Opinionista Henk Lourens 28 September 2018

Foreshore Freeway Project: Time for a breath of fresh air

We are all keen to see advancement in the development of our city to the benefit of all its citizens and we want to see the wounds of modernist planning and ‘apartheid’ engineering healed.

Recently Daily Maverick published the article “End of the road for a Brave New Cape Town” by Robert Silke, architect of the preferred bid by MDA in the City of Cape Town’s Foreshore Freeway Project.

The demise of this project, and therefore this and other bids, understandably left a sour taste in the mouths of those who elected to participate in the process. The merits of this “spectacular collapse” of the project, the suspected “political in-fighting, administrative incompetence and perhaps even fraud” are subjects for much future conversation and debate.

However, it provides an opportunity to reconsider the process followed by the political powers of the City and its administration to address not only this particular issue (which has been around for almost 60 years), but also the increase in traffic congestion, equitable housing and sensible development in the Cape Town Central City in a manner that will promote a people-friendly city to be enjoyed by all its inhabitants and its visitors.

After several reads of the article, perhaps attempting to extract something positive, it remains clear that the bitterness of the author, blighted by the “incompetence” of the City, is now directed at all those who may dare question the process followed, the result of the first and second adjudication or indeed the intentions of the City and the participants.

Although none of us will question the devastating effect that the apartheid era had on the structure of our cities, as a learned architect Silke should be aware that the Foreshore Freeway problem, like most inner city highway/freeway projects, is the result of modernist planning policies and thinking, the result of which is experienced around the world.

It can be argued that the confluence of this with apartheid social engineering in this country fed on each other, working together to separate people and communities. This in itself provides enough reason for removing freeways from the inner city, not to reinforce it by constructing more.

Completing them will not fix the city’s “most burning structural problem”. This freeway system is not the “lifeline of hardworking ordinary Capetonians” who have to rely on a hugely dysfunctional and dangerous public transport system, but rather that of the “certain middle-class Capetonians — particularly those dwindling few who are already sorted for transport and housing” and whom Mr Silke ironically believes are relieved by the cancellation of the project.

His attack on these “(white) nimbys” continues with accusations of apparent unfounded ideas of the freeway which “cut the city off from the sea”, “yearning for a Victorian future for Cape Town” and instead naively placing the blame on a simple fence.

This not only displays an unbelievable visual and spatial misconception, but more importantly an unwillingness to consider that there may be future opportunities for the city to reconnect with the ocean physically, visually and spatially. This is not a Victorian dream, but the realisation of many vibrant cities the world over.

There is no argument that housing for ordinary citizens needs to be unlocked close to work opportunities in and around the inner city, especially for those who are excluded either by economic or social inequalities. But this is not a simple exercise of counting numbers. It is a process of building viable communities — and these are not built on, under or over freeways. They are instead built in an environment where they have free access to resources such as light, sun, fresh air, open space, green space and opportunities to work, play and relax.

Not at all what we see in the proposal of thousands of small units of which only 450 are “affordable” and arranged as a “crust” around parking garages under highways. These spill out on to relatively narrow sidewalks which are artificially lit from under the highway. Not quite the “agora” which Mr Silke suggests. But, yet again, the “nimbys” in houses from as far as Newlands and the Bo-Kaap are blamed for opposing these inhumane developments.

It is also not surprising that Silke chose to use the example of the Boston “Big Dig” to illustrate his particular argument against the removal of the freeway and to motivate his participation in the proposal to complete the viaducts.

This project was perhaps the biggest and most complex of a vast number of similar successful projects in San Francisco, Seoul, Portland, Milwaukee, Madrid and Seattle. Several others are under way or planned. Executed in bad soil conditions, under water and negotiating through several complex underground services, the “Big Dig” was plagued with bad workmanship and the need for inventing new construction methods and materials to enable its completion. Although it merely pushed the highway underground and moved the congestion out of the city, it was successful in reconnecting the parts of the city.

In Cape Town the perpetuation of the freeway and its further completion should and can never be the driver for development in that portion of the foreshore.

It is understood that our mayor intended well when she declared her resolve to, during her tenure, complete the embarrassing edifice in our city and to unlock affordable housing opportunities in the process.

However, the responsibility for this process cannot be transferred to developers who, for all their good intentions and contributions to the development of our city, are not focused on the good of the much wider population of our city, but rather on opportunities to advance their own agendas.

We, the citizens of Cape Town, pay our politicians and the administration of the city to look after the interest of all of us. Over and above its own resources in urban design, town planning and transport planning, this city possesses a wealth of knowledge, experience and skills in all these fields.

It is my argument that the City, with the initiation of our mayor and under her guidance, might have contributed more by concentrating efforts in formulating a framework for the development of the area around the freeways which reflects current international creative thinking in urban design.

This framework must address the burning issues of the freeway, the potential future connection to the sea, affordable housing needs and the commercial potential of the area before developers are invited to participate in the development. This could also possibly address the mayhem in the public transport infrastructure through a real consultative and co-operative process.

All of the professions required are well organised in voluntary associations, which I am sure are willing to participate. We are all keen to see advancement in the development of our city to the benefit of all its citizens and we want to see the wounds of modernist planning and “apartheid” engineering healed.

It is a process which has been left unattended for too long and it requires boldness and generosity from our city officials and politicians. DM

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