Cape Town Notes

I have just spent aBridges week in Cape Town, World Design Capital 2014.

Rather than design stories I have come back with thoughts of what the global “normal” is. More specifically, I’m thinking about what city managers (whoever they are in these confused days) do with land. And, following on from there, about what land use does to social organisation.

Cape Town’s My Citi rapid transit network (buses basically, but with a twist) is one of many efforts by the city to make it green, efficient and “liveable”. But these schemes struggle, in Cape Town as elsewhere, to make a dent in a global addiction to driving. Shame too that the network does’t extend very far into the less salubrious neighbourhoods.

Charming, even seductive, Cape Town still sprawls. Besides all the cuteness of the central neighbourhoods, it has miles and miles of shacks and those overhead lines and so-called telegraph poles by which life in the unplanned city is made possible.

I was lucky enough to catch a walking tour organised by Open StreetOpen Streetss Cape Town together with Langa Quarter Langa 1 organisers Tony Elvin and Mike Zuma, before heading back home from my all-too-brief stay. In two hours in Cape Town’s real centre* we came a little closer to what is the global normal in urban living.

More and better images here.

Like other cities, as Cape Town spreads it takes up space on the back of those “attractions” deemed necessary by city politicians and managers to luring those creative types who are believed to create wealth by innovating.

In practice, however, this strategy is producing vast areas of impervious surfaces – roads, parking spaces etc.. These kill biotic and social life alike. In North America, Europe and South Africa alike. And probably elsewhere.

Mike talked eloquently about his city. Sadly I can’t reproduce his words for lack of memory or adequate note taking, but he did mention the city’s orifices, and that each new development he sees is a mall.Cricket

In order to support real life the city should invest in sports facilities, cultural venues and other aspirational developments that would make it easier for the inhabitants to flourish.

Land use, that means, is not a boring or unimportant issue.

District Six

Where most cities are like Cape Town in allowing malls and roads to mushroom, most cities do not have a District Six. Here right in the heart of Cape Town, in 1966, white supremacy took another sick turn. Apparently disgusted [sic] by the cosmopolitanism of this central Cape Town neighbourhood, the apartheid regime decided to bulldoze it. Of most streets, only the street placards now remain.Street names District Six MuseuToday it is a heritage site and rebuilding is promised, right of return as well, to old residents. A vibrant and wonderful community centre that parades as a museum continues to campaign to this end.

Our cab driver on the way to the airport noted that in case we were interested, he was born in that there empty area by the highway. He pointed at a palm tree behind one of the few old buildings still standing in District Six.

We were interested – and the journey to the airport wasn’t long enough. He did, however, express his sadness at the slowness of the rebuilding process. He put in his claim to go back in 1998, and is still waiting for anything to happen. People are dying, he said.

So District Six is rather special, in so many ways. In the middle of the city its emptiness is a reminder of many things that we mostly forget.

And of that curious way in which houses of worship – where people gather to celebrate each other and the miracle of the world – so often are the ones to survive. In District Six, it was places of worship that escaped the bulldozers.

What did occur to me was that the land of District Six would make a great spot for an urban garden. Not unlike this one from down the tracks at Langa.

Methodist church and cabbage patch

I already miss being in Cape Town.

* By Cape Town’s “real centre” I mean Langa, the township. It’s the oldest of Cape Town’s townships, and closest to what’s usually called the city centre, really the CBD or Central Business District.

  1. Hi Eeva,

    I’m a Cape Town resident and journalist currently writing an article on World Design Capital 2014. I write for a website called South Africa Votes 2014 (

    Could I get in touch with you via email and ask you two or three questions regarding World Design Capital and its successes and failures in Helsinki?

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