South Africa is rapidly urbanising, and in many cases infrastructure and municipal services are struggling to keep up. In the Western Cape, a private group of urban designers and developers think they have a solution. They want to build a new city 25km north of Cape Town’s city centre called Wescape, and so far they have the land, the plan, and seemingly the City of Cape Town’s blessing. But not everyone is convinced that the development is a very good idea. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Cape Town’s population grows every year. In 2001 it was 2,9 million, and by 2011 it had reached 3,7 million. New inhabitants need homes, and there’s already a backlog of somewhere between 277,000 and 400,000 people awaiting subsidised housing. CommuniTgrow, a private urban development company, thinks it can help solve this problem by building a new city from scratch.
Wescape will be located on just over 3,000 hectares north-east of Melkbosstrand. The project is estimated to take just over 20 years, with building beginning in 2015 and wrapping up around 2035. The city will have 200,000 homes, housing around 800,000 people. Because there are no existing systems to tap into and new ones will have to be built, the aim is to integrate all necessary public amenities. Wescape will develop all the bulk infrastructure required, including water, energy and waste services, and all internal roads. The city will feature around 400 education facilities, 30 health facilities, and 15 sports complexes. There will be shops, factories, parks: everything the citizens of Wescape need to live healthy, happy lives.
In CommuniTgrow’s Wescape brochure, the imagined city looks lush and prosperous. Residents stroll on walkways bifurcating lush green lawns: one of its important design principles would be that residents would be able to walk to work, play and access public services. In pictures, children play on well-stocked jungle gyms. Wescape Main Street is a gleaming, futuristic strip of sleek high-rises (view of Table Mountain available at no extra cost).
One of Wescape’s chief selling points is that of job creation. Its designers believe the project will bring in around 300,000 jobs. They estimate that just under 31,000 of these jobs will involve the construction of the city itself. The bulk of the rest will come from the commercial sector, community services, local manufacturing and domestic services.
The majority of these would be blue-collar jobs, and there has certainly been a perception in the local media that Wescape will cater primarily for lower-income households. When the City of Cape Town opened up the proposal for comments, one of the strongest objections came from a couple who live on a smallholding adjacent to the Wescape land. “This development will degenerate into nothing more than a low-cost housing, informal settlement slum,” they said in their submission. News reports on the project have repeatedly suggested that the development aims to attract people who earn between R4,000 and R6,000 a month.
Speaking to the Daily Maverick on Thursday, however, the project’s urban designer, Alastair Rendall, said that this was absolutely not the case. “Residents will have a range of incomes,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of the housing will be subsidised for people who currently earn less than R3,500 a month. But they will no longer be earning as little as that when they move to Wescape and get a job. The minimum income will be R6,000 or R7,000 a month.” A further 25% of the housing, Rendall said, will be aimed at people who currently earn anything from R3,000 to R12,000: “the kind of people who can’t get a bond but don’t qualify for housing subsidies”.
The remaining 50% of housing will be for people who earn above that. “We are not looking at a single layer of income groups,” Rendall insisted, though he said that initially, individual house values would be cut off at around R800,000.
But social activists remain worried that the development might turn into a kind of segregation of people who need subsidised housing, especially given its distance from the city. In March, Ndifuna Ukwazi activist Zackie Achmat took to Facebook to denounce Wescape as a “new Apartheid city”. Said Achmat: “Patricia de Lille, the DA and their private sector friends plan to remove people in informal settlements and on housing waiting list beyond Atlantis. They will be housed near the nuclear power station.”
Wescape’s land does indeed lie within the 16km emergency evacuation “red” zone for Koeberg nuclear power station, which means that an evacuation plan is necessary in case something should go wrong with Koeberg. This is already the case with parts of Melbosstrand, Blouberg and Atlantis, but critics say that it would be logistically extremely difficult to evacuate close to a million extra people in the event of a Koeberg accident.
Proximity to Koeberg is not the only issue critics have with Wescape. Another is the fact that Wescape contravenes the agreed-upon “urban edge” for Cape Town. One of the purposes of this hypothetical border is to protect agricultural land beyond it. Professor Vanessa Watson, of UCT’s School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, says: “Given the long-term loss of agricultural land and growing issues of food insecurity, we should be doing everything we can to protect productive agricultural land”. Rendall says that this land is of little value for agriculture anyway, but Watson maintains that working farms exist on the land nonetheless.
In a blog at UBM’s Future Cities, Nancy Odendaal, senior lecturer in city and regional planning at UCT, writes that the idea of a clearly delineated urban edge for Cape Town also makes sense because it is the most sustainable option and will be better served by transport infrastructure and so on. In other words, she maintains, it makes more sense to house people in existing urban areas by filling up vacant land, before you consider sprawling outwards.
