Citizens of Cape Town! We have been gifted possibly a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the debate about what our public spaces are for … and what they can be.
The City of Cape Town recently announced the opening of the comment period centred on plans to upgrade the Muizenberg beachfront at Surfers Corner, including the connection to the St James walkway, Surfers Corner steps, the main promenade area and neighbouring parking areas.
According to the city’s recent media release encouraging residents to comment, the upgrades and repairs included in the project plans are:
- A new concrete “revetment” (retaining wall), with steps leading seaward from the promenade level, to improve and replace the existing wooden one;
- The “formalising” of the western and eastern parking areas (currently gravel);
- The upgrade of recreational areas and the playground;
- The demolition of the existing toilet facilities and construction of new ones; and
- Incorporating a 3m-wide universally accessible promenade.
Given the ambitious scale of the project and the massive impact it will have on the character of the site and surrounding area, hundreds of residents have already taken to social media to voice their views, both positive and negative, on the issue.
While many have welcomed the proposal, many others have expressed disappointment, especially at the concept sketch circulated by the project team, depicting the proposed upgrade as a large, featureless, barren car park, with concrete steps leading down to the beach.
The city has responded, however, to these concerns by assuring residents that the city “is not creating a ‘car park’ ”, but is rather “paving an existing gravel and potholed parking area that is already being used by thousands of visitors to this popular beachfront”.
Notwithstanding the city’s response, the formalising of the western and eastern parking areas, and the replacement of the existing gravel surface with a harder surface, are evidently a major part of the intended upgrades. And it is easy to understand people’s frustration at the prominence given to this aspect of the proposal.
Aside from the obvious urban heat impacts, many residents of urban areas tend to get their backs up when natural land cover or softer, more permeable surfaces are replaced with harder ones (especially when using tar asphalt or concrete).
This is in no small way because most of us already live in areas that are built up with concrete, tar and hard surfaces, and what we are hoping to get out of our public spaces (especially those on the edge where urbanity meets nature) is a measure of relief from that.
Putting aside the sentimentality for now, however, replacing natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat typically leads to an effect referred to as the “urban heat island”. This effect increases energy costs (eg, for air conditioning), air pollution levels and heat-related illness and mortality.
What’s more, the prominence given in the concept sketch to parking provision certainly seems at odds with the site’s situation (immediately adjacent to the Muizenberg train station) as well as the city’s own policy goals aimed at reducing traffic congestion and promoting alternative forms of mobility.
While we laud the city’s stated goal of incorporating a wide, universally accessible promenade into the proposal, we appeal to the designers advising the city to give far more prominence to non-motorised and public transport in its final design for the site, as the current concept sketch appears to turn its back on the neighbouring train station, rather than suggesting ways in which the station can become better integrated with the site.
Although it’s become something of a cliché in urbanist circles over the years, it seems a reasonable assumption that the more spaces there are to park, the more people will drive to reach them.
For this reason, if we want to limit traffic congestion in the area, we should be aiming, at least in some way, at limiting the amount of parking being provided. It is important to note that there is already a significant amount of underutilised parking at the Zandvlei River mouth, a few hundred metres from Surfers Corner.
Parking is not a destination, public spaces are.
And while people do need a place to park their cars from time to time (not that we urbanists would ever wish to admit it), less than 50% of Cape Town households own a car.
That means that most people in the city don’t have a car of their own and either have to share one or use alternative means of transport.
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With the Muizenberg project, we have a golden opportunity to showcase how public spaces can be used to integrate multiple forms of transportation in a way that places other modes on at least an equal footing with private cars.
Great public spaces have many access points connecting them via multiple modes (whether public or private, via the Southern Line returning, Golden Arrow buses, e-scooters, bicycles, on foot or e-hailing).
They are also multidimensional — they have clearly defined focal points and landmarks where people can arrange to meet; they should have places to hang out, to relax in relative solitude (maybe in one corner) as well as the opportunity (perhaps in another corner) to be immersed in a bustling, vibrant, busy space, full of others to look at.
Most importantly, great public spaces have a unique “sense of place”, a term that, while meaning many different things to different people, is often described as the wide range of connections between people and places that develop based on the place’s meanings and the attachment a person has for a particular setting.
As Eddie Andrews, our deputy mayor, so correctly stated, “The Muizenberg beachfront is used by residents from all over Cape Town. It is one of the most utilised and diverse coastal beachfront in Cape Town.”
We urge all readers and residents to give their comments on the proposal. It is critical to note, however, that comments posted on social media are unlikely to be considered as part of the formal public participation process. For that reason, please follow this link to find out how to comment formally. (you have until 26 September).
Above all, we urge the city to help us design a new Surfers Corner that respects and enhances its unique sense of place and shows us we can be world leaders in the way we imagine our public spaces. DM/MC