The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Problems of Cape Town's outlying townships demand strategies to densify the centre

While Cape Town's social and economic development policies are focused on solving the problems of its dense peripheral regions, a better strategy is to increase residential densities in the inner suburbs to give more low-income residents a chance to benefit from the employment opportunities and services they provide.

Andrew Fleming

Cities: Cape Town

Topics: Integrated planning, Local economic development, Poverty and inequality, Divided cities

A map of Cape Town's population density, as published in the State of South African Cities Report, 2011, showing low densities around the City Centre and high densities in peripheral settlements including Khayelitsha, Wallacedene and Imizamo Yethu. © Gerbrand Mans, Ivan Turok and the South African Cities Network; used with permission.
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In the latest State of South African Cities report, Professor Ivan Turok of South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council discusses the intense and problematic disparities facing Cape Town. The city continues to display signs of inverse densification, where the peripheries are densifying much faster than the inner suburbs, a lasting symptom of the country's harshly divided spatial history.

While the poorer areas of the city (Khayelitsha, Imizamo Yethu and others) hold the vast majority of the population, higher-income areas such as the City Centre and the Southern Suburbs remain relatively underpopulated. This unequal layout not only perpetuates historical divides but also excludes the majority of the population from integrating themselves productively and regularly into the city's economic and social functions.

Inverse densification has proven to be a serious hindrance for economic growth and development. While Cape Town's economy has remained relatively stable in the midst of global uncertainty, recent growth has been largely jobless, confined to highly skilled sectors. Official city unemployment rates have reached up to 23 per cent in recent years; however in outlying areas much higher rates of chronic unemployment are often experienced.

This unequal layout not only perpetuates historical divides but also excludes the majority of the population from integrating themselves productively and regularly into the city's economic and social functions.

Public health also struggles under inverse densification: confining the majority of the city's population to areas with inadequate toilet and water access breeds disease and ill health. As the Social Justice Coalition has shown through their lobbying and activism, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, E. Coli and other communicable diseases are all on the rise in the city's townships. Approximately 226,000 people in Cape Town have no access to any sanitation facilities whatsoever; meanwhile the more affluent city centre and suburbs regularly enjoy services and infrastructure similar to those of cities in the developed world.

Division in the city is compounded by the unacceptably long timeframes and the painstakingly bureaucratic nature of urban change. All the initiatives of the city's Department of Human Settlements remain located outside the centre. While this improves pre-existing shelter structures with crucial upgrades, it in no way addresses the lack of affordable social housing in the city centre. Keeping people with lower incomes outside the centre will do little to reverse the longstanding patterns of inequality that govern Cape Town's residential spaces.

The city's social development policies also lack a long-term strategy for inclusivity. Rough sleepers, street children and the homeless increasingly find themselves marginalised and excluded through fines, arrests and forced relocations. As Tony Samara discusses in his recent book Cape Town After Apartheid: crime and governance in the divided city, it becomes all too easy to presume that crime problems can be 'relocated' away from the centre by removing the homeless into the poorer townships. A broader strategy is needed to address the individual needs of homeless people through targeted programmes. Drug addictions, violence, mental illnesses and lack of shelter will only be made worse by strategies aimed at moving people outside the centre.

Densify the centre to give more people opportunities

Despite these harsh realities, things are beginning to change. Many now recognise the urgent need to reconstruct the city's density patterns to bring about larger social and economic integration.

The Cape Town Partnership, a non-profit urban development alliance for which I work, continues to promote densification through their Central City Development Strategy, originally launched in 2009. Through improvements in affordable housing, transportation infrastructure, economic production and environmental sustainability, the strategy aims to triple the current central city population and foster a growing sense of diversity and 'liveability'. Without a larger and more dense population, Cape Town 'will battle to achieve the goal of a mixed-use, more vibrant city centre,' states the Partnership's CEO Andrew Boraine. The city's residents have already seen the benefits of the strategy through the creation of the MyCiTi Integrated Rapid Transit network, a bus-based public transport system that prioritises bus riders and pedestrians.

The city's economic activity is now receiving much-needed focus from the newly-launched Economic Development Partnership, which seems to promote growth and job creation by redensifying Cape Town's centre. By bringing a more diverse array of people into Cape Town, the leaders of the EDA aim to transform the city into a regional node of job-rich economic creation and collaboration. Promoting 'creative hubs' and innovation centres such as the recently established Fringe District will further enhance collaboration and innovation between designers, creatives and the IT sector to spur new ideas and entrepreneurial ventures.

Approximately 226,000 people in Cape Town have no access to any sanitation facilities whatsoever...

A much-needed realignment of Cape Town's population density will go a long way to promote inclusive economic and social development. Housing supply, job creation, public health and transportation represent four of many areas that stand to be improved through a focus on densification. Moving people closer together in more sustainable and equitable ways will help to address the unequal state of Cape Town's present population dynamic. More importantly, densificatin will promote economic growth, social inclusion, and a much more liveable city for all.


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