The City of Cape Town recently decided to approve a proposal to move its "urban edge" — the lines drawn around the city's built-up areas within which urban development is allowed — so as to reincorporate 300 hectares of productive farmland and make it available for development.
The farmland under discussion is in the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) to the southeast of the city, sometimes referred to as "Cape Town's Pantry". Perched on top of the high water table of the valuable Cape Flats Aquifer, the area has historically contributed a large portion of the city's fresh produce. The ready access to markets makes the produce grown in this area more affordable to the staggeringly large community of those living on and below the poverty line.
The City's decision means that these agricultural activities will be pushed farther away from these important consumers, increasing the price of produce as higher transport costs are incurred. Combined with the loss of agricultural jobs from the area, the impacts on a largely economically vulnerable population will be profound.
Food security: a rising concern
Moving the urban edge will mean amending the city's recently completed Spatial Development Framework (SDF), which was prepared as a mechanism to control and manage its growth. It reflects layers of information and outlines strategies and guidelines pertaining to a notional line referred to as the "urban edge". As the SDF explains, the urban edge is —
" … a medium- to long-term edge line, where the line has been demarcated in such a position as to phase urban growth appropriately, or to protect natural resources. Spatial growth in the medium term (10-15 years) should be prioritised within the Urban Edge. In the longer term (15-50 years), the City will need to provide more undeveloped land for urban development, and the edge line will be adjusted on the basis of the city's growth direction … "
In practice this line will prevent urban sprawl and encourage densification whilst also protecting agricultural land and natural resources. In so doing, it will create a "food secure" city with sufficient critical mass to support a public transport system, thereby increasing access to jobs, amenities and opportunities for a better life — for all. The policy is clear and considered — without protection and control, Cape Town will continue to spread, perpetuating unsustainable apartheid planning and poverty.
The concept of food security is a relatively new addition to the planning vocabulary. The availability of arable land is a real issue when it is considered that a meagre 27% of land in the Western Cape is arable and a large proportion of this is already under the plough. The potential for the amount of arable land to increase seems unlikely, which raises concerns for a city already believed to be food insecure and which is expected to grow by a million citizens over the next 10 years. As arable land is developed, so the Western Cape's ability to feed itself becomes further compromised. The loss of this arable land is most likely permanent, and as such has very real spatial implications, which in turn have economic ramifications.
The reality is that Cape Town is not food secure. Not all residents have access to nutritious food, and shrinking the pantry that currently nourishes us seems short-sighted. Even the SDF states that:
"The loss of productive agricultural land to urban development threatens food security in the city. This, together with the risk posed by peak oil, further contributes to food insecurity, especially in light of the loss of well-located agricultural land closer to urban markets."
Land needed for housing?
That said, finding suitable land to house the thousands currently living in informal settlements is an equally urgent imperative in a city that lost six citizens to exposure this winter.
Apartheid city planning entrenched political dogma by trapping the majority black population in townships on the edges of cities, distant from economic opportunities. The resultant settlement patterns, which persist to this day, enforce gross inequality and perpetuate poverty cycles, even 20 years after the fall of the apartheid government. South Africa's cities heave under the burden of rapid urbanisation with citizens flocking from the failing rural areas in search of a better life. Added to this are the incumbent government's promises of houses for all, which has placed a particular pressure on cities to deliver land and infrastructure for housing.
And so the complexity of a country endeavouring to redress historical imbalances often finds itself in conflict with the imperative to protect agricultural, environmental and biodiversity assets. Barry Low, a botanist familiar with the PHA recently reported that the farming is poisoning the aquifer below. This contradicts previous reports that although nutrients do seep into the water below, the annual flushing during the rainy winter season maintains an acceptable water quality. Is farming polluting a valuable water resource? In this context, would urban development be a more suitable land use? These questions remain unanswered.
What we do know is that Cape Town is growing within a fractious and volatile global context. It is prone to the global economic dynamics that result from climate change floods, droughts and oil price fluctuations, directly impacting on food prices and food availability. As we strive for sustainability within this context, should we not value our assets with circumspection before determining that there is surplus agricultural land available for other uses?
Food security is not necessarily a reflection of the amount of food available, but as importantly, the population's ability to afford the food. It is indeed possible that other areas of the province, the country, the continent or the globe could make up the shortfall. But Cape Town has no control over the development of others' agricultural land and the added transport costs may well make fresh, nutritious food unaffordable. A city that is self-sufficient is less prone to the fluctuations of outside influences and is more sustainable. In a world of shrinking resources, it would seem that all cities should endeavour to become independent and thereby sustainable in this way.
In light of this thinking, keeping the urban edge intact until detailed studies can be conducted to better understand all these issues would be prudent. Once complete, it would be possible to make an informed decision with regards to determining the suitability of the PHA for development or continued agriculture.
Playing politics with planning
The City's decision to move the urban edge is the first step in a long process. The matter will now be dealt with at a provincial level by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEADP). Indications are that this is not the only process that will be underway as it has been reported in the local newspaper The Cape Times that "civil society organisations have vowed to take the city to the public prosecutor".
The PHA application will be considerd by the Minister of DEADP, who is already considering an earlier application forwarded by the City, again to move the urban edge to incorporate WesCape — a 300-hectare development that will deliver 200,000 homes for a community of 800,000 residents. The two applications differ in that the WesCape land, much of which is zoned for agriculture, is not currently farmed.
The City's approval of these two applications was made against the backdrop of political volatility and uncertainty in the city and province — which disappointingly impacts on long-term planning. This dynamic playing field would suggest the need for different mechanisms and processes to "protect the greater good" from short-sighted politicking.
With protests related to service delivery becoming a common weekly occurrence in our city as we build up towards next year's general election, it is not inconceivable that increased food prices will be added to the list of campaign issues and that they may trigger a similar response to those of our fellow Africans in Egypt and Tunisia.
In this environment of resigned pessimism, it seems likely that the decision by the Province will follow the City's political precedent and the urban edge will be moved.
Perhaps at the core of the disappointment in the case of the PHA appication is that the decision was made on what appears to be insufficient information. In deliberations of this magnitude relating to limited and precious resources, surely all efforts should be made to gather as much information as possible to ensure that we do the right thing. Are we sure that we are doing the right thing?