for other similar applications, and the opportunity cost of this also needs to be considered,” Fataar says. “It says to developers that planning is not taken seriously, and the development edge is permeable, along with the rest of our policies. This lack of clarity, in a city already lacking a clear vision for development… will affect the economy negatively.”