Rendall is insistent that there isn’t enough land in the city to accommodate the proposed development; and that in the only places where sufficient vacant land does exist, it is owned by private development companies like Milnerton Estates, who have already earmarked it for developments which will not provide suitable homes for lower income households.
Watson says this isn’t the case. “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 the last census showed that Cape Town is growing more slowly than previously thought.” Watson says that one likely projection of future growth holds that Cape Town will only attract 556,000 new residents in the entire Cape Town metro between now and 2031. “Wescape claims it will attract 800,000 by 2035,” Watson says. “Where will all these people come from?”
Watson doesn’t mince her words: she believes the Wescape proposal is “a complete planning disaster for Cape Town”. The most critical problem she sees with Wescape is its distance from the metro. The housing will be 25km not just from “wider job choice”, she points out, but “as importantly from informal work opportunities, higher order public services and people’s social networks – all critically part of the survival strategies of the poor”.
She is also extremely sceptical that Wescape can deliver on its claims of creating 15,000 jobs a year. “A City of Cape Town study estimated that if the whole metro had an economic growth rate of six to 7% per annum, it would create 40,000 jobs annually,” she says. “Wescape on its own, and in a much slower growing economy, claims it can create 15,000 jobs per annum?” And if this turns out not to be the case, she points out, the consequences won’t be funny: “Poor commuter households will again be spending 25-30% of their monthly income on a commute to jobs, as they currently do from Atlantis, Khayelitsha or Mitchells Plain.”
Although CommuniTgrow has said that it will pick up the costs of the development’s infrastructure, Watson also has concerns about this. “How will this very large cost not be passed on to residents and raise the cost of subsidy and market housing well beyond what it might be in a better location?” she asks. If the costs of laying sanitation plants, water and waste services did have to come from city coffers, it would mean fewer funds to needy parts of Cape Town. She also questions who will pay for the planned education and health facilities. “Those normally have to come out of provincial and national budgets,” Watson says.
One of the plan’s champions is reportedly Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, with the Cape Times quoting De Lille as being “excited” about the R140 billion development. The project has already passed its first hurdle: in December, the City of Cape Town approved the application to extend the urban edge to accommodate Wescape, despite having previously agreed on the urban edge’s delineation. When the Daily Maverick contacted De Lille on Thursday to try to find out her reasons for supporting the project, her spokesman, Solly Malatsi, would only say that the matter was now being considered by the province. “The proposal, which is an initiative by a private developer, is now subject to the approval of the Western Cape minister of local government and planning, who will set the conditions,” Malatsi said. “As such, the city cannot comment on any speculation regarding the development.” The MEC’s decision is expected around August, Rendall says.
Rendall is almost evangelical when he talks about what Wescape could be. “It would be a new start, a completely different environment,” he enthuses. “The atmosphere will be one of healthy, sustainable living. It will be a fresh, culturally diverse place with the opportunity to create its own identity.”
Nancy Odendal writes that it is understandable why the concept is appealing: “starting over” always seems more fun and interesting than tackling longstanding, bureaucratic, intractable problems: “dealing with the existing city, negotiating with community-based organisations on upgrading shack settlements, redeveloping older residential areas, and negotiating access to vacant land for housing”.
But sometimes these methods are simply the best available, Wescape critics say; particularly when new ideas seem to lack hard evidentiary data. “We must avoid the temptation of gambling on a utopian ‘Emerald City’ when so much is at stake,” Social Justice Coalition coordinator Gavin Silber told the Daily Maverick. “We do need to be imaginative when thinking about addressing urban inequality, but – given our city’s limited resources and array of social crises – we must base difficult decisions on reliable evidence and best practice.”
It is Watson’s assertion that, given the choice, poor households would not choose to move to Wescape, given its distance from the city. “If Wescape is approved, choice is removed. This is where much of the subsidy housing will go over the next couple of decades.” The Daily Maverick asked Rendall how he could be sure that people would want to live in Wescape. He paused, and explained that they didn’t want to “raise expectations” by promising people something they couldn’t be sure of until it was approved. In other words, he couldn’t be sure.
“We have worked in townships for 30 years, and a lot of people have said to us, ‘When can we move? We need to get out of the township and into a house that is worth something’,” Rendall said. “Why wouldn’t people want to go there?” DM
- Row erupts over Wescape plan, in the Cape Times
- China’s Urban Boom Leaves a Hollow Shell, on UBM’s Future Cities
Photo: Wescape city location
